It has been a difficult few weeks, which is really saying something when you consider that we’re still “languishing,” as Adam Grant so eloquently described, in a pandemic that’s ending seems hard to pin down. Nonetheless, the mass shootings and the ruling in the Chauvin case have contributed to a greater-than-usual sense of unease and overwhelm.
In the midst of this, the book I co-authored with my Substantial co-founder, Amanda von Moos, Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning the Substitute Teaching Experience was released. We wrote the book in the before-times, and it had originally been scheduled for publication this past summer, but Amanda and I convinced the publishers that absolutely no one was thinking about subs in that moment. People are, indeed, now thinking more about subs. As we consider re-opening, it seems likely that many places will face considerable teacher shortages. The pandemic has also laid bare the singular importance of connection in teaching and learning, and more specifically the extent to which teaching requires a blending of both instruction and the “custodial care” that we had previously managed to overlook, if not completely dismiss.
The other thing about our book, though, is that it’s about design, and specifically bringing human-centered design to bear in working with entrenched, under-loved and often dysfunctional legacy systems. In this way, it is also a book for this complicated moment of unease and overwhelm. In looking at how we might redesign the substitute teaching system, our book endeavors to highlight the importance of being open to entirely new narratives, of redefining the problem itself, and radically reimagining what's possible.
Along the lines of radical reimagining, I’ve found myself reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy over the past year. While it has been a great escape, inherent in the worldbuilding that these genres employ, is an approach that Leah Zaidi identifies as critical not only to science fiction, but also to foresight and design. This storytelling about plausible futures helps us to both imagine, and more importantly also to create, new visions for our society. I like to think that we have tried to bring a spirit of fantastic reimagining to the task of redesigning substitute teaching, and that it is precisely this level of fantastic reimagining that this moment requires.
Luckily, science fiction thinking starts very much on Earth. Three grounded takeaways from the book that I believe apply to this larger collective need to reimagine a better future are:
Start with a hack. One of the antidotes that Grant calls out to counteract languishing is the small win, which translates pretty directly into the design concept of a “hack” - a small, scrappy experiment that enables quick learning and requires very little expense or risk.
Identify bright spots. Great things are already happening. By focusing on the positive deviants, and amplifying their stories, we point the way to even greater innovation.
Lead with empathy. These entrenched, under-loved and dysfunctional systems we hope to shift are complex because they are human. Not losing sight of the fact that there are actual people behind both the challenges and innovations that are happening, and taking to understand them and what motivates them – uncovers essential truths that can help us imagine a better path forward.
While health officials still need to determine when schools will reopen, educators have begun turning their attention to how schools might look when such re-openings begin to occur. And one thing is clear: when kids return to school, they’re going to need a way to have social connections while maintaining physical distancing. Eliminating play and physical activity from their days—especially eliminating recess —is going to have the exact opposite effect of what is needed. Instead, looking at intentionally designing play activities that promote physical distancing, encourage hand washing, and promote youth leadership represents a singular opportunity to leverage students’ intrinsic motivation to cooperate by using one of the oldest parenting/teaching tricks in the book: turn it into a game. In whatever schedule configurations that emerge, having staff who can support small group, student-led play and physical activities will be essential to reopening schools that work.
Further, conversations about the post-COVID-19 learning losses as something equivalent to a super “summer slide” set up a potentially dangerous dynamic around academic remediation that is doomed from the start. The long and short of it is that academic remediation doesn’t work, but accelerating learning can. Dr. Will Massey’s research found that high quality recess was associated with improved executive functioning, emotional self-control, resilience, and positive classroom behavior in elementary school children—all essential preconditions for accelerated learning amongst the age group that is most likely to have experienced the greatest learning losses.
If COVID-19 has done nothing else, it has laid bare the messiness and inevitability of our interdependence. Play’s future is deeply rooted in its past: a risky behavior that has nonetheless survived eons of evolution precisely because it teaches us to navigate the demands of social connection.
OK, so your office has shut down and you’re working from home. Great, maybe it’s a few more Zoom meetings than you would prefer, but totally manageable, right? That is, until they close schools. Working from home with kids present is an entirely different situation. Here are three tips for not losing your mind, being a decent parent, and actually getting some work done.
