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.
For the past six years I’ve made a practice of taking some time at the end of the year to look back at my accomplishments and challenges, and to make plans and set goals for the coming year. It isn’t really about New Year’s Resolutions, so much as prioritizing on steroids. My friend R. Paul Herman (founder at HIP Investor) shared a framework I liked - looking at your life in 6 dimensions: health, family and friends, purpose (career essentially), balance of life, love and financial stability. He also suggests setting an overarching theme for the year.
Over the years I’ve also found some other great resources – Alex Vermeer’s 8760 (the number of hours there are in a year), which is a lot like Paul’s process, but with more mind-mapping. There’s also Chris Guillebeau’s How to Conduct Your Own Annual Review, and Cal Newport and his writing on Deep Work.
The whole process can be really engaging if you’re into this sort of thing, and have the time an inclination to think this way. My general observation is that people like thinking bout themselves, and I’ve often wondered how, given this, we’ve managed to take the annual review process at work – generally a whole work-based system for thinking about yourself and what you’re doing – and turn it into something almost universally despised.
Along these same lines, I was recently asked to lead a World Café table on personal brand, and it was a good exercise in thinking through what I actually believe personal branding to be. Far from self-promotion, my experience of personal branding is about self-discovery, with a goal of personal and professional growth – basically announcing your goals and what you see as the best aspects of yourself with an eye towards getting better.
And if you are reading this, you are probably aware that I have now launched my personal website. I had played with the idea of doing so during a few past annual planning sessions, but was motivated to do so this year with the specific goal of generating more public speaking opportunities. I have been broadening my work beyond Playworks with Substantial , and I’m exploring a new for-profit effort that will be focused on organizational design and development for corporations and looking for a chance to join a for-profit board of directors – all if which seemed to add up to a good reason to launch.
My annual plan also calls for a monthly blog, so you can track my progress against these other goals here. Thanks for visiting and helping to hold me accountable – I hope you’ll check back in. And if you end up creating a plan for yourself along these lines – or if you figure out how to make annual planning at work more enjoyable – please let me know!
Dear Kids of the United States,
It’s been quite a year for us grown-ups in the United States, and it occurs to me that you may be wondering what’s going on. Maybe you’ve noticed many adults in your life having a lot of serious conversations.
The basic story is we haven’t been doing a great job of communicating well with one another. And we grown-ups have to figure out how to do that better.
As I’ve been thinking about how to do that, I realized there is something really important to share with you.
You, America’s children, are far more powerful and influential than you know. There are many historical examples of exemplary kids—like Ruby Bridges and Malala—who helped to change the world for the better. And there are also lots of examples of everyday heroics—like when I got my parents to stop smoking when I was 8. Kids all across our country championed recycling and seat belts before they were popular, defended schoolmates who were being picked on, marched for justice, registered voters and raised huge sums of money for causes they believed in.
In this spirit, I offer three concrete suggestions of things you can do to use your power and influence to help people get along.
#1 Ask Questions.
I know some teachers want you to give them the right answers to everything. In life, though, asking the right questions is way more important. If you are wondering about something you’ve heard—on the news, in class, on the playground—ask a grown-up, like a parent, a teacher, a coach, or a librarian—librarians are the superheroes of question-answering. Just by asking questions, you’re making a difference. Questions make people think, and that’s always a good thing.
#2 Play More.
Sounds crazy, but you playing well with other kids actually makes the world a better place. The more you play, the more joy is released into the atmosphere, and the more you and your friends learn to solve problems and work together.
#3 Be Kind.
This may seem like it couldn’t possibly be that important, but being kind is the single most important thing you can do to make a difference. This small action has an impact way beyond what you imagine because your kindness not only influences the people you’re being kind to, it also affects people who see you being kind and . . . BONUS, the person who benefits most of all from your kindness is you.
All of the grown-ups at Playworks are 100% committed to ensuring that you and kids everywhere have access to daily, safe, and healthy play. Beyond that, we want to make sure that schools are kind and respectful places, where learning and joy happen and where you are able to discover your best selves.
We know you are capable of far more than what grown-ups sometimes believe about you, and that this includes extraordinary leadership. We grown-ups have a lot of work to do to make life in the United States better for everyone, and I, for one, believe we will do a better job if we have your leadership to guide us.
Many thanks for all your help with this. On behalf of the grown-ups, I am so glad you’re here.
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.