You’re a grown up and yet you’ve lost an edge over children: you’ve forgotten how to play. The ability to play, to experiment, to mix imagination with real world is essential to creating new products and making new breakthroughs but all too often, people forget its importance and dismiss it as frivolous.
Today, most of the efforts surrounding the importance of play have focused on highlighting how little play time children are getting, with concerns that the push for more academic efforts is driving an important developmental component away, with potentially larger scale damage a generation from now. But little attention has been paid to the disappearance of play time among adults, as people get driven to more focused efforts around increased productivity and away from things that have impact that cannot be immediately measured.
Yet when one looks at the difference between a startup and a large corporate environment, the sense of fun and playfulness seem to be more apparent among the more creative world. We can therefore assume that playing and creativity are directly related.
What do we mean when play?
But what does playing mean? Does play in the corporate world mean having employees spend more time on World of Warcraft? or handing out government sanctioned versions of Angry Birds and requiring that everyone clock in a number of levels? Or adding point systems to existing tasks so they look more play-like?
No. Play, when I think about it, is the ability to engage into a task purely for the fun of it. Working on Wall Street, I was shocked by the number of times I heard people say that no one in their right mind would think of working there for the fun of it, leaving me with a feeling that the majority of people in the banking world are not only given a tremendous responsibility in ensuring that the flow of credit and currency goes on so the rest of the economy can be productive but that they are doing so without having any fun at it. For the decade that I spent there, I was having fun, finding new ways to be creative within an environment that was increasingly dealing with regulatory and compliance oversight. Those boundaries created some interesting rule-sets that made the playing and the ability to create interesting products that much more challenging but also made the ability to create and launch such products that much more rewarding.
However, to most people in the corporate world, the idea of playing is to send a few senior executive in a corporate retreat, generally along with a play specialist that helps them run through a game in order to establish team bonding. Once that retreat is over, it’s back to the real world, with no inclusion of play into the everyday work routine.
In the tech world, though, play is becoming more common: whether you are talking the 20% time instituted at Google (or as a Google employee described it to me “hours 41 through 60 of the workweek”) or the concept of hackathon that is growing increasingly popular, the idea of free exploration just for the fun of it has taken a hold of company from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley.
Hackathons as a form of play
Hackathon are an interesting idea. The basic concept, born in the early 2000s, was to provide the challenge of building something over a given period of time (either a day or a weekend) in a competitive setup. Employees are either asked to develop a solution on top of a particular platform or framework or work within the confine of leveraging certain datasets as part of their offering. The great thing about such a model is that it gives employees some level of ownership over a particular solution and challenges them to think and develop ideas they think might contribute to a company. While the concept is easily applicable to computer code, which can be presented as a working application after the set period of time, I’d warrant that one could create a hackathon around any product or service offering, asking employees to leverage existing company resources to develop new products, services, or even full businesses.
But to do so, companies must first let go of the idea that the closer you are to the top, the more you know about what’s good for a business. To develop something like a hackathon requires that a company first trust its employees and that employees understand they are being entrusted with company resources.
Trust and Play
And herein lies the challenge. The reason play does not exist in the corporate world largely has to do with a lack of trust. In order to play, one has to trust and such a leap seems difficult in a lot of corporate environments. Command and control structures have generally been established to create check-gates that ensure tight control and looks to ensure that the company leadership sets the direction and the employees follow.
When one looks at a playground, kids play together because they don’t assume any agenda from the other kids: they trust them implicitly. When people participate in a hackathon, they come in with ideas to leverage an API or platform but the companies providing the API or platform do not have any control over the product those individuals create.
Don’t forget to play
Playing allows for free association and free exploration, which are key to innovation. As a result, individuals that play end up being more creative. This creativity can help in fixing broken processes, products, or services. As a result, it seems essential that every individual find time in their schedule (and, that every company that wants to succeed find a way to give their employees some of that time) to go out and play.
Of course, play can be constrained to certain rules. To make time for play does not mean to authorize all employees to spend more time on solitaire or Angry Birds. It does, however, mean giving employees a chance to do something that is not part of their day job and explore something related to work that they might not be able to explore if they weren’t given the time to do so.
By making play and integral part of the work cycle, companies could discover and tap new source of creativity that would improve their products, services, processes and workflows, ultimately leading to greater revenue and happier employees. And who could possibly be against that.