If you watch any really amazing elementary school teacher, one thing you’ll notice is that they most definitely have a plan. In the best classrooms I’ve seen, the teacher starts each day off by going through the day’s schedule with the students, inviting them to ask questions, get clarification, and where appropriate, to participate in making adjustments and changes to the schedule. These teachers keep things moving, not staying too long at any one activity, supporting their students in maintaining focus, and they always have a few back-up activities in case (read: when) something goes awry. I’d also say these teachers put a lot of stock in the power of ritual, relying on certain consistencies to help students have a greater sense of agency, visibility into the process, and control of the world around them.
It may sound nuts, but starting off every day with a review of the day’s schedule is a really good idea. Post it up somewhere central and visible and refer to it throughout the day, checking things off as the day progresses. If your kids are young, drawing/writing it out with them is a fun way to spend the first 15 minutes of your day. Break the day into 15-30 minute chunks of time, interspersing activities you do with them, such as taking stretch breaks (@Playworks is posting online free #playathome activities like this), story time, making and eating snacks/lunch, or activities like these from @Inspired Teaching. As you make your way through the day, make notes for yourself about what worked well, how much time things actually take, and ideas that you come up with for new activities. Go over these notes with your child in the morning when you’re making the next day’s schedule and ask them about their observations.
A quick note about screen time. When my kids were little, I definitely used screens to distract them, so I have no judgment. I will share, though, that the transition post-screen time was almost always rough. As in, almost made me regret ever letting them have screens in the first place. If you are going to let your kids watch a movie during the day so that you get one 90 minute block, I’d recommend doing it towards the end of the day and to do a lot of pre and post prep with your kids to minimize transitional angst.
One of the biggest keys to success in all of this is recognizing that your kids are only a part of the challenge. Your behavior is a big factor in making this work. We are operating in a distracted age, and some estimates of actual work time are as low as 2.5 hours of productivity in the average 8 hour day. Your job in making this weird situation work is to choose 2-3 important work things that you are prioritizing on any given day and to resist/eliminate the many ‘urgent’ things – like email and social media – that can easily distract us.
This emphasis on focus also applies during the times in the day when you are interacting with your kids. This time is as important as the 2-3 important work things that you’ve identified, and actually focusing on your kids makes it much more likely that you will be able to actually focus on your work priorities during those allotted times. Close your computer and put your phone out of reach when you are with your kids. Treat it like a meeting with your boss or most important client/funder.
Maintaining perspective is everything. If you are in a situation where you are healthy, your loved ones are healthy, and you’re getting paid to work from home, you are in a privileged position and the most important thing you can do is to be visibly aware of how lucky you are and to make sure that your kids don’t take any of it for granted. They are watching you and what you say and what you do matter. That said, the Maya Angelou quote applies here as always: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Your job in all of this is to make sure your family feels safe, grateful and committed to doing what is right for the larger community.
This is not a normal time and we are all – our kids included – likely to be experiencing additional stress. Paying attention and noticing how you’re feeling, noticing how your kids are feeling, and acknowledging that things are really, truly, mind-blowingly out of the ordinary will help your whole family set appropriate expectations and maintain perspective. In thinking about your work, pretending that everything is normal and we’re just working from home is going to set you up for a frustrating experience. Adjusting your expectations – and articulating them as part of morning scheduling– can really help mitigate frustration and engage your kids as your partners in achieving your goals, setting them up to be the best possible “coworkers” they can be.
I spend a chunk of time at the end of every year reflecting on the twelve months past, and thinking about my aspirations for the twelve in front of me. It’s not really about resolutions so much as it is about being intentional and paying attention. This year, I was inspired to also think about having a theme, and I landed on practical magic (notably despite the late-90s Nicole Kidman/Sandra Bullock movie).
The inspiration for the choice was my desire to find a way to visit my son in New Zealand this Spring. He will be spending a semester at the University of Auckland, and I had begun putting the word out to friends that I was looking around for an opportunity to speak or lead a workshop there that would both justify and pay for my travel. It occurred to me that it is when I take this approach to life – working hard at getting lucky, or practical magic – that I am both happiest and most successful.
Practical magic shows up in a number of different ways in my life, but there are four ways that stand out: meditation, going outside, generosity and asking for help. I think of these as intentional practices that reap unanticipated benefits. They also fall squarely into my favorite definition of play – any activity undertaken for no apparent purpose. I remain a fervent believer that the most defining moments of our lives often happen in these privileged interludes, and that building effective educational and work environments – building a meaningful life - require extended time for play and reflection. It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but being intentional about having no apparent purpose at times is one of my keys to being happy.
