Finding your curiosity piqued by what play could bring to your organisation, but your first hurdle is making a business case to persuade colleagues that play should be taken seriously?
You’ve got 99 problems
Organisations are facing questions from all corners right now. Technological and digital disruption, the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, cultural differences in multi-generational teams, and a sense of disconnection as remote and hybrid work become commonplace are forcing organisations to rethink how they attract and, crucially, retain talent in a changing landscape.
How can leaders rise to meet the challenges of changing expectations of work?
… but play ain’t one
Play is a secret weapon that unleashes competitive advantage. Yes, that’s a claim with some real swagger; but if you look past the frivolous, childish stigma we tend to associate with that word, your business will reap the benefits of higher intrinsic motivation and resilience in individuals, greater creativity and innovation, and an organisational purpose which is brought to life through everyday behaviours.
Professor Babis Mainemelis and Dr Sarah Ronson recognised play as the shared characteristic of highly successful companies in the 21st century, including Apple, 3M, IDEO, Google, Gore, Electronic Arts and Pixar, with their 2008 research concluding that “such companies have crafted an organisational culture that nurtures play to the benefit of both their employees and their clients.”
The tide is turning
For centuries, play and work remained separated in different spheres. Work was seen as serious and structured, while play was silly or unproductive. Henry Ford said, “When we are at work, we ought to be at work. When we are at play, we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two.” Well, Henry, we respectfully disagree: by withholding and dismissing play, organisations have stifled the very qualities that can lead to a competitive advantage.
Professor Babis Mainemelis and Dr Sarah Ronson noted that a “cultural transformation” towards play is underway in the business world. Companies that place play at the heart of their corporate culture allow discovery and invention to thrive: “Although these companies have youthful and playful cultures, they can be considered as the true grown-ups in the business landscape. They took a bold decision to break away from the past; they are not afraid to play.”
So what’s in it for my business?
More engaged and resilient people
When play is encouraged, companies benefit from more engaged and resilient people. This is because play is intrinsically motivating; we play because we enjoy it. Play is linked to interest, joy, and inherent satisfaction. When people play, they enter a state of flow – which renowned psychologist Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi described as experiences that are active, energetic, and skill-focused, with an increase in concentration and a detachment from outside distractions and stressors.
An organisation is only as strong as its people. Playful ways of working can help explore novel and uncertain situations in a low-stake way, helping practise how to navigate change “in real life.” In times of flux (like… now, and possibly forever more?) those comfortable with engaging in play will have already laid the foundation for awareness, adaptation, and flexible thinking.
A landmark 2009 study by Dr Stuart Brown also found that play decreases absenteeism, stress, and health care costs. His conclusion was that purposeful play leads to a more energised work environment.
Increases levels of innovation
It’s no secret that children learn more effectively through play, but here’s the thing – that’s true of adults, too! We’ve just been conditioned to put play in a box and leave it on the shelf once we mature. But numerous studies have shown that play enhances cognitive processes such as problem framing, divergent thinking, mental transformations, alternative solutions, and evaluative ability – all of which are needed in spades in our very grown-up lives.
At Google, engineers spend 20% of their time on non-core projects. This “playtime” allows individuals to explore new ideas without the hindrance of potential profitability or marketability pressures. This has resulted in some of the company’s most popular products, including Gmail, AdSense, and Google News.
Brings organisational purpose to life
One striking example of how play can lead to higher profit and impact is at Gore. Like Google, engineers are encouraged to explore and play with new ideas. When one engineer used this time to improve the gears of his mountain bike, it led to the invention of Gore’s ‘‘Ride-On’’ line of bike cables. But this invention didn’t end with just one product; it opened the door to others, culminating in a new product category for Gore–robust guitar strings. Through this “playtime”, Gore ended up controlling 35% of the acoustic guitar strings market, despite having nothing to do with the music market prior to this invention.
Play is also a proven quality of high-performing cultures; it unites employees under common goals and drives purpose. The benefits of such cultures show up both internally with employees and externally with customers: companies known for play, such as Southwest Airlines and Trader Joe’s, enjoy higher employee and customer satisfaction ratings than competitors in their sectors. Research by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, published 2015 in their best-selling book Primed to Perform, shows that this correlation occurs in other industries, including the retail, banking, telecommunications, and fast-food sectors.
Okay, sounds good. Where do I start with building my business case?
Your aim is to make a case for change and show how bringing more playfulness in your organisation will strategically align with the direction of the business.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What’s the background/context to considering this business case? What challenges are you experiencing (or perhaps opportunities that you believe the business is missing) that have brought you to this point? What has happened to make you think the organisation needs to consider a more playful way of working?
- What does the business need to meet the challenges you just described?
- What are the various options, other than increasing the sense of play in your business, you could consider for meeting these challenges?
- Why do you think play is the right answer? How does its benefits help leadership meet the objectives that the business has set out to achieve?