Play: a serious role in organisational transformation?

The role of creativity has long been established as pivotal to individual, organisational and business development. Scotland’s national learning creativity plan highlights that creativity is needed to see things differently, find new approaches to the challenges we all face, and understand how it can shape our future.

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What about the role of play? Is it the same as creativity? Does it have a role in organisational change? I’ve been pondering this for some time, particularly in relation to the challenge of how we move from what is already known (and which we know doesn’t work) to finding new solutions. We recognise that we need to change, but how do we leave the old ways behind and explore the borderlands to something new: the unknown? We need to be more creative – but how?

I see play as a vital vehicle to creativity, and one of the ways that we can begin to move from what we know and understand, to a place we feel free to explore possibilities. Play is often overlooked and downgraded in preference for the much more acceptable language of creativity and its often erroneous connection with the Arts. Is it time to reclaim the importance of play for adults, particularly in organisations experiencing changes and aspiring to be transformational?

Play is crucial to stimulating our imaginations, arousing our curiosity, helping us explore, making discoveries and connections that allow us to see things differently, and beginning the process of transformation.

Sometimes, play is regarded as being an opportunity to be out of our minds – referring to a more instinctual behaviour that comes from not thinking too much about a situation. However, I would suggest that play can be mindful, where our focus is such that we are totally immersed in what we are doing to the exclusion of potential distractions.

This came to the fore last week when, on week two of the Ulab hub meeting at Scottish Government, we were using the hub to look at how we can make the organisation a better place to work. We chose to represent how we experienced the organisation through different approaches: a sculpted drama; drawn diagrams; and a three dimensional model. All, potentially, had elements of play in evidence but the last one exemplified why play is a valuable tool in transformation and also demonstrates elements of Theory U in action.

A mixture of materials for play, including play-dough, plasticine, marbles, wool, pipe-cleaners and beads provided plenty of opportunities for us to construct our own representations of the same organisation. We worked initially by sharing some ideas of how we visually saw the place where we worked. A strong metaphorical narrative emerged with flowing waters that moved from the ‘old’ ways of doing things to the ‘new’, unchartered waters with banks of froth and foam. Individually we worked on small areas, explaining what we were doing and what our lumps of playdough, tightly bound structures and messy wool represented. What I noticed was the quality of our listening. We were trying to really understand the representations and in doing so, I think we listened with empathy and curiosity. We moved (in language of Theory U) from downloading to a more empathic and generative way of being – holding a space for what lay beneath the surface to emerge: presencing.

There were moments of shared insights, when we looked at our model and saw how our rigid hierarchical structure looked understandable, safe, comfortable, and nourishing and why the place we were emerging into, with its multi-coloured strands of entangled wool, looked interesting but frightening. In the old/current system, a carefully bound structure housed a small group of marbles with a larger marble on top. In talking about how we saw that structure, we began to talk about the various feelings and emotions – safe, squashed, secure, no room for movement, trapped – but also there was a moment of collective insight when we realised that the large marble on top could see itself as keeping the others safe, but it wasn’t letting the light in. In the telling of what we were doing to each other we unravelled many meanings I’m not sure we were aware of until we started the process of what was emerging. We were at once deeply immersed in the activity, freed by the process, and also acutely aware of what each other were doing. It was collaboration, not competition, and aided by the sense of what Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow”: a state of heightened awareness, not just in our own work but in what each other are doing and how this could contribute to the emerging piece of work.

Korthagen & Vasolas’ ( 2010) literature around leadership, reflection and sense-making, outlines a mindful model for ‘Core Reflection’ where there is a focus on the present, and the development of our potential in the here-and-now rather than in a future focussed goal.  Central to this model is the suspension of finding solutions, along with an “open mind, an open heart, and an open will”. By focussing on what existed, rather than pushing too quickly into conversation about how we would like the organisation to be, we were able to hold a space of discovery, suspending any judgement and cynicism.

Playing mindfully allowed us to be fully present to what was happening both internally and externally, becoming more aware of our patterns and habitual ways of responding. In a sense this was well evidenced later when the whole group discussed how the session had gone, and there was an expression that the session had been stimulating, insightful, meaningful, but it would be hard to tell other people or explain what we had achieved. It would be a difficult thing to convey to colleagues, and few could envisage presenting this to senior staff – why not?

One of the reasons may be that we have come to privilege cerebral ways of constructing knowledge, which largely ignore the mind – body connection and the myriad ways on knowing that emerge from different perspectives. New possibilities can begin to emerge when we share our ways of knowing, and begin to experience other possibilities. Our mind is freer and more open to alternatives and we begin to shift in our understandings of how things are and consider what the future possibilities could be.

Of course, we start this process of discovery with ourselves and remember that “every profound innovation is based on an inward-bound journey, on -going to a deeper place where knowing comes to the surface” (Arthur cited in Senge et al, 2004, p13).

What role does play have in your life? Share your stories, ideas and suggestions with Karen@workforcescotland.com


  • Korthagen, F.A.J. & Vasalos, A. (2010). Going to the core: Deepening reflection by connecting the person to the profession. In N. Lyons (Ed.), Handbook of Reflection and Reflective Inquiry: Mapping a Way of Knowing for Professional Reflective Inquiry (pp. 529-552). New York, etc.: Springer.
  • Ref: Senge, P., Scharmer, C., & Jaworski, J. &. (2004). Presence: Exploring profound change in people, organisations and society. London: Nicolas Brealey.

4 comments

  1. Keira,
    Congratulations in exploring different ways of getting to solutions. It is interesting that the questions asked in feedback were the ones that we all grapple with, and that is your comment about presenting this to senior staff.
    Is it because we feel the need to play safe with them as we perceive their expectation to be that they can only stomach conventional methods of problem solving? Do they present barriers to innovation that involves step by step change rather than a quantum leap to challenge their comfort zones or is it just the fact that ego gets in the way of their playful minds and thus stifling innovative thoughts and action?
    Firstly,we need to think about how we create a safe environment for them to rediscover neotomy – It’s a hard world when you are momma or papa bear!

    Liked by 2 people

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