LEAD|Autumn 2022/Winter 2023
By: D.C. Alves M.Ed., Chief Leadership Officer, ExuLAB
Why in the world wouldn't you prioritize play in organizational learning and leading?! That's the real question here...
And this is where we begin our discussion because the very systems, processes, cultures