Playfulness is at the root of creativity. So why on earth have we created a corporate system where everyone feels the need to be so serious?
I see time and again that injecting a sense of fun into work situations gives everyone permission to be more authentic and to take risks. Out of that comes greater innovation, more collaboration and richer learning.
The CEO of Lego, the world’s most successful toy company, agrees. Jørgen Vig Knudstorp says it’s time to end the mistaken belief that being playful and being serious are at odds with each other. Just watch children, and you realize that play is a very serious business.
Knudstorp says one of the biggest mistakes companies can make is to think that sticking a foosball or pingpong table in the office equates to playfulness.
“It goes a lot deeper than that, and play offers a lot of promise for businesses,” he says. “Creative companies create inspiring environments. Tim Brown of innovation and design company Ideo says play creates a risk-free environment that encourages people to experiment, as there is no such thing as failure. It is much more conducive to problem solving than the traditional 'I am right and you are wrong and there is only one way of doing things.'"
“We believe in play as a transformative agent in society, and we need more creativity to solve the world’s problems," he adds. "Play is not considered a serious activity because it happens in an implicit way, but if you play, you learn in a deeper way. The problem is that some people can view it as a little bit self-indulgent and believe learning should be dull and boring.”
Knudstorp has been putting his money where his mouth is, developing a consulting business called Serious Play, which has executives work with special Lego sets as a group exercise. Serious Play trains facilitators to work with executives who use the "passionate and practical process for building confidence, commitment and insight." Knudstorp says the system, now available in 23 countries, including the U.S., is based on the idea that if business execs struggle to verbally express an idea, they can “build it or play it out.” These methods are also embedded into Lego's own boardroom practices.
Knudstorp says that play allows difficult conversations to take place without the need for confrontation. At one of his recent board meetings, he surprised his colleagues by taking on the role of CNN business anchor Richard Quest and interviewing the other board members as though it were on TV.
Out of that came the valuable feedback that “if only I would coach them rather than telling them what to do, we as a company could be a lot more successful.”
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry, author of How to Stay Sane, also points to the power of play in adults, saying it maintains our brain function and stimulates the imagination, helping us to stay flexible.
“Young children often learn best when they are playing, so why shouldn’t we apply that principle to adults too?," she wrote in the Guardian.
“Play is crucial at all stages of life; it can be used to practise spontaneity and to relieve stress.”
Hanne Rasmussen, the head of Lego Foundation, which focuses on the importance of play in child development and owns a 25 percent stake in the toy company, agrees with Perry and says the world of work would be transformed in the future if all young people were encouraged to be more creative.
She puts the problem squarely at the feet of the mainstream education system and its obsession with exams and the fears around the lack of jobs.
The foundation, which has seen its funding soar as a result of Lego’s recent financial success, is seeking to highlight for policymakers the growing amount of research that shows that play is not a barrier to good academic research but actually raises levels of achievement.
“When you ask people is it good that people should play, very few say no,” says Rasmussen. “But when you come to the actual implementation, we have quite a way to go. There is a focus on increased competition for jobs among young people and with all of this, parents become afraid and focus on the hard metrics. We are taught to do things in a certain way, to be evaluated in a certain structure. We are training our brains to be less creative and not to think out of the box and be playful and this then feeds into the workplace."
She adds, “In the current competitive environment, it can be difficult to regain a conviction that the holistic perspective is important.”
If young people were freed from the straightjacket of traditional learning, how does she believe business would change?
“It would hopefully mean companies become much better at solving problems,” she said. “Also if children learn that playing and interacting with others creates real value, then it has the potential to increase compassion at work. It’s difficult to have meaningful interactions and then not care about other aspects than just hard, measurable, tangible aspects.”