So a bit about each of the four; meditation to start. A while back, Jim Thompson, the founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, and I decided that we would meet every 3 months to check in and provide a sounding board for one another. We did it for a few of years, and it was a professionally and personally important experience for me. One of the things that I took away was Jim’s description of how he made time every day for quiet reflection. I had read assorted books about mindfulness and meditation over the years, but never really established a practice. Jim inspired me to really commit, and I have been sitting every morning from 20-45 minutes ever since. I attend a meditation retreat every Fall to go a little deeper, and I am convinced that the practice has helped me to stay a little more present when times are hard, kinder when people cut me off on the freeway, and grateful when good things happen.
Going outside. I have always loved being outside. Playing sports, running through the neighborhood at dusk as a child, backpacking, hiking, running, mountain biking. And when my kids were babies, I remember the revelation that the single best way to get them to settle when they were fussy was to step outside with them. Maybe it was just the change in setting, maybe it was that it made me settle and they could sense that, but I took away the insight that going outside almost always freshens up my perspective.
Generosity. I’m not necessarily talking about giving money, (though if you’re reading this and inspired to make a donation to Playworks, that’s awesome!) but intentionally doing something nice for someone else is some of the most powerful practical magic I know. A compliment, letting someone go ahead of you in the grocery store line, sharing your cookie – really, the joy that sharing affords is weirdly outsized given the magnitude of the act. Maybe it’s because it frees us from the oppressive reality of being so constantly self-absorbed. Maybe it lightens the load of wanting stuff that seems to be such a natural by-product of capitalism. In any case, I am convinced that when you are feeling the most needy, the best way to help yourself is by being actively, selflessly kind to someone else.
Last but not least, asking for help. I find this one particularly challenging. Maybe it’s extra white of me, but I internalized a fair bit of the Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth as a kid. Turns out it’s total BS. We don’t do anything all that important all alone. You need to find great co-founders/co-workers, have great friends, collaborate, disagree, compete and share to actually make a go of it. We need each other, and asking for help is how you transform vulnerability from a liability into a super power. Hard-core, full-on practical magic.
I have some mixed feelings looking ahead to 2020. Even as Nick Kristoff points to the myriad ways the world has improved, I worry about politics and climate and our basic ability as humans to be kind to one another. So I am asking… please join me in practicing a little practical magic – however that shows up for you – in the hopes of making 2020, and the world, a little brighter.
I’ve spent much of the last nine months working with Susie Wise on the launch of a new organization, Workswell. Currently Workswell is a part of Playworks, but the idea is to spin it out as a for-profit subsidiary of Playworks when the time is right. More about that in a moment.
The why of Workswell is two-fold. Susie and I have spent most of our careers working in education, and to this end we’ve spent considerable amounts of time thinking about kids and what they need to thrive in school. We’ve also been a part of building institutions - schools, a few different nonprofits, a design lab – that involved a whole lot of managing and supporting grown-ups. Over the years we have been struck by the tremendous parallels that exist between school and work, most notably that it really, really matters how it feels. The more we talked about it, the more convinced we became that, just like in schools, the difference between workplaces that get things done over the long haul and those that either have quick wins and peter out, lose their mojo, or never really get it together in the first place is in the level of intentional design that goes into the whole gamut of work experiences that collectively make up what we think of as work.
The second why of Workswell has to do with money. Over the years of raising funds for all our assorted projects and watching as good ideas floundered for lack of funds while mediocre ideas trundled along, powered by a well-oiled fundraising machines, we have become… disillusioned isn’t quite the right word. Frustrated isn’t quite right either. Maybe just convinced that expecting the folks who have profited from the whole philanthro-capitalist system to be the ones to dismantle it seems silly to us. And so we are genuinely interested in trying to build an engine for revenue generation that unlocks all the assets and resources of capitalism in service of a really great and effective idea: Playworks. We’re excited about how this presents an opportunity to change the power dynamic, and ultimately interested in experimenting with having new points of access into capital markets – e.g., selling shares of Workswell to building an operating reserve. Maybe think of it as a more entrepreneurial version of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.
In explaining the ‘what’ of Workswell, I want to start with what we are not:
1. We are not corporate recess. Play is an essential part of who we are and what we do, but it is delivered in the context of organizational experience design (OXdesign) and not as a standalone team-building service.
