The Serious Business of Play

Some managers are discovering that the process of purposeful play can inject much needed vitality into their organizations.

Most managers see strategy development as serious business. The military origin of the Greek word for army generals, strategoi, suggests that strategy is meant to be rational, analytical and top-down. It is ironic, then, that some of the most remarkable strategic breakthroughs in organizations emerge not from well-ordered processes but from messy, ambiguous and sometimes nonrational activities — pursuits that can best be described as play.

Research in the fields of developmental psychology and anthropology shows that play can stimulate the development of cognitive and interpretive skills and engender an emotional sense of fulfillment. As cultural historian Johan Huizinga noted in his book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, play is inherently community-oriented, contributing to the development of shared language, identity and social practices. In organizations, play can provide a safe environment for introducing new ideas about market opportunities, generating debate about important strategic issues, challenging old assumptions and building a sense of common purpose.

Using play for maximum impact requires getting employees and managers to step outside their normal comfort zones to examine the organization and its most fundamental challenges. For example, at the Imagination Lab Foundation, a management research institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, groups of managers are invited to construct three-dimensional models of their organizations, the industry landscape and the perceived relationships among the various players. The models, which are referred to as “embodied metaphors,” can help senior managers gain new perspectives on their companies, competitive environments and specific strategic dilemmas.

At Templeton College, Oxford University, a different methodology is employed to promote creative thinking and self-discovery among senior-level managers studying strategic leadership. In one session, participants visit Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which features collections of art and archaeology, and are asked to choose an object that they particularly like. Later, each participant is asked to present to the group a photograph of him- or herself with the object and to explore why the selected object has particular meaning for the person both as an individual and as a leader.

Although these two techniques differ on the surface, they have principles in common — they both attempt to bridge the apparent dualities of play and work, art and business, mind and body, and rationality and ambiguity.

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