03 May Play and mental hygiene
Play is an antidote to stress, and stress is something every company will get when going through substantial culture change. The tools that we use to build the culture are therefore the same tools that will allow your people to move through the stressful period into a more creative and productive way of functioning. In a state of stress, decisions are driven by factors other than the strategic outlook – our fight, flee or freeze (or feed. or fuck. to be precisely correct…) mechanisms kick in, and in business they manifest themselves in a multitude of ways, especially in micromanagement, overblown internal politics and a definite swing away from creativity.
It gets more interesting. New Zealand researcher Brian Sutton-Smith maintained that “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” Stewart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play in the US, began his research into the deeply serious role of play in the forming of personalities when he found a strong correlation of lack of play in childhood with criminal activity in adult life. His subsequent research interviews with thousands of different people point to the direct connection between playful activity and success. Finally, science is now taking a serious look at play, with a view to studying it in its entirely, much as it has sleeping, or exercise.
Unfortunately, the few times that play has entered the halls of business, it has usually been in the form of extracurricular activity of sorts. Work is over, and now I’m having a bit of fun. That is not enough to wake up the creative spirit of your workforce, as much as it is fun to play softball after hours. Neither is running “fun and creative” workshops once a year, or maybe just the once. “There, we have done play, now let’s get back to work.” That is missing the point of what play can add to your work, if you only let it. Properly integrated into work – not as an extra layer, but allowed to mix right in – play can become not so much part of your work as a facet of it. Spending time at the foosball table becomes not “rest and recreation” but an activity which allows people to think about something else while the creative process continues at the back of their heads. (OK, perhaps not every time. But I hope you see what I mean.)
In The Imagination Challenge Alexander Manu describes a mind space that is vital to awakening our imagination so it functions properly as a strategic asset. A mind space which allows us to shed preconceptions, suspend rules which we have acquired and leave behind assumptions we carry. A mind space which, once entered, is subject to its own rules and makes it possible to imagine realities very different from those we are used to. Manu calls it the Temporary Play Space, and the general concept of it is exactly in line with work carried out, and guidelines for creative thinking laid out by, for example, the practitioners from the international design firm IDEO. It also lines up exactly with my own experience of group workshops with people who at the start of the process would not describe themselves as either particularly imaginative or terribly creative, but once given a little time and opportunity to discover what they could do, found both imagination and creativity, frequently without calling them by their names.
The Temporary Play Space is where we can safely let go of what we know, where our minds can roam freely and discover connections, where we can ask powerful new questions without worrying about consequences. A safe, playful environment in which to let the dominoes fall and see what turns up. A place to listen to those weak signals just over the horizon. A safe, playful environment in which to learn anew.
.An old Finnish saying, which is incidentally central to their insanely great education system’s approach to teaching, is “what you learn without joy, you will forget without sorrow,” (Minkä ilotta oppii, sen surutta unohtaa.) Why do “serious managers” consider innovation not worthy of being joyful? Could that perhaps have something to do with all those millions of people not feeling engaged at work?
Play to integrate, play to grow
Playfulness allows us to integrate many strands of activity and many areas of knowledge. Children do not separate their faculties into boxes. They face each quproch with their entire being. Anyone who has watched six year olds play can attest to this. They think in movement and feel in words and see no reason to separate pictures from content or from context. Imaginary worlds exist not so much in parallel with real ones as in a kind of a tapestry.
A friend’s six year old son, like many six year olds around him, is not afraid of trying anything new that he can think of, though in his case, his imagination would be a six-figure salary asset for any creative director. (That his dad is a rather brilliant painter and illustrator may have something to do with it…) His imagination allows him to design entire scenarios for computer games without going near an actual computer – he does it on consecutive sheets of paper. A new action? Lay down the next sheet and off you go. Took a wrong turn? An error message pops up in the form of a sticky note. Is this playing? Of course. Are there seriously practical implications of this playing? Absolutely. Career potential? Do we need to ask? I don’t think he knows the technical term “ergodic literature” but he’s inventing new worlds and layers of meaning on the go, just like in such a novel where the text requires considerable effort from the reader in order to traverse, and extract meaning from, the narrative.
What happens to us that this kind of unrestrained imagination leaves most of us when we enter our teens? Socialisation into the world of adults happens. “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” For a passage from a work on love, this sentence demonstrates little love for the immense value which the “child mind” carries within it innately, and which we go to so many lengths to diminish. Luckily, there have been a few adults who have expanded on this text, most notably C.S. Lewis in his 1952 essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”: “when I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”