Playing at work

Robert Poynton explains how play opens the door to new possibilities

Photo credit: Monty Python (Ministry of Silly Walks)

The Comedy Store Players have been performing a high-quality, improvised show to satisfied paying customers twice a week for over 20 years. This adds up to thousands of hours of relentless creativity. There are many groups like this, all around the world. Improvisers reliably and consistently deliver a profitable, highly creative product, over long periods of time. Which is something of a holy grail in business.

If this ability were mercurial and mysterious there would be nothing to do but sit back and applaud. Yet improvisers draw on a body of knowledge that enables them to do this. It is not luck or accident. The question is, what do they know that we can borrow or emulate? What do they do that stops them behaving like a committee?

Improvisers mostly perform comedy. Which means that they tend not to take themselves too seriously. They are happy to play around. The rest of us should take note. We don’t enjoy the same advantage. We tend to take our work (and ourselves) more seriously. ‘I am a senior executive in an important business, I can’t be larking around like a clown,’ is the kind of belief that many of us hold dear. Play is neither part of our job description, nor our self-image.

If you want to become more creative, you need to change that. Or at least be willing to let it go from time to time. John Cleese has suggested that creativity is not so much a special talent, as a willingness to play.

Play is more than just fun (though we will get to that). Play is important, because it opens the door to new possibilities. New ideas are, by definition, strange at first. Through play we explore what they might have to offer. We flirt with the unknown.

Allow yourself to be playful. Entertain ideas that you would normally dismiss, even if it is only for a few moments. Using everything includes those things that might seem silly, so keep new or unusual possibilities ‘in play’ and see where they take you.

Don’t cling on too tight to knowing what you want or you will never allow yourself to discover anything else. If Alexander Fleming had, he wouldn’t have discovered penicillin. How do you know whether something will become relevant? Allow a playful attitude to loosen you up, to help you let go.

Play around with things at the edge of what is normal or known. Read a magazine you would never normally pick up. Rabbit Owners Monthly will show you a whole world you didn’t know existed (and thus, if nothing else, the limits to your own). Speak to someone you don’t know. Eat different food. Allow yourself to wander off rather than always ‘pushing on’. Look up. Look sideways. Fertile territory often lies in the margins or overlaps. If you are too direct, or in too much of a hurry, you will never come across them.

Playfulness also helps you to stop self-censoring your own ideas. If you are only ‘playing’ it doesn’t matter so much how you come across. It is easier to stop worrying about whether you sound stupid. Musicians jam and lark around until something definable emerges. Apparently the famous riff in the Queen song ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was ‘discovered’ this way.

The fact that play is fun ought to be an additional plus — after all, it seems to have a lot going for it. It makes life enjoyable. It invokes and engages the whole person: left brain, right brain, body and all. It connects us to other people, with whom we collaborate as well as compete, so that we build relationships as well as ideas. Our efforts add up. Energy and laughter are released. Improvisers understand these principles much better than many of us.

For example, Gary, my business partner in On Your Feet, constantly asks himself, ‘Am I enjoying this?’ He does this moment by moment, day by day, year by year. He regards fun as a perfectly valid measure and believes that if he is having fun, then he will be more effective. Research in the field of positive psychology would suggest he is right.

If he isn’t having fun, he will change what he is doing. This doesn’t mean giving up, or going off in a huff, it means asking himself how he could act differently to make things more fun. This requires presence of mind and discipline. It also requires being willing to be changed (i.e. being prepared to be wrong).

The result is that Gary has a better time at work than almost anyone I know. It also gives him strategic direction. He consistently navigates by assessing how satisfying and rewarding the work he is doing is. Which is a very healthy principle.

By contrast, for most of us, fun is a barrier. It makes us see play as trivial, or childish. We believe that we shouldn’t be happy, or have fun at work. When I work with senior executives, it is striking how many of them are deeply uncomfortable and highly suspicious of play. As a result they enjoy neither the play itself, nor any of its benefits.

This rather perverse attitude owes something to puritans and engineers (both strong influences on the culture of modern business). To puritans, work is virtuous whereas play is indulgent and sinful. The two are separate and opposed, so play has no place at work. Engineers add another negative interpretation. To an engineer, ‘play’ is looseness in a mechanism, so you don’t want too much, or things become sloppy. Precision is good, play is bad. No wonder we find it hard to engage in play.

If you want to become more creative, a willingness to play is something that you need to cultivate, both individually and collectively. Not as a distraction or a reward, but as part of the work itself. Given the public image of play, that takes commitment and a certain amount of courage. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. It might as well be you.

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