Playing Your Way To Success

Have you ever woken up on a blustery, rainy morning and instinctively wanted to splash through puddles like you did as a child? Without even thinking, you pull on your raincoat and boots and head out for a walk. As the wind and rain slashes your cheeks and the dampness penetrates your bones, you surrender to this experience of nature and observe the world with wide-open eyes.

You notice things you wouldn’t see on a sunny day — the stillness — but at the same time the rhythm of the rain drops falling on a tin roof as you pass it by. You find your mind totally open and focused on the present moment, absorbed on seeing a world that is at once familiar and yet somehow strange. Unknowingly you are in a state of play. When you sit at your desk to work later that day, you are fueled with energy and experience a creative peak. Your unsure why, but you love the energy.

How different would your day have turned out if you thought about going for a walk in the rain, and then decided against it because your self-judgement told you it would be foolish? Or what if you hadn’t followed your instinct because your self-judgement told you people would think you were strange for walking about in the rain, not to mention splashing around in puddles? What if you had gone, but instead of opening up to the fullness of each moment you were in, you fell into judgment of your neighbours? You would see only someone’s messy yard and someone else’s overflowing garbage can. How would that have helped you CREATE that day?

Sadly it seems a normal outcome for us in the Western world to harshly judge ourselves and others. We are often so concerned about not looking bad or making a mistake, that taking risk of any kind, even splashing about in puddles as an adult can seem like risky business. It’s easier then to concede to the status quo, than to break free from it.

In 2012 I completed my masters degree in leading innovation and change. What stood out in my research at that time was the importance of creativity and innovation as two crucial key ingredients that enabled some companies and people to excel over time whilst others failed. In simple terms creativity is seen as coming up with those potentially successful ideas, whilst innovation is about finding the best way to make them become a reality. Yet as important as this sounds to success, I have always found it equally interesting that these two buzz words that are thrown around in organisations and in business are often met by the boss or manager telling his staff, “Don’t make a mistake”.

Creativity & Innovation = Risk

My experience is that, while creativity and innovation are thrown around liberally in conversation in respect to competitive advantage in the business world, little or no discussion focuses on the real reason it is so difficult to implement. What most people never speak off is that inherent in the makeup of both creativity and innovation is risk. It’s purposively built in for a reason. Sadly most people are generally risk averse (blame evolution here + society). There are consequences to taking risk, and while some are real ( but most are often imagined), the very nature of risk and its cousin failing — hold many people back from achieving any kind of measurable success in their life, or career. Not to mention being constantly told from an early age and in school not to make mistakes (watch Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on Why Schools Kill Creativity). In a sense we have been conditioned to follow rules, but rules need to be broken, especially when thinking creatively is required.

My experience has taught me, people are in fact when given the opportunity, and under the right environment — naturally creative and innovative. What holds us back is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of looking bad. Fear of the consequences. Fear of what others might say. Simply for most of us we have forgotten the unbridled exuberance of play.

If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.— John Cleese

We Need To Play More

If you want people to be creative, and to be innovative, first you have to remove the ‘risk barriers’ that render people unable to try again. People need to know, that they can take risk, without the consequences being so high that they simply cannot come back and play again. First there needs to be an acceptance that risk is inherently built into the fabric of creativity and innovation. Without risk there is not enough creative tension for innovation to emerge.

In order for people to take risk however, the environment they are asked to do this in must be a place where risk is not only allowed, but the consequences or payback of taking that risk shouldn’t be so high that a person can never come back and try again (like getting fired). In order to facilitate risk, one requires a shift in mindset, one from hyper-competitiveness to what I call challenge play.

In a competitive approach one person, or group of people have to lose in order for another to win. Sadly, this doesn’t just happen against external competition, but within the very teams that should be working together. In a challenge play environment however, people are encouraged to shift from playing within boundaries (i.e., rules of winning, or rules of this is how it’s typically done) to playing with the boundaries (i.e., finding ways to continue to play, to extend the impossible). Bottom line in all of this the ego needs to be taken out, along with the focus on winning at all cost, or not looking bad to others, or the fear of making mistakes — and instead a sense of playfulness should be instilled. What emerges are people who are no longer seeking to dominate with power, but rather play with their strengths.

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.— Albert Einstein

Much of the reason people fail is because they are never allowed to fail. Often as pointed out earlier the consequences of failing are perceived to high. In most instances however this isn’t the case. Very rarely is a mistake life or death. If you cannot fail, then you can never explore your full potential because you are simply to afraid too. In my experience environments that don’t allow people to fail, become the exclusive domain of the tough, the ruthless, the bullies — and we can argue that it is this outmoded way of being in the world that continues to be prevalent and a source of disappear in our modern world and organisations. Neanderthals were tougher than us and stronger too, but they likely never cooperated with each other, and look where it got them. Cooperation is really a form of play.

Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.— Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Playing can be the antidote to the imagined or perceived consequences of taking risk. Taking risk shouldn’t be about keeping score, or time, rather it should be about finding ways to generate time. It should be an experience that anyone, regardless of experience or status in a company should be able to engage in. In this kind of business environment everyone will meet someone who can play with exceptional skill and offer the necessary challenge for personal growth and learning to take place.

But here winning and losing take on a different definition and role, rather than being seen as the end of the game, they are simply seen as moments in the continuation of play itself. The ultimate objective is not for the game to end in business — but rather for the play to continue. This is what can be considered making ART (see Seth Godin for more on this). Art then is the byproduct that we see when there has been successful implementation of both creativity and innovation.

So go out there and kick some puddles. Take that heavy load of the status quo off your back. Allow others to do so too. Give yourself and others permission to play more. To cooperate. To think and be the impossible. You may be surprised to find that’s exactly what emerges: The Impossible!

This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.— Alan W. Watts


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