A interesting outcome of my keynote speech at Lego's anniversary conference in Billund early this year is this article for Playground, the newsletter of Lego's organisational consultancy arm, Serious Play. I thought I'd print my attempt to wrestle the 'seven rhetorics of play' into a pro-business discourse.
The kinds of play you might not want at work
From a traditional business perspective, play is often understood in only two of its possible modes: play-as-personal-freedom and play-as-triviality.
1) Play-as-personal-freedom, within the workplace, can often seem a negative phenomenon – it highlights issues like absenteeism, slacking, or people becoming alienated from their job roles.
2) Play-as-triviality stretches from (often ineffective) attempts by management to make the workplace 'fun' to darker phenomena like pranks and black humor.
These are the kinds of play that the Protestant work ethic can relate to most easily - either as something disruptive to be effectively clamped down on, or unimportant and thus easy to ignore.
More significant types of play
Play is more than just egoism and wackiness. It is also a way for people to come together to achieve a result, to sharpen their capacities and performance, even to attain some wisdom and patience about the direction of their working lives. In short, a way of developing their 'response abilities' regarding the challenges of business and society.
3) Play-as-identity is recognized by most smart companies as an effective tendency. This includes those common rituals, festivals and celebrations that make people feel good about being part of the 'community' within the organization.
4) Play-as-power-and-contest is another effective category, which has to do with what you do with your healthy company identity when you're in the marketplace. Play-as-power can be affected by play-as-identity – too much internal competitiveness and the organization flies apart, too little and complacency results.
Forms of play you may not relate to your business – but should
There are three other 'rhetorics', or values, of play which high-performing businesses should be aware of.
5) Play-as-imagination, the creative and experimental use of the mind and talents, often comes under the categories of 'R&D', 'brainstoming,' or even the suggestion box.
6) Play-as-development is the function that play has in the evolution and progress of our talents, not just as children but as adults also. Play is how we start out 'adapting' to our environment, and it keeps us adaptable throughout our lives.
Companies that attend to the well-being of their employees, through training, mentorship and support services, are giving them the best platform upon which to become the dynamic players of the previous rhetorics.
7) Play-as-fate-and-chaos is the final rhetoric. As old as religion and gambling, and as new as a market derivative – it brings with it a more philosophical perspective. This is an awareness that there will always be unpredictability in our lives, a fundamental openness to chance that we cannot rule out. But one that can bring positive as well as negative opportunities for business, if we can remain essentially 'response-able' as players.