Dentists’ appointments are rife with anxiety, nervousness, and aversion towards the person you have paid through the nose for causing you pain. During one such trip to the dentist, when I was hoping he would refuse to see me, the sadist promptly called me in, seated me on the reclining chair, audaciously asked if I was comfortable, brought out his tools, and declared war. I held my breath, opened my mouth, and sat there defenseless, staring at my captor, wishing to die—when things shifted.
This guy put on a Leonard Cohen song and started singing along! “Dance me to the end of love…” This minor act turned the game. The anxiety settled. I didn’t hate the dentist so much any longer. The monster even grew a human face, a good-looking one at that.
What had changed? The casual playfulness of the dentist gave me confidence in him and made me relax. I had caught his vibe.
Playfulness at the workplace is under-rated and under-discussed.
What’s the Opposite of Seriousness?
We take seriousness quite seriously at work. Because we know the opposite of it is lack of commitment or frivolousness.
Do you remember how we approached work-from-home calls in the pre-covid world? At least in an Indian household, everyone would have instructions to hold their breath. I’m sure it was so elsewhere too. I mean, who doesn’t know that face:
The new culture has made us a little more accommodating of the realities of working from home. Perhaps in this minor aspect, a global calamity has re-taught us a childhood lesson—the opposite of seriousness is, in fact, playfulness.
“The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
What is Playfulness?
Playfulness may be tough to define, but all mammals experience it. (See below, a video of dolphins playing with pufferfish like a ball.) As toddlers, we learn only by being playful. Playfulness is essential to who we are.
The Oxford dictionary defines playfulness as the quality of being light-hearted and full of fun.
In his book, the Playful Path, Bernie De Koven describes playfulness as “…all about being vulnerable, responsive, yielding to the moment.” James G. March in the essay, Technology of Foolishness says, “Playfulness is the deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules in order to explore the possibilities of alternative rules…Playfulness allows experimentation. At the same time, it acknowledges reason…”
Playfulness transcends hierarchies, induces energy, creates a happy environment, pulls us to do things we’d otherwise avoid, and makes us more open to human connections. It brings us to the present moment, gives us the room to make mistakes and learn from them. It also supports flow and fosters creativity.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.”
How Can We Get People to be Playful at Work?
We can’t force people to be playful, nor can we pay them extra to be so. Often, points, leaderboards, and badges don’t work either (explore why, here).
Playfulness is essentially voluntary. We can only invite people to be playful, using a cue or a gentle nudge.
Play for Group Creativity, Fruitful Meetings
1. Use Playful Cues
To prod people into playfulness//s in meetings, draw on cues such as sweets, snacks, a ball, a baton to pass around. Such hints to play boost creativity and collaboration.
In a 2013 research by West, Hoff, and Carlsson, the play-cued group reported a marked increase in playfulness compared with the control group. Their results substantiate findings from other studies that have found ‘contextual play cues’ encourage playfulness in work settings.
They also propose, “Play fosters creativity by encouraging a sense of openness, increasing intrinsic motivation, and establishing and maintaining collaborative relationships—which are all important for group creativity.”
2. Playful Activities
Here are a few playful activities that I have employed in my meetings/classrooms/brainstorming sessions.
Get some Post-it notes, colorful pens, and charts and use these playful activities (they're activities, not games) from the “Gamestorming” group created by Dave Gray: https://gamestorming.com/category/core-games/
These activities make meetings/work playful and productive.
LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®
Explore LEGO® Serious Play® that claims to enhance innovation and business performance. Note that these workshops are usually a day long. The facilitation method is available under an open-source license, downloadable here: https://seriousplaypro.com/about/open-source/. (Although, they’ve copyrighted the term “Serious Play.” Seriously?)
But then, since I’m talking about playfulness in our daily work lives, you can utilise LEGO bricks creatively in your meetings. I used them to help aspiring managers explore how to receive client briefs (LEGO structures), plan and manage resources (people, LEGO bricks, time and cost), delegate tasks, and manage execution while ensuring quality. What ensued was a roller coaster ride that ended with deep reflections, extension to work, and loads of empathy for their current managers!
Link to LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® site: https://www.lego.com/en-us/seriousplay
Extraordinaires the Design Studio Pro
This design studio packs a ton of play that evokes empathy with stakeholders, leads to active brainstorming, and gets the creative juices flowing. In my experience, it helps teams to loosen up and draw far connections, way beyond the fun characters given in the box. Play with it to discuss stakeholder (internal and external) expectations, product ideation, preliminary design iteration, process design/update, etc.
The Mind is a cooperative card game that can bring teams/groups in sync. (Playing time 20 minutes)
A strange, mysterious connection gradually develops, without saying a single word. Groups get more synchronized with each round. The post-play reflection is quite interesting too. Keep the game around a team area and fetch it when you want a few quiet team moments.