The Power of PLAY

The below article has also been published by THE HINDU, Business Line on Aug 31st, 2012. http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/features/newmanager/article3836405.ece?homepage=true&ref=wl_home

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation – Plato

Yet in homes, schools and offices all over our country – if there is one refrain that we hear so very often, it is: “Don’t Play”, “Don’t fool around”, “Get serious”. Who has got it wrong – the Greek or a hundred thousand Indians?

 Well, it seems a hundred thousand Indians did get that wrong afterall. Scientists and researchers in a varied gamut of fields – from child development to criminal psychologists to medical practitioners to hard nosed corporates – are slowly arriving upon the same conclusions. Playing is good in more ways than one.

The strong developmental benefits of “play” is by now well documented by authorities on child development. This has reflected in the progressive methodologies being adopted to teach children, in more playful ways. The legendary story of Dr.Patch Adams has shown how people with deep mental and physical ailments world over – can be drawn out to better lives by the healing power of playing. Psychologists and recruiters are increasingly looking into “play histories” of individuals, to get a deeper understanding of people.

Even in corporates – playing and a playful attitude has often thrown up surprisingly successful results. Two anecdotal stories make the point.

  • In 1985, Intel was deep into the memory chips business. Unable to match the Japanese price-value equation – the company was staring at a crisis. To be able to wipe the slate clean and look at the business afresh with new eyes – Andrew Grove famously fired himself. He and Gordon Moore walked back into the building as the new executives who replaced them – and relooked at the business anew. Yes, it was play acting – but from that dramatic move came the decision to prioritize the secondary business of microprocessors.  The rest as they say is history.
  • The most compelling evidence though comes from a company from our times: Google. Engineers at the company are encouraged to take 20% time off to work on anything company related, that interests them personally. Sounds idealistic? Not really so when you face the fact that some of their biggest successes like Gmail and Google News have come from this 20% time-off.
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It is as if, when we get the license to play – we are unshackled from dogmas and the weight of experience. We are suddenly more open to learning. We are also noticeably kinder and more accommodative of each other.

In our work with corporates – using different experiential methodologies, we see this amazing power of play come to the fore time and again in different ways:

  • The way people play is very often the way they work too. So, a leader with a dominating personality is equally dominating while “playing” the different challenges we set out for him together with his team. The difference however is that unlike at work, people feel comfortable to talk about his behavior because they are talking about his “play” and not about “him” personally. It is a very unobtrusive way for people to communicate and learn.
  • A senior leadership team working on their corporate strategy using the methodology of Lego Serious Play, is like a bunch of kids huddled in animated discussions. Unlike the tense and serious atmosphere that one comes to expect in such sessions, the air is punctuated with laughter and gasps – as the implications of their “playing” becomes visible. Yes, they are playing – but this is serious work too!
  • When a group of people laugh together, do things that are considered “fun” together and then talk and mull about their experiences – it binds them together like nothing else does. It suddenly becomes easy to talk about a lot of touchy topics, because they are only “playing”. Members begin seeing each other as unique individuals rather than as faceless designations. Many invisible barriers that people erect around themselves, tend to fall away when people get into an attitude of play.

Regardless of what your job is – it can be significantly enhanced if you mix it with a healthy dose of fun and play. Easy as it sounds, that takes efforts too. So the next time you have a team meeting – challenge yourself to make it fun and more playful for everyone. If you are making a presentation, ask yourself whether you can do anything to evoke atleast a smile in your audience.

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Try and plan different fun experiences for your team. It could be a team cooking experience, it could be a scavenger hunt, it could be a facilitated team building session. Infact it could be anything that gets your people out of the daily rut. You are limited only by your imagination.

We take ourselves and our jobs in corporates far too seriously. As the philosopher Khalil Gibran taught us: “This also shalt pass”. In the short time that you are there though, why not make it more fun for yourself and others?

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