Play, Innovation and Intelligence: What's your Gameplan?

Baba Prasad
Updated: Nov 26, 2013 08:28:42 AM UTC

A sense of “play” hangs heavy in the air in India these days as Sachin Tendulkar retires, and Viswanathan Anand hands over the World Championship crown to a much younger man. All of us on the sidelines become witness to the senior players’ realisation that the day fades for the best individual also. In this rather sombre atmosphere, this blog post is an attempt to highlight the value that play—with all its ups and downs, its twists and turns—brings to our lives and our professions.

To Play is Human “Play” is a central element of human life—it is ubiquitous, popping up unexpectedly in every aspect of our lives. You lean over the cubicle wall and engage with your colleague in an exchange of spontaneous puns as you play with language; you play a board game with other colleagues after lunch; you call your spouse and enjoy play-acting as you pretend to your spouse’s chagrin that you did not do something you were supposed to do; you sit with your child and make the bed a train station, the pillows become trains. Play characterises human life—there is nothing weird or unnatural for even the most thoughtful CEO to be twirling a pen in her fingers—engaging in play—as she makes a momentous decision. In fact, the Dutch philosopher, Johan Huizinga, renamed the human species when he titled his book in 1938: Homo Ludens, or the “playing man”.

The connection between innovation and creativity, on the one hand, and play, on the other, has not gone unnoticed by the business organisation. The carom boards, the table-tennis sets, the pinball machines and the dartboards that deck every company’s break rooms exemplify the organisation’s recognition of this connection. In my article, “Is Innovation Child’s Play?” , I have looked at the underlying characteristics of play and connected it through the work of the renowned organisation theorist, James March of Stanford, to the notion of “intelligence”. In this post, I want to point out the potential that play holds for innovation, and implicitly make the argument that companies should deliberately make space—physical space, time space and mind space—so that their employees can engage in play.

The potential of play for innovation
Play creates an alternate world space that is simultaneously full of fun and seriousness. As a result, play has tremendous implications for creating a culture of innovation within the organisation.

Play loosens (even breaks) existing boundaries
The deliberate suspension of rules of the “real world” helps organisations think in new ways and allows for exploration of new opportunities

Play creates new temporary structures and boundaries
Play is not without rules; it helps to organise work under new, even if temporary, rules and structures. The simultaneous suspension of “real rules” and the engagement with “play rules” allows the organisation to engage in a process of “creative destruction” that is at the root of innovation

Play encourages experimentation
Play is fun. When companies engage in play, the make-believe world they create does not carry negative consequences for the acts they perform. Play thus creates an environment, which allows experimentation without fear of failure
Play encourages discovery and serendipity

The free experimentation facilitated by play allows organisations to engage in exploration rather than exploitation. Consequently, discovery—sometimes expected, sometimes serendipitous—becomes possible

Play breeds egalitarianism
A full engagement with play creates a level playing field where a player’s merit is valued, not his or her pedigree. The resulting reworked social structure can break communication gridlocks and other social barriers that impede innovation

Play and Intelligence
James March, the famous organisation theorist, in his later scholarship argues that in turbulent business environments, managers and organisations need to rely more on intelligence than on reason (for instance, his book, The Pursuit of Organizational Intelligence and much of his subsequent writing). In an earlier article titled “The Technology of Foolishness”, March draws a connection between managerial decision-making and play arguing that given the inherent uncertainty associated with play—what number will the dice show up, what action will the opponent take, will the ball come my way, so on and so forth—and the consequent tension associated with the unpredictable unfolding of play, intelligence rather than reason-based decision-making becomes central to innovation and strategy. This is in the same vein as the Vivékin Intelligences Framework,TM which argues that dynamic and context-sensitive application of five intelligences (which drive five agilities in organisations) is at the heart of successful business strategy.

Play in the Organization
It is of no surprise that many companies are buying into LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, , the game that the Danish toy company, LEGO®, has developed; it allows companies or teams to engage in an experiential innovative process playing with the famous LEGO® toy bricks. Companies like IBM use Second Life to build virtual worlds for their employees to develop “avatars” and play in.

How are you creating the space for play in your own life and in your organisation?

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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