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The power of play

What do you think of when you hear the word 'play'? Something kids do? Frivolous? Distracting? Immature? Something best left out of the office?

What if we told you play could deliver better ideas, new insight, and fresh directions for your business?

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Before you start clearing office space and diaries. We’re not talking about installing ping pong tables or a climbing wall. We’re not talking about forming a 5 aside football team or doing a quiz. We’re talking about how using playful thinking can give your company the edge.

When you’ve got the serious business of clients to service, targets to meet and teams to manage, the idea of introducing ‘play’ into your business might feel like a risk. But it can be a stimulus for creativity, innovation and connection.

It’s something Martin Reeves discussed in a Ted Talk. Martin believes when we grow up we lose the power of play:

“Kids at play inspire me. They’re not afraid to ask, “What if” and “Why not?”. It helps kids to try out new behaviours, to refine those behaviours and to imagine what is not but what could be or what will be.”

Running a successful business is serious, but that’s not to say it has to be safe. Think about the strategic and creative decisions you’ve made over the past 6 months. Has your pattern of thinking followed a similar path to past decisions? Do you have a blueprint for success that you generally stick to? As Martin puts it: we become prisoners of the mental models that underpin our past success.

When we’ve had success, it’s natural to fall into the pattern of repeating the process that got us there. But that’s probably only reaching a small portion of our potential.

So how can we push ourselves out of comfort zones and static thought processes? By getting playful.

The Anti-Company game

Write a list of everything that is essential to your business strategy – all the things that have brought you past success, everything you couldn’t function without as a company, as a team, as a leader. Now flip the paper and write the opposite to each one and make a business case for each. It will shine a mirror on your assumptions and open up new ideas and ways of working.

The Maverick Game

In every industry you’ve got established players and mavericks. Mavericks are often smaller, possibly new start-ups, and they might be operating in a niche. Many of them won’t survive in a competitive climate, jostling for space with long-standing businesses. But that doesn’t mean you should write off their thinking or approach. Instead do a quick audit of their offer and try to make the best business case for adopting their model or idea. When we move away from a position of judgement, we can learn lots from the way others approach our industry.

The Pre-mortem game

Ever wondered what your obituary might say? Failed footballer, friend to all dogs, devoted doughnut eater…Well how about the obituary for your business? If your business was going to fail in 5 years – what would the cause of death be? How and why would it have failed? It’s often hard to have discussions about what’s not going well. People can get defensive and close off to really speaking their mind. But making it playful will allow people to speak up, to explore alternatives and to understand the weak spots in your business from the perspective of others in your team.

A culture of play

These imagination games are situation specific, but play can be realised in lots of ways. Introducing a culture of play essentially means challenging ourselves to think differently. To use improvisation and imagination to take ourselves and our team out of entrenched ways of thinking. To inspire development, innovation, and change.

The last word and a challenge for us all from Martin:

“Failures to imagine in business are really failures of leadership. Business is a serious matter, but it should not exclude play. When leaders embrace play and imagination games, they can unlock the imagination of their employees, uncover disruptive new strategies and renew their lease on the future.”