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Why playfulness is the most productive way to do work

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Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal a trick question I use at the start of many of the workshops I facilitate with project teams.  If you don’t want to know the answer, look away now.

“What is the opposite of work?”

This is perhaps an unfair question to ask as participants gather for a workshop using LEGO® Serious Play® (LSP).

Quite understandably, they almost always answer: “Play”.  (Or, occasionally, “meetings”; but more of that later.)

But actually the opposite of work is leisure; and, far from being the opposite of work, playfulness is a crucial enabler for people to be able to work together productively to do things they couldn’t do alone.

This reputation of play as being something that is separate from work can be a big problem in projects (see the case study below for a stark example) – and indeed any collaborative environment where it’s important to make the most of everyone involved.

So, let’s try to reframe play in the context of our work.

To do so, it’s helpful to distinguish between ‘playful practice’ and ‘playful work’.

For many, the word ‘play’, when applied to work, evokes team building activities – activity-based awaydays, outward bound, escape rooms, building towers with spaghetti and marshmallows and improv workshops – or redecorating the office with sofas and organising a table football competition.

These activities can be really valuable because they help a team to create shared experiences, sometimes to learn how to work effectively with each other and generally to get know each other. 

I call this kind of activity ‘playful practice’.  The goal is not to solve real work challenges, but to improve the capacity of the team to work well together because they know, trust and, ideally, like each other more than if they did only transactional work.  They often also provide powerful experiential learning that can be applied to work in the future.  

The benefits are therefore indirect – you hope that the vibe (and skills) created during the ‘practice’ activity will translate into longer term impact.

These kinds of activity are generally playful if people buy into them – some people love them; others feel forced to join in with something which they see as not part of their job.

‘Playful work’ is different. Playful work is where participants do their actual work together with a positive and exploratory (‘playful’) mindset that directly contributes solutions to business challenges. 

In meetings, it’s usually characterised by everyone participating, high levels of psychological safety combined with intrinsic motivation to succeed and usually – as a by-product not the purpose – a sense of enjoyment and fun.

If this atmosphere is absent, people won’t (in fact can’t) contribute their full potential.  They may consciously not want to take the risk of saying what they really think or advancing controversial or unusual ideas.

But also (and potentially more damaging), subconsciously their brains will stop them being aware of thoughts or ideas that, if they say them out loud, might lead to them being criticised or ridiculed. 

Recent neuroscience has shown that the social (limbic) part of our brain has not evolved to see the difference between a social and a mortal threat – we think we still need to belong to the ‘tribe’ as being rejected means we are more likely to be eaten by a sabre toothed tiger.  So, it will not let the conscious thinking part of our brain know what we know until it is safe to do so.

This explains the ‘esprit d’escalier’ phenomenon where we realise what we should have said in a meeting only after the meeting is finished – when our limbic brain knows we won’t blurt it out.

And it means that a huge amount of potential (and sometimes, as in the case study below, vital information) never even reaches the table in meetings that aren’t playful.


Case study

As an example of the power of playfulness, a senior leadership team in a large corporate was about to go live with its most significant project of the year – a new system, a year in the making, that would require managers across the company to change the way they worked. 

In an LSP strategy workshop a few weeks before the launch, they looked at the strategic landscape they’d built during the session and realised that the project was in serious danger of failing and decided on the spot that they needed to restructure significant elements of it.

In our debrief, it turned out that most of the team felt that they had already known it deep down, they just didn’t know they knew it.  There was no new information; but the playful process had allowed the insight to emerge among a team that felt safe to let it do so. 


It’s easy to think that creative sessions like brainstorms must be playful – and yet when there is competition, dominant voices or a lack of safety for any number of reasons, they can feel quite unplayful.  Regular weekly catch-ups tend to become rote pretty quickly; and yet, run playfully, they can be highly productive.

So how do you make sure your meetings are playful – even when not in a set-piece workshop using methods like LSP.

A simple hack is to take the principles (I call them ‘Playful Principles®’) that underpin methods like LSP and apply them to all of your meetings.

Some of these are:

  • When planning the meeting, see how close you can get to 100% participation by everyone for the whole meeting. You likely won’t get to 100%, but in the way you plan the meeting, the people you invite, the structure and your facilitation, try to ensure as much as possible that everyone is always actively involved, listening, thinking and responding in some way.
  • When you ask a question give people time to think before anyone answers, I wrote about this is in a previous post.
  • Encourage people to bring their best ideas, but to hold them lightly so that they don’t spend effort defending their ideas, but rather collaborating to find the best ideas and combining elements of them. Mary Parker Follett, an early management thinker who management guru Peter Drucker described as his guru, argued that in any meeting you should: expect to be needed; expect to need others; and expect to be changed.  This is the kind of environment that will build playfulness.
  • Over time (not in each meeting), try to ensure that people are speaking in roughly equal amounts Research has shown this to be the strongest indicator of a psychologically safe team – without safety, playfulness is pretty much impossible.
  • Try to see meetings as an ongoing practice in making the most of everyone After each meeting (or ideally at the end of the meeting along with the other participants), reflect on how well you made the most of everyone and how you might improve it next time.  Over time your meetings will become more playfully productive.

So don’t just practice being playful when not working productively, make productive playfulness your main mode of working.

As Steven Johnson wrote in Wonderland, his book about the history of world-shaping technological change: “You’ll find the future where people are having the most fun”.

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