power of play

The Dangers of Overseriousness

GameOnIt is ironic that we are hard wired to include the word 'fear' when we speak of Uncertainty - the fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of judgement. However if we look at artistic and entrepreneurial practice, all efforts at innovation, creativity and engagement come from a place of NOT knowing what the outcome will be.  It is in this place of not knowing that we create, connect and innovate. It seems that it is the nature of creativity to come from a place of uncertainty. History is peppered with stories of people who started off believing they were inventing one thing and ended up inventing another. It is precisely this uncertainty which is at the heart of innovation which allows for something different to emerge when we trust the process and allow it to unfold into what can be.

There is however another place where uncertainty is inherent in the system but does not bring with it the accompanying feeling of fear. That is in the place of Play. When we play, we have no idea of what the outcome will be. Play is always accompanied by uncertainty, not knowing what the end result will look like. However Play is also fun. It is an immersive experience of flow, of being energised in the moment and losing oneself in the joy of an experience. When we try to control the outcome of an experience, we go out of Play and into a place of performance anxiety.

There is a direct relationship between playing well and leading well in business today. Both have uncertainty as systemic in their systems. We no longer operate in environments where we can clearly delineate the boundaries of our operations, our competitors often come from disparate industries. If one attempts to lead in this environment with an 'overseriousness', the consequences are dire. We run the risk of creating stifling environments because people become scared to immerse themselves in the uncertainty and just stick to the well traveled path. By not equating work with a place of fun, of emergence we run the risk of getting stuck in systems that are mediocre, we run the risk of increasing bureaucracies. When you replace overseriousness with the spirit of play, it does not mean that you are not accountable for results: scores are part of the game.

At work, we want fully engaged teams that understand their roles in the state of play, where we don't assume fixed odds. No game is ever predictable so why do we treat our businesses as if they are?

We talk so much about teams, rewards, awards, competition in the  jargon of business but the direct concept of Play even in its structured form is considered anathema to the 'serious business' of business. Consider a game like football, where all the players are expected to be in top form, but yet the outcome of each game is unpredictable. It wouldn't be exciting if people couldn't be trusted to improvise and take the risks necessary to achieve extraordinary outcomes.

What could Leadership look like if we treated it as a state of Play?

A playful leader energises other by bringing with them a sense of infectious fun, challenge, and the possibility of glorious achievement. The team’s flow and sense of involvement is more important than any individual act. The spirit of the game is all important - it is here where both the rules of the games and the relationships in the game matter.

Improvisation would be encouraged. We would allow for stellar acts of personal achievement - which we would reward and celebrate. Camaraderie and the spirit of fair play would be emphasised over the achievement of results at all costs. Here opportunities for people to connect matter . For one cannot play well together unless you connect well together. It is no small irony that the first thing to go when budgets are tight are the social activities. However, these are not indulgences, or frivolities but critical to the heart of play and possibility.

In Play we see other options. Sometimes playing through our most difficult challenges allows us to see other solutions as I so often see in the Lego Serious Play coaching I do. So if you want to avoid the dangers of overseriousness, which brings with it disengagement, mediocrity as a result of fear of failing, and bloated bureaucracies, embrace Play as a powerful leadership tool.