Play has become a powerful word in leadership circles. It’s been touted in the press as “the number one leadership competency of the future,” “the key to a company’s success” and “the greatest natural resource in a creative economy.”
Productive playfulness is one of the top traits I look for in new hires. But, I also look for the ability to transition between play and problem-solving. Playfulness motivates us to take risks, see new possibilities, experiment and iterate. It’s a critical first step in creative problem-solving. Playfulness breaks down the black-and-white, multiple-choice mindsets we’re taught in school. It helps us question, probe, create–and stay deeply connected to our work. But productive play is not just about experimentation for experimentation’s sake. It’s about coming together and solving problems.
As Tim Brown remarks in his TED Talk on Serious Play: “Play is not anarchy…There are rules about how and when to play.” Brown notes that high-performing creative groups have the ability to “transition in and out of play”–i.e., to move from “a generative mode of exploration to a problem-solving mode in which we come together seriously and solve problems.” As we age, professionals are socialized to favor problem-solving over exploration. Hence the urgent rallying-cry for play.
Over the past decade, a number of educational and leadership programs have sprung up to facilitate learning through play. Here are four simple steps to increase productive play:
Seek out new experiences. Creativity is linked to our ability to recognize information. When we expand our experience base, we increase our ability to see connections.
Be more open. Before saying “no,” ask “why not?” and “what’s possible?” Shutting down options too early eliminates possibilities.
Experiment. Every idea can be hacked, morphed, stretched and made better. Productive play is grounded in tireless iteration.
Move. Play is inherently active. Proto-types are a good way to prevent “analysis paralysis” and get the creative process moving.
Productive play makes work more enjoyable and leads to better creative solutions. When’s the last time you played productively at work?
Few factors in the workplace have more impact on productivity than the ability of co-workers to perform as a team. However, not every business has the resources or time to dedicate to professional grade training programs to enhance those skills. Ideally, a human resources department could find a low cost tool that could encourage team activities and cooperation. Creative games using Lego building blocks are inexpensive and engaging ways to help develop teams.
The Value of Team Building
Team building is an often overlooked aspect of business operation that has many advantages. Firstly, exercises which develop teamwork require members become familiar with each other. This knowledge creates a more relaxed work environment where members can communicate more easily. When each employee realizes how to fit into the workplace as part of a whole, they are more likely to appreciate the efforts of their co-workers. Teamwork also increases the efficiency of group or coordinated efforts. As a whole, when employees act as a team, they are more productive and harmonious in their endeavors.
Plan Execution Games
Games where members of a team follow instructions to execute a plan are ideally suited for team building exercises. The plans can be formal (like the ones found in a specific Lego kit) or informal, showing a sketch of an idea with some step-by-step instructions on how to achieve the goal. Lego ships and themed kits are ideal source material for such games. If a manager is present in the testing group, you can challenge them to coordinate the effort and delegate specific construction tasks. You can add incentive to the game by offering a small reward if the team is capable of beating a goal time for construction.
A team with moderate experience can develop their skills by participating in problem solving games. In these, the team is tasked with a problem, such as creating a bridge across a 2-foot-long span or manufacturing a 3-foot-tall structure. You should assign an additional challenge such as requiring that their structure is able to support 10 lbs. of weight or that their building require less than 100 pieces. In these games, you should offer a widely mixed set of Lego blocks to encourage creative solutions to the problems.
Lego blocks are surprisingly effective for games which test the ability of members to communicate. You can approach the games in many fashions. In one, you offer detailed instructions to managers, but none to the lower level employees, and challenge everyone to create a specific item or device. In another game, you pair up employees, assigning one as the instructor (who is given a picture of what to build) and designating the other employee as the builder. The instructor has to communicate how to build the design to the builder without using pictures or words that describe a specific piece by color or design.
David Weedmark has written a good and simple post about Team Building Activities With Lego Bricks on eHow where he has summarised well the core essence of using Lego Serious Play in team building activities. Nice photos by Laura Beth Drilling from Demand Media
Lego isn’t just about fun and games. For team building exercises, working with Lego helps enhance creative and critical thinking skills while giving employees an opportunity to — at least to some degree — act like kids again. In fact, development coaches have been using Lego for years in team-building exercises.
Basic Tower Challenge
Divide your group into equal teams of three to five people and give each team the same number and sizes of Lego pieces. Whichever team can build the tallest free-standing structure in a set time period, like 10 or 20 minutes, wins the challenge. The towers must stand on their own for 60 seconds. To make the challenge more entertaining, have them accomplish the task without speaking, or specify that the tower must be built on an inverted object like a coffee cup or water glass.
Tower Challenge With Profit
A variation of the tower challenge, described by development consultant Nick Heap, is to add a profit element into the construction. Each group gets time to plan and then to construct the tower. A dollar value is given to the height of each tower. Planning time costs $3 per minute. Construction time costs $5 per minute. Each block used costs 50 cents. Heap’s challenge has each tower worth $3 per centimeter, or roughly $9 per inch, so making a profit is challenging. You can use any dollar value you wish.
