Workplace Culture - Playful puppies

Why Your Workplace Culture Needs Play

“Play” lights me up. Why? It brings out such values as curiosity, learning, development, collaboration and being in co-creative relationships with others. Play speaks to the human side of business. It’s fun, developmental, positive and when freely initiated it’s self-organized. Play is a developmental and life-long activity.

Recently, I had the good fortune to spend some considerable time immersed in the topic of play, in my voluntary capacity as Chief Curation Officer, and speaker for TEDxNavesink on the topic play. There were 24 talks and entertainments on this topic across all stages of life, as well as a wide range of contexts, and expressed through a number of lenses: psychologists, researchers, technologists, gamers, writers, musicians, kids, educators, an anthropologist, a spiritual teacher, a toy designer, a venture capitalist, an improv artist, an artisan beer maker, and an organization development professional.

There were many takeaways from the TEDx Play event, and in this post, I focus on one big one: the distinction between free play and managed play.  As an organizational development professional actively working to bring the values of play into workplaces, free vs managed play resonated.

Free Play vs Managed Play

Free play equates to making it up as we go – improvisation – as many kids still have the freedom to do. They hang with other kids and they’re left to their own devices: lots of learning in that kind of play.  On the other hand, managed play is being part of an organized activity where there are coaches, parents and others with expectations: lots of different learning in that kind of play.

Free play is where we’re given free rein to use our imaginations, our inventiveness, our resourcefulness, and find our innate leadership, and followership.

Workplace Culture and Play

Thanks to Lisa Nielsen for the image.

Thanks to Lisa Nielsen for the image.

In workplaces, we could say free play is where we’re given free rein to use our imaginations, our inventiveness, our resourcefulness, and find our innate leadership, and followership.  We have opportunity to experiment and try, try again. Determination, tenacity and courage are developed.  With free play, creativity rises to the top and failure is a non-issue. It simply means we keep adapting until we  get the results we want.  We’re usually challenged and stretched in such contexts, and if not, we move on because we’re bored, are no longer learning, contributing or having fun. In the world of Open Space, we call that “The Law of Two Feet.”

On the other hand, managed play is where we participate by following predetermined or someone else’s rules.  There are authorities who guide us and correct us if we step too far outside the bounds and it’s perceived we could potentially cause harm to ourselves or others.  We learn to play inside the rules, to play safe and not show weakness or vulnerability.

When we bring the play ethos into business contexts, both free and managed play are relevant for different purposes and contexts – creative agency vs. the military, for example.  Leadership with an eye on shaping the organizational narrative and culture will decide which leaning will serve the whole system best.

Play is a developmental and life-long activity

Play is how we grow. Play shapes who we become.  We create performance in play.  We make room for it in our childhood (yet, that may be increasingly debatable), and we need space and time to continue to develop our playful selves as (working) adults. Play as development flourishes when these three attributes are present:

  • self-determination
  • co-creation
  • positivity

Play is how we grow. Play shapes who we become.  We create performance in play.  We make room for it in our childhood (yet, that may be increasingly debatable), and we need space and time to continue to develop our playful selves as (working) adults.

Co-creating experiences in workplaces where these three attributes get lived out is my best work.  They produce performance I might now refer to as free play which can light up all the players.  There are multiple participatory methodologies that facilitate such playful cultures of ownership, innovation, and shared leadership: namely Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology and World Cafe.  All to be expanded upon at another time.

I’m curious, in your workplace, how does play factor in?

N.B. I originally wrote a version of this post as a guest blogger on Switch and Shift.