2. We are not an introduction to design thinking. Like play, design is integral to our approach, and in the larger context we introduce design tools and mindsets, but it is all done in service to creating a more human-centered approach to work.
3. We are not executive coaches. Workswell is focused on working at the organizational level. In nonprofit parlance, we’re a universal intervention as opposed to a targeted one, reflecting our belief that improving the environment is essential before more targeted efforts can be effective, including initiatives focused on building leadership.
4. We are not diversity, equity and inclusion experts. Again, our hope is to offer tools that build the foundational trust and practices that make DEI work possible, but that is not our particular area of focus.
Moving from what we aren’t to what we are, starting with our values can be illustrative. We are obsessed with learning. We’re convinced that belonging is essential to long-term success in all endeavors – from schools to businesses to functioning democracies. We really like getting things done. To that end, we’re interested in building tools and providing services that actually, concretely and measurably make a difference. And lastly, we’re big on starting from a place of focusing on assets: the idea that collectively we have what we need is central to our approach. Throw in a dollop of gratitude, a healthy splash of playful irreverence and a whimsical design sensibility, and you pretty much get us.
Workswell's underlying approach to helping organizations align their values and culture emphasizes putting the human capacities of play, design and storytelling at the center of the daily experiences of work. We’re calling this approach organizational experience design or OXdesign for short. We believe that workplaces are ripe for a new approach to intentionally designing the day-to-day interactions that constitute culture, and that by thoughtfully designing these experiences, they can make measurable strides towards increasing employee engagement while fostering more creative and productive work environments.
So, you ask, how might a group actually work with Workswell? Great question. Right now we’re focused on three basic buckets when it comes to engagement.
First dates: Introduction to OXdesign workshops give a sampling of play + design + storytelling activities to groups that are mixed by industries and roles. Organizations can also bring us in to do a custom one day introductory session for staff, portfolio companies, grantees, clients, etc.
OXdesign Sprints: Identify an aspect of your work experience that you are interested in re-designing – meetings, on-boarding, remote work dynamics, performance reviews, PTO – and bring us in for a multi-day sprint to engage your team in actively reimagining and then prototyping new approaches.
Catalysts: Bring us on to support the creation of an internal group that is focused on OXdesign embedded in your organization. We can train and support this group, co-designing culture hacks that they lead, and providing help around tools and mindsets that promote innovation in which employees feel ownership.
We’re also still experimenting with how we can mix and match these methods/modules so that we can work with companies to integrate OXdesign into staff retreats, strategic planning sessions, or, even better, co-design these gatherings bringing the idea of OXdesign to life. If you’re interested in learning more, don’t hesitate to reach out – email is probably easiest: email@example.com
At the outset, I should acknowledge that I’m not really a fashion person. My basic aspiration, when it comes to putting on clothes is to be warm/not naked, and in cases of more formal/professional events, to achieve appropriate. Happily, I have created a professional life – as one of the nation’s thought-leaders on recess – which makes very few demands on me in this area. The only problem, really, is that roughly 2-3 times each month, I am asked to attend an event where some level of effort is required AND, not infrequently at said events, people take my picture and post on social media. As a result, there are lots of pictures of me at various events, all wearing the same thing.
So I decided to try Rent the Runway. I think it’s fair to say that pretty much everyone who knows me found this to be almost unbelievable. But I went for it, and to make it more fun, I decided to approach it like a design experiment. I chose to make my first test in conjunction with a trip to Washington, DC for an event where I was speaking, but that was pretty low stakes. I jumped in the way I would on any prototype, taking notes, capturing the various steps through artifacts and pictures, and gathering information through interviews and other research.
I stay with my parents when I travel to DC, so I mentioned my experiment to my mother. Much to my surprise, my mother had very strong feelings about Rent the Runway, based almost exclusively on her reading of this article in the Daily Beast (and raising all sort of questions, including ‘my mother reads the Daily Beast?’). I reminded myself that the whole thing was a prototype, made note of my mother’s feelings, and continued on.
Once in DC, I made my way to the brick and mortar store in Georgetown, where I elected to take my dress back to my parents’ home to try it on as opposed to using the on-site dressing rooms. I suppose it would have been easier to return, had I not been happy with my selection, but I was I definitely happier and more comfortable trying the dress on in the natural lighting of my childhood bedroom. Go figure.
