cartoon: business people playing

Seven Reasons Why Businesses Need More Play

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Your business should be less businesslike and more playful. Play is great for innovation, building team spirit, training and reducing stress. If those things are important in your organisation, it is time to become a little less businesslike and rather more playful. Not only will it do every aspect of your business good, but it will be fun. So, let's look at some of the ways your business can become more playful.

1. Play with Ideas

Creative professionals, such as artists and composers, do not capture and list ideas. They play with ideas and you should too. Playing with ideas brings out more creativity and enables you to build upon ideas. Read more about playing with ideas here.

2. Test ideas

A great way to test ideas, especially in the early stages, is to play with them. Build prototypes of product ideas and play with them in all kinds of ways. Create role-play scenarios to test service ideas or to test how to pitch new concepts to decision makers, customers or business partners. Dance to test process ideas. Use toys, such as Lego building bricks or dolls, to test process ideas.

Testing ideas through play is a great way to perform preliminary tests on new ideas. You get an initial sense of an idea's feasibility. You can identify potential issues early on and tweak the idea to improve it. Perhaps by playing with an idea, you'll decide it was not as viable as you had initially thought. No worries. Dump the idea. At this stage, you've invested very little in the idea. Then find another idea to play with.

3. Analyse problems

Some time ago, dance coach Elena Leibbrand and I developed and tested a technique we called "dynamic problem solving" (DPS) which involves imitating problems through movement using the language of dance. By removing words and abstracting problems, we found that it was possible to see problems and their underlying dynamics in a new light. You can learn more about DPS here.

You can also analyse problems by building models and playing with them; by creating role-plays that emulate the problems; and by playing out the problems in your imagination.

Very often, once you have played with a problem, you will find that solutions come to you quickly and, as we noted a couple of paragraphs ago, once you have an idea for a solution, you can test it by playing with it.

4. Training

Children learn by playing at being adults. Adults can do this too. A trainee pilot flying a flight simulator is playing. A soldier in a war game is playing. A medical student trying out a surgical technique on a cadaver or a model or using a computer simulation is essentially playing. These are all examples of serious play, of course. But it is play nonetheless.

You too can use role-play and games to train new employees, especially human facing staff. For example, new sales staff can do role plays with senior salespeople who can pretend to be customers. Trainee managers can use role-plays to learn techniques for interaction with direct reports.

Although care is necessary, you can also use role-play to enable people to understand and learn how to deal with problems such as bullying and harassment. For instance, you might have a woman play the role of an inappropriately behaving male colleague (a generic one, not a specific one) and a man playing the role of a woman in a vulnerable position. Discuss afterwards.

You could go further and create a simple board game or card game to teach decision making. This would take considerable preparation. But once it is complete, it would be a fantastic tool not only for training, but discussion.

5. Team building

Team building retreats inevitably involve playing on some level. And if they do not, they should! Collaborative games are a great way for team members to work together towards common goals in a relaxed environment. Games allow people to exercise their problem solving skills, creative thinking skills and ability to cooperate.

Moreover, in many respects, encouraging teams to compete with each other is far more effective than encouraging individuals to compete with each other. When teams compete, individual members are motivated to share ideas, share knowledge and collaborate for the good of the team. When individuals compete, they are motivated to keep their best ideas to themselves, not share knowledge that could help colleagues outperform them and not to collaborate.

As a result, games and non-work activities (such as at an annual corporate event) that pit teams against each other can be fun exercises that help strengthen team spirit and foster collaboration.

6. Game rooms

Apparently, it has become almost de rigueur for tech companies to have game rooms where employees can unwind and take play breaks. According to Forbes magazine, game rooms were one of the top employee perks of 2014. There is also evidence that having a games room makes employees feel younger than they really are and this leads to higher levels of productivity.

If employees are bent over computers for much of the day, getting away from their desks and playing games is surely good for their physical health as well as encouraging face to face interaction with colleagues. That said, one of the biggest problems in tech firms today is a lack of women employees and even when there are women on the team, they often complain of feeling ostracised by the male culture of their working environment. Thus, game rooms that focus on aggressive games favoured by young men can contribute to the feeling of being left out. Fortunately, there is a simple solution: ensure that your female employees are involved in the conception and design of your game room.

7. De-stressing

One of the biggest human resource problems companies face today is high levels of stress across the workforce. In part, this is the fault of organisations that relentlessly increase the workload of employees. But it is also the result of cultural change. When I grew up, my father went to work in an office and my mother had the harder job of staying home to care for my brothers and I as well as keep the house. Nearly all of my friends' families were in similar situations. So, Dad could work late knowing the Mum was taking care of the kids. Dad could take business trips whenever the company wanted. Dad could readily accept overseas postings without worrying about Mum's career. That used to be normal. Nowadays, both parents typically work full time jobs and so have to juggle child care as well as make compromises between family and work. This exacerbates stress considerably.

Play in its many forms is a great way to relieve stress. Organisations can provide opportunities to play with game rooms, membership in sports clubs and activities that encourage play. Workshops, training activities and annual meetings are all opportunities to provide play oriented activities for employees. My workshops on creativity and innovation, for instance, involve role-play, small games and group activities that encourage playfulness. I do this for three reasons. Firstly, play is important for creativity which, in turn, is important to innovation. Secondly, people become more involved in the workshop and retain what they learn better through exercises that involve play. Thirdly, I've never really grown up. I like play and playfulness.

Serious business needs play

Play is super beneficial to creativity, innovation, problem solving, training, team building and de-stressing. Assuming these are important to your organisation, it is time to be a bit less businesslike and a bit more playful. Unlike many other things that are beneficial to your business's performance, play is fun.


Need help getting started?

If you want to encourage more play in your business, but do not know where or how to get started, get in touch! It would be great fun to help.


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey