Plato had said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Yet, if there is one refrain that we hear so very often in homes, schools and offices it is, ‘don’t play’, ‘don’t fool around’, ‘get serious’. So, who got it wrong — the Greek philosopher or a hundred thousand Indians?

Well, it seems a hundred thousand Indians did get that wrong. Scientists and researchers in varied fields, from child development to criminal psychologists and medical practitioners to hard-nosed corporates, are slowly arriving upon the same conclusions — playing is good in more ways than one.

The strong developmental benefits of ‘playing’ is by now well documented by authorities on child development. This has reflected in the progressive methodologies being adopted to teach children, in more playful ways. The legendary story of Patch Adams has shown how people with deep mental and physical ailments can be drawn towards better lives by the healing power of playing. Psychologists and recruiters are increasingly looking into “play histories” of individuals, to get a deeper understanding of people.

Even among corporates, a playful attitude has often thrown up surprisingly successful results. Two anecdotes make the point.

Play to succeed

In 1985, Intel was deep into the memory chips business. Unable to match the Japanese price-value equation the company was staring at a crisis. To be able to wipe the slate clean and look at the business with fresh new eyes Andrew Grove famously fired himself. He and Gordon Moore walked back into the building as the new executives who ‘replaced’ them and looked at the business anew. Yes, it was play acting, but from that dramatic move came the decision to prioritise the secondary business of microprocessors. The rest, as they say, is history.

The most compelling evidence though comes from a company from our times — Google. Engineers at the company are encouraged to take 20 per cent time off to work on anything company-related that interests them personally. Sounds idealistic? Not really when you face the fact that some of their biggest successes like Gmail and Google News have come from this time-off.

It is as if when we get the license to play we are unshackled from dogmas and the weight of experience and become more open to learning. We are also kinder and more accommodative with each other.

In our work with corporates we see this amazing power of play come to the fore time and again in different ways. The way people play is very often the way they work too. So, a leader with a dominating personality is equally dominating while “playing” the different challenges we set out for him and his team. The difference, however, is that unlike at work, people feel comfortable to talk about his behaviour because they are talking about his “play” and not about him” personally. It is a very unobtrusive way for people to communicate and learn.

Laughter, the job medicine?

A senior leadership team working on their corporate strategy using the methodology of Lego Serious Play is like a bunch of kids huddled in animated discussions. Unlike the tense and serious atmosphere that one comes to expect in such sessions, the air is punctuated with laughter. Yes, they are playing, but this is serious work too!

When a group of people laugh together, do things that are considered “fun” and talk about their experiences it binds them together like nothing else does. It suddenly becomes easy to talk about a lot of touchy topics, because they are only ‘playing’. Members begin seeing each other as individuals rather than as faceless designations. Many barriers tend to fall away when people get into an attitude of play.

Regardless of what your job is – it can be significantly enhanced if you mix it with a healthy dose of fun and play. Easy as it sounds, that takes efforts too. So, the next time you have a team meeting challenge yourself to make it fun and more playful for everyone. If you are making a presentation, ask yourself whether you can do anything to evoke at least a smile on faces of your audience.

Try and plan different fun experiences for your team. It could be a team cooking experience or a scavenger hunt or a facilitated team-building session. In fact, it could be anything that gets your people out of the daily rut. You are limited only by your imagination.

We take ourselves and our jobs far too seriously. As the philosopher Khalil Gibran taught us, “This also shalt pass.” In the short time that you are there though, why not make it more fun?

(The author is the Co-Founder of FOCUS Adventure and a leadership trainer)

(This article was published on August 30, 2012)
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