“People learn as they play. More importantly, in play, people learn how to learn.”—Professor O. Fred Donaldson.
I have always enjoyed playing and was known for being extremely playful when I was young so much so that my secondary school form teacher decided to place introverts next to me in class to douse my playfulness. Unfortunately, it backfired and the introverts became playful as well. My form teacher eventually gave up trying to control my playfulness.
Being so playful meant that I often neglected my studies and almost dropped out of school—spending almost all my time after school on football, badminton, and Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). But I was fortunate to have good friends to ‘rescue’ me from myself. Being nagged at by my parents and teachers was a constant reminder throughout my formal education. I sometimes thought to myself if being playful was really such a bad thing? The people around me certainly thought so.
It was not until my doctorate days that I finally discovered that being playful is anything but bad. Through constant experimentations and reflections, I realised that to create any impactful knowledge through research that can meaningfully contribute to society, I needed to develop the habit of learning to play and playing to learn. This is because a creative work first requires the playfulness to try something new and then reflect upon the ‘playing’ process to learn what works and what doesn’t. Through the play process, I developed the courage to venture into the unknown and discovered new knowledge about how I learn. This is known as Serious Play, i.e. instead of channelling the energy of play towards pure personal enjoyment, play activities are being leveraged upon to drive performance. It was this revelation that changed my perception of play in an organisation and transformed the way I managed people when I was a senior manager.
I thought if play could be so transformational to an individual, what would happen if we integrate Serious Play into an organisational culture? Imagine if there is a structured way in which play is actively promoted and channelled towards the achievement of organisational goals. How would this systematically impact the performance of an organisation?
It didn’t take me long to find a reasonable answer to these questions. As a seasoned Business Excellence Assessor, I had the privilege of assessing more than 15 organisations since 2013 ranging from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to government ministries, and large multinational corporations (MNCs). One organisation stood out in its performance because they had managed to integrate Serious Play into their organisational culture. I felt privileged to be able to dive into the intricate functions of this organisation as well as distil key insights for any organisation keen on creating a Serious Play culture for performance. These insights are organised into four key themes:
- Creating the Serious Play Environment,
- Instilling Serious Play Norms through Leadership,
- Designing the Structure of Serious Play, and
- Aligning the Recognition System.
In part one of this series, I will focus on how to create the Serious Play environment and elaborate on other insights in subsequent issues of Today’s Manager.
1. Creating the Serious Play Environment
What makes play so fun and engaging? I almost never get the same answer whenever I ask this question. But when I delved deeper into their answers, I discovered that most people like to play because they feel safe to express themselves in a way that does not embarrass them. Because of this, fun and engagement are the by-products of play. In fact, we become uninhibited and less self-conscious during play as we focus on the play activity itself. The phrase ‘time flies when you are having fun’ illustrates this point about losing yourself during play.
Thus, the first insight that is fundamental in enabling Serious Play for performance in an organisation is the deliberate creation of the Serious Play environment. Here, it should be noted that the Serious Play environment does not just include the physical environment, but the culture of the organisation as well. Work can become boring and mundane and people can lose interest in their tasks if the environment discourages play (like my school environment). An environment that encourages play will see employee creativity blossom across the organisation. Work becomes interesting and engaging. This is evident in many well-known international companies that integrate Serious Play into their organisational work culture, e.g. Google, Pixar.
A landmark study code-named Project Aristotle in 2012 looked into what differentiates a successful project team from others in Google. After studying over a hundred groups for more than a year, researchers concluded that the only differentiating factor that separates top performing teams from others lies in how psychologically safe team members feel about voicing out their views. 1 This is a surprising find (at least for me), as I was under impression that the number of talents within a team would be one such factor, but it wasn’t.
What does psychological safety mean? Psychological safety is a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members”. 2 This concept of psychological safety is critical in the nurturing of a Serious Play environment within an organisation for performance.
The first step in nurturing a Serious Play culture at work lies in creating an environment where people feel psychologically safe to participate in the Serious Play activity. This can be created through two ways: (1) the physical workplace environment; and (2) the work norms that promote psychological safety among team members.
Many of us take our workplace environments for granted. Unknown to most of us, the work environment has in fact, a profound effect on how willing people are in sharing their thoughts and views. Even something as simple as the arrangement of chairs, tables, and nametags within a meeting room to remind people of the positions of key management staff attending the meeting can have an enormous effect on how safe people feel about voicing out their views. Take for instance, if a critical discussion about work happens around water coolers instead of the meeting rooms with the key stakeholders, one should seriously ask ‘what is in the physical environment that allows for such discussions to happen near water coolers that is missing from our meeting rooms?’ Many creative companies (including the one I assessed) took the design of the physical environment to heart. Their workplace is colourful and relaxing and they embrace the idea of playing and working in the same environment. For example, there are gyms at the office and spaces for staff to relax and have a meal together. They took special care to ensure that the physical environment created allows for maximum interaction among employees regardless of their titles, statuses, and positions.
However, changing the workplace environment is not enough. We need to instil work norms that promote psychological safety among team members. This is where leadership comes in and I will share more insights on this in the next issue.
1 Duhigg, C, 25 February 2016. What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. The New York Times Magazine.
2 Edmondson, AC, 1999. Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383.
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