The Importance of Play in Business

When I worked at a PR agency and managed a large team I kept a box of playdoh in my office. We’d bring it out during client calls, team meetings, personal discussions and general time-outs. I brought Playdoh for a few reasons:

1) I like it.

I’m a fan of having “toys” around that help spark ideas within my popcorn machine. Playdoh is fun and non-messy and forms with your imagination. The things you can create are endless and it’s a good group activity, one-to-one or alone.

2) I wanted my team to PLAY.

Playing is something we associate with childhood but in reality we should never stop. Our forms of play may evolve but we always need it to be healthier and happier humans.

Working at a PR agency with consumer tech clients we had need for constant output. We’d grab some playdoh and start brainstorming. People’s minds were freed up during the conversation as they worked with their hands fashioning Playdoh creations, which usually turned into gifts for other people. It’s akin to a form of art therapy and it was very effective, fun and bonding.

3) I wanted to promote a message of creativity in business.

I’ve spent the better part of my career (going on 13 years) telling those around me that play isn’t only crucial in personal development but also business.  It’s not money that keeps a business running, it’s creativity. If you run out of that you’re really in trouble. When an organization is inspired to think creatively that’s when the greatest problem solving occurs.

We are all creative people but many of us lose touch with that part of ourselves as we grow older, thinking we don’t have time to “play,” but playing helps keep our brains fired.

A year ago I fell madly in love with a book by Stuart Brown called “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.”  In a chapter called “the opposite of play is not work” Brown says:

There’s nothing like true play to promote social cohesion at work. When people play, they become attuned to each other. The more powerful players handicap themselves to keep the game going instead of dominating and controlling it. Groups pull together in pursuit of a common goal, which is why the “team” approach is often utilized in business. Team-building exercises often involve play: solving puzzles, building bridges with cardboard, or going through an obstacle course. We talk about “working” together as a team, but it might be more beneficial and productive to talk about people “playing” together as a team. When people graduate from “working” as a team to “playing” as a team, they will really allow themselves to compete fully and with gusto against other teams inside and outside the company.

Fostering a creative environment in the workplace needs support from the top.  The CEO may not be able to roll up their sleeves and join a company art-project but they can support and encourage the idea, recognizing the multiple benefits that time-out has to the company at large. Brown tells one story of a CEO who used toys to lighten up a less-than-positive company meeting:

“…When all employees are focused on the possibility of personal or collective failure, a funeral air saps the energy and optimism necessary for success.  At this point, play gives people the emotional distance to rally. When one CEO whom I know gathered employees in the company auditorium to talk about a recent bad quarter, he himself took the blame for the company’s performance. He then told the employees that under every seat was a toy dart gun with foam darts, and invited them all to take a shot at him. The air filled with flying yellow projectiles, and the atmosphere of the meeting was completely transformed. The CEO went on to explain how they were going to turn things around, why everything was going to be okay. But the important point of the talk was non-verbal. The foam darts told everyone that the situation was not so dire. More important, the CEO’s playful invitations to take shots at him said that it was OK to have some setbacks and that it was okay to admit failures, take the hit, and figure out ways to fix them. The foam fusillade was a playful prompt to remind the employees of the joie de combat necessary for success…Sometimes when a situation is really heading south, a moment of imaginative play is the only thing that provides enough distance to see the way out of a predicament..

The prior sentence is demonstrated perfectly with the recent Red Cross tweets that turned from an embarrassing #slizzard situation to #donations, all because it was handled with humor and play.

Think about the companies out there who get gold stars for their culture, like Zappos, aren’t they ones highly steeped in a blend of “play” and work? Old Spice sure chalked up some brownie points for its form of play with its audience.

What kind of message does your company send, internally and externally, about the importance of play and creative thought? What kind of tone do the leaders in your company set?

If you’re looking for a charge in your internal environment and group think, give play a try.

(Please excuse the 1.0 appearance. I’m working on a kickingsand upgrade.)

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Play in Business

  1. Great post Nicole! I agree. Play is far too often overlooked in the creative process. Reflecting on my own clients and business, those with a sense of play in their branding and company culture do far better in the social web than those who don’t. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Totally agree – and aside from generating more creativity and having a positive impact on the brand, who doesn’t want to have fun? Work hard, play hard!

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