Have the teams do building projects that lead to another. For example, you could ask each group to make an animal, like a dog or a fish, from the Legos. When that is complete, have them incorporate the animal in a tower project. After the tower is done, have them transform the tower into a bridge. This presents a new dynamic to the challenge since the teams must adapt their previous project into a new one.
In some cases, it may be more worthwhile to have teams work on projects directly related to work situations. For example, one company used a Lego team-building exercise to have employees work on interpretive models describing real-life problems between two departments. Groups of two to four people were given 10 minutes to create three-dimensional “screenshots” representing the problems they faced, which were then used for idea generation and problem-solving activities.
Lego Serious Play Kits
There’s no need to limit yourself to the standard Legos available in toy stores. Lego also makes “Serious Play Kits” designed especially for team building. For example, the Lego Serious Play Starter Kit comes with an instruction booklet on basic skill-building with the pieces. Each kit comes with 214 pieces, including wheels, windows, trees, mini figures and globes.
As a recent International Association of Facilitator’s member I finished a truly impressive book that the IAF is using as its core collection of ideas that form the “how to” for a professional facilitator – The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation. This book features a collection of short articles, edited by Sandy Shuman into a concise textbook-like edition that help the facilitators to improve their knowledge and skills in facilitating discussions in a wide variety of different settings – small groups, large groups, collaborative groups, hostile groups, unanimous groups, multifaceted groups etc.
The book can be used as a primer for somebody is just starting off as a junior facilitator. But there are also lots of interesting case studies to contemplate for very experienced people who have decades of facilitation or coaching experience. The book is set up on six different parts which answer to the following questions
How to create and maintain client relationship during facilitation process – what does it mean to be as a facilitator in one-to-one setting with somebody who requires my services;
Planning the group processes – how to prepare a group exercise well and make sure that the event will run smoothly;
How to be inside a group facilitation process – what to do in order to handle dynamic situations, how to improvise and how to create a true dialogue among the discussion participants;
How to make sure that the discussion would not be just for talking heads – making sure that the group discussions render useful outcomes, lead to decisions, increased cohesion and achieve changes;
What are the core competencies of professional facilitators and how to develop oneself as a facilitator, how to maintain professional ethics and focus on one’s core values.
Below is the full table of contents of the book for your information.
I recently read a book about Storydoing™ written by Ty Montague. It was called “True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business”. The book created the concept of storydoing and differentiated it from the regular marketing approach that primarily relies on storytelling – coming up with a story and labelling the product according to story. Montague kicks off with the example of Red Bull and shows how action-based leadership of Dietrich Mateschitz has demonstrated very well how a company that is able to come up with a metastory that completely defines the actions of one’s firm, is able to successfully continue pursuit of its customers’ attention.
The tool of Storydoing™ relies on six attributes that should be in place in a company that wants to engage its customers actively with its story:
Having / creating a story
Using the story to define ambition that is beyond commercial success, but helps to achieve something bigger
Making sure that the story is understood and cared by everyone in the firm
Making sure that the story is used to drive action throughout the firm
Creating iconic, transformative actions that rely on the story where you focus on
People outside your firm engage actively with your story and with your action.
Where Lego Serious Play comes in handy is in defining the story in a manner that helps to redefine and engage the entire organisation.
Considering the challenges that many if not most organizations run into when working with innovation bringing play into the equation could make a real difference. Or rather bringing in serious play could make a real difference. Play is many things, and can be defined in many ways. In the LEGO SERIOUS PLAY method we define serious play as:
1) an intentional gathering to apply the imagination
2) exploring and preparing not implementing and 3) following a specific language and set of rules.
Serious play is obviously an integral part of the LEGO SERIOUS PLAY method, but the focus here is why I would suggest that serious play as a form of play could contribute in innovation processes:
1. Intentionally applying the imagination.
The imagination comes before knowledge (at least that is an epistemological belief), so if we want to create something new, we need to imagine, we need to form mental images not only of what is but also of what could be.
Importantly, we need to do it together, we need to agree that this is what we are doing now, and thus the element of intention is important. We know we are doing it and we know why.
2. Exploring and preparing, not implementing:
“What if we stopped serving meals on planes” or “why don’t we ask our clients” etc, imagining is not enough, everyone also has to feel safe, to know that whatever they have imagined can be shared.
Knowing that this is about exploring and preparing can help create this safe space.
It is not actually about stopping to serve meals, though that may be decided, it is exploring it, testing if it works and preparing, playing out what the response would be, whether from travelers, employees or shareholder. The latter part helps prepare for the ambiguity and uncertainly that we all live in, and in which the innovation has to become a success.
Numerous innovations fail, not because they were not great ideas but because how to carry them through the existing organization or into the market was not fully considered.
The exploring helps not only to find the new ideas, but also to test them.
3. Following a specific language or set of rules.
This helps create the safe space that it takes to explore and to articulate something daring. In addition, when we want to innovate, to change something, we need to break our habitual thinking; a specific and different language or rules can help us do that
Most of us do play even when at work, it is after all our brains prepared learning mode, so often it is not a question of playing more, but playing better. I encourage you to deliberately start using play