Pleased with the fit – and the dress – I asked my mom to take a picture of me for the prototyping process. “Why, exactly, do you want me to take your picture?” my mother inquired. I explained the idea of capturing the process as a part of prototyping the design, and my mom’s enthusiasm was an almost immediate confirmation of just how human a capacity design really is. Just like play and storytelling, I thought, we are born to design.
The dress received compliments, I ended up buying my first pair of Spanx (worthy of a whole different prototype, and the RTR folks should definitely get in the supportive undergarment upselling business), but I’d say the biggest win of my Rent the Runway experiment, was bringing my parents into the process.
My mother had read – in the aforementioned Daily Beast article - that the return was with UPS and not the regular post, a fact that I had somehow missed. There were more photos taken post-event – mostly of me looking unspeakably relieved to be back in jeans. And then my Dad wanted in on the prototype. He announced that he would walk the mail-able garment bag up to the UPS store as his walk for the day. More photos were taken. My mother ended up going with Dad to the UPS store and documented Dad dropping it off. Less than 10 hours later I received an email from the RTR folks that they had received my dress. Well, actually, their dress.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about organizational experience design lately, mostly as it relates to work culture. I am convinced that organizational experiences are more likely to be effective/healthy/successful when they emphasize human capacities. Along this same line of thinking, I believe that my experience of Rent the Runway was a pleasant one precisely because I treated it as a design experiment. The whole experience was a prototype, so whatever happened was going to be OK. And my parents played along – they became a part of the story, they became a part of the designed experience itself.
Undoubtedly, one could become completely obnoxious in bringing design into all aspects of family life, but my experience with Rent the Runway and my parents did make me wonder about how much angst could be spared if families brought a light-touch design sensibility to holiday dinners, weddings, vacations or even morning rituals around getting out of the house. As much as anything, I came away from my Rent the Runway experience appreciative of the chance it gave me to play with my parents.
I've been working on launching a new organization with Susie Wise called Workswell. As a first step we've built a prototype for a mini fellowship concept that we're calling the microLAB.
The basic idea is that workplace culture matters, and no matter what your role - you are the person to take it on. You know when culture feels good and when it feels bad. Building off Playworks 23 years of experience building culture in schools, lessons learned at the d.school about design thinking, and a career of storytelling for change, Workswell is an effort to support corporations in seeing these things as critical design levers in creating effective culture.
At the heart of the microLAB is Organizational Experience Design – OXdesign – looking at workplace experiences such as new employee engagement, meetings, space, feedback and performance reviews as critical design levers. OXdesign is an actionable approach to ensuring that people understand that culture matters and have clear opportunities to put it into practice daily.
HOW IT WORKS
The microLAB is a curated four-month experience designed to support you in developing the habits and mindsets to transform your work culture. Through easily accessible strategies employing play, design thinking and storytelling, the microLAB introduces proven practices that transform individual performance and culture to build the capacity of your team. Composed of four all-day sessions supported by workplace engagements “back at the ranch,” the microLAB offers a group of 8-14 individuals an opportunity to learn about culture from diverse participants and for workplaces to invest in change that is designed to be embedded in the day-to-day realities of work.
Hosted at Playworks’ national headquarters and training facility in downtown Oakland, the microLAB is an experiential learning opportunity. Over the course of four months, you explore – and, most importantly, test – new ideas, tools and approaches, based on your workplace’s specific needs and opportunities. Key to the microLAB experience is the overarching theme of finding and telling your own story, and each microLAB culminates in a community-wide celebration where participants tell their story at a gathering they design.
Session 1: EMPATHY
An intro to your cohort and the best practices of play, design thinking and storytelling
+ QUICK WINS (back at your office)
Empathy interviews with co-workers and leading a new game with a team
Session 2: SYNTHESIS
Experiment with new tools, rituals and games to support sense-making
+ DIG IN
Leading staff in a brainstorm session around meeting design
Session 3: PROTOTYPE + TEST
Deep dive into giving and receiving feedback and an intro to the use of artifacts
+ LEAD A SPRINT
Take your team at work through a rapid design cycle
Session 4: TELL YOUR STORY
Your chance to take the reigns from games and design thinking activities to the final celebration and talks!
+ BUILD ON!
Interested? More information can be found here
This piece was originally published on LinkedIn on September 12, 2018
I was thrilled to see Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s New York Times Opinion piece, How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy, which made the case that kids’ access to play is foundational for a functioning democracy. The authors hinted at this, but I think it is worth repeating Stuart Brown’s insight that it seems likely that play has survived evolution, despite being a risky activity, precisely because of its importance in the development of healthy communities.
Reading the piece, however, I was struck by the challenge of making this insight a reality in the daily lives of children. The limitations on access to play go beyond hyper-concerned helicopter parents and testing at schools, to include real concerns around neighborhood safety faced by more low income parents and the realities of living in a litigious society if you are a school administrator.
How, then, do we create an environment that still enables children to learn from the risks of play so that they can handle challenges and failures, and develop the skills of self-regulation, conflict resolution and collaboration?
As the founder of Playworks, I’ve long known and admired Professor Gray’s work and the importance of free play. Playworks, a national nonprofit which this year will support safe and healthy play for 1.25 million kids in 2,500 schools across the country, has been criticized for grown-up intervention at recess, and Peter expressed skepticism when he initially heard about our program. But when we had Peter out to see the program in action, he told me that he was impressed by what he saw. Adults were playing alongside students at recess in a way that did not minimize student leadership and ownership of the activities at recess. Peter is still a bigger fan of unsupervised play, but he saw in our efforts an opportunity for kids to learn the strategies that enable free play to thrive in a school setting.
Much as the older kids in the neighborhood normed the use of rock-paper-scissors and trading players to even out teams when I was a child, Playworks coaches give the students a baseline level of safety in which they can own their playtime, increasing the likelihood that they will get to experience teamwork, compromise and a respect for the rules – ideal lessons for them as they grow up.
About a year ago, I spent a week with a group of other nonprofit leaders at the MIT Media Lab Open Leadership Camp. We explored the idea that open technology is a framework with relevance and importance for the social sector.
I’m not a big technologist, but a very simple definition of open technology is technology that is developed in the open with full transparency and a process that allows anyone to participate freely. Playworks has had this orientation since our founding, which makes sense since play is, in many ways, the original open technology.
By their very nature, games are intended to be tweaked and adapted, improved by new users with the modifications shared, debated, and then further modified. At Playworks you can see this approach in the Game Library that we make available online, our trainings, and more recently, our work with districts to build capacity to maintain the Playworks approach long after we leave.
The qualities of Open that really appeal to me are that open technologies are intended to be understood, designed to be extended, and organized around participation. Whenever we’d talk about deciding whether or not to make something more broadly available—or open—it felt almost as though it were one of our core principles.
Most recently, Playworks launched RecessLab, a site designed to help principals and teachers re-discover the power of play. Recess Lab has tools and games that develop kids’ social skills on and off the playground. It also includes a Recess Checkup, a brief online quiz, so schools know how they’re doing.
RecessLab has been taking off, and as a result, we’ve been having some conversations about what it means to be a Playworks program. Which brings me back to the idea of Open.
At the MIT Media Lab, I had the chance to talk with folks from Mozilla about lessons they’ve learned in applying Open, especially in the development of Firefox, a popular web browser. It doesn’t seem like software development and recess games have that much in common, but Mozilla’s experiences felt familiar. Mozilla exists because of it’s passionate users. But as Mozilla grew, those users did not always have clear information about the organization’s vision and motivations.
Similarly, Playworks exists because so many people share our belief that play brings out the best in every kid. But because experiences with play are so personal, in the absence of concrete information people don’t always know who we are and what we stand for.
Mozilla’s experiences led them to create the Mozilla Manifesto, a set of principles that helps define the organization for others and serves as a north star. This winter, Playworks has been crafting something similar. I am pleased to present Playworks’ Six Simple Principles of Play!
We hope these principles will be a helpful tool in creating space for even more play, by creating even more openness. Please let us know what you think—they are intended to spark conversation, thought, and most importantly, to encourage more play.
This blog appeared on March 26, 2018 in Youth Today
Google recently did a deep dive into its practices to identify key indicators for employee engagement and effectiveness. Google’s Project Aristotle found that successful teams shared two key characteristics. First, they found an equality in dialogue, meaning the distribution of ‘talk time’ happened naturally instead of hierarchically. Second, team members had a higher-than-average ability to read one another’s emotions based on facial expressions.
In my experience, the best way to create an organizational culture that supports both of these indicators is to bring play into the workplace. In fact, I believe that Playworks has survived and even thrived through 21 years of challenges and opportunities because play permeates our organizational culture.
Why Play at Work
Playworks works with schools to build healthy school cultures through play. We do this through both direct services and training, and this year we will reach 1,800 schools and almost one million students through our efforts. Researchers have closely evaluated our impact and play’s extraordinary ability to bring out the best in kids. Less visible is how play brings out the best in our staff.
The same programming that we bring to kids—the same emphasis on play as a tool for promoting trust and rapport—is also an important part of how we operate. For example, we have a foursquare court in our office where staff can play when they need a brain break. Getting out from behind our screens to play together helps us practice greater empathy, better understand our peers, and sharpen our social and emotional skills; exactly what play does for children, too.
The research on play is clear: play is singularly effective in contributing to our abilities to make decisions, work collaboratively, self-regulate, and practice self-awareness. This is not to say that all play is inherently constructive, or that empathy naturally springs forth when people are playing. Intention and norming by leadership are essential.
Leading Through Play
There are few safer ways to look at a power structure than through play, and few easier ways to dig into a person’s character than through playing. As the founder and CEO at Playworks, I am aware that how I show up to play has an enormous impact beyond the more obvious minutes spent. People are watching to see how competitive I am and if I am a good sport when I lose. They are watching to see how I respond to other people leading, doing things differently than I might, and making mistakes. Am I playing safely? Am I paying attention? Am I showing up on time and staying present?
Organizational culture is the sum of the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique psychological and social environment of an organization. Play is an often overlooked opportunity to cultivate organizational values in a low-stakes, non-verbal, easy-access way. Through play, we articulate expectations, experiences, philosophies, and values. The way I, and the rest of our leaders, show up during play has an important norming effect on our culture. By extension, play affects our productivity and performance as an organization.
Here are three strategies you can use this year to infuse a little play into your own organization:
First, start every meeting with a check-in question.
At Playworks we start every meeting with a random question. Check-in questions remind us of our shared humanity and the three dimensional nature of all our lives. They also invoke play’s ability to help signal a transition and compel us each individually to be present in the meetings.
Once, I was presenting at a school district meeting and there were two board members who were known to really dislike one another. Before I started talking, I asked people to go around and say their name and first concert, and it turned out that both of these gentleman shared Earth, Wind and Fire as their first concert. You could see the look of complete shock on both of their faces that they had this in common. It didn't change everything, but I heard from another board member later that they treated each other with slightly more respect and kindness thereafter.
Questions can be personal but are rarely particularly intense. Favorites include, “What was your first concert?” “What’s your favorite holiday food?” “What was your best Halloween costume ever?” “Favorite movie of the year?” Answers are quick, and you always have the right to pass.
Second, try silly brainstorming.
The idea that play contributes to creativity has been popular in Silicon Valley for a while. I spent a year as a fellow at Stanford’s d.school learning about and experimenting with design thinking, and I was constantly struck by how many parallels there were with Playworks approach. The use of games—often borrowed from improv activities—is integral to the design thinking process.
One of the things that I learned at the d.school was that when it comes to brainstorming, it really is about quantity and not quality. A playful way to encourage creative thinking is to start brainstorming with absurd parameters, like ideas for solving a problem that invoke the worst ideas for solving a problem, or solutions that would cost over $1 million, or solutions that are illegal. It is easy to say that there are no bad ideas, but actively pursuing them in a playful way can lead to some surprising collaboration and creativity.
We used those brainstorm questions when designing services for districts. Inviting principals into our process—and making it fun—helped us test our wildest and most conservative ideas on the fly. We came away from the exercise with new ideas for what districts really needed that we never would have thought of on our own.
Third, indulge in recess at work.
In addition to the foursquare court, we have a group recess at Playworks a couple of times a month. For organizations that work with kids, this is a great time to encourage program staff to test new games and activities with the administrative staff.
We also try to have a recess when someone new starts to introduce them to our culture. More recently, we also have recess whenever the auditors are here for their annual visit. Having the auditors is naturally a little stressful for the finance team, but including the auditors in foursquare, and watching one's auditor play four square with intensity, somehow really changes the whole audit experience.
The important thing to remember is that, just like with kids, the goal is inclusion. It is important to modify games so that everyone can participate, and feels safe and like they have choice and voice in the process. Done right, these experiences can lead to a greater sense of commitment to shared goals, which will ultimately make your organization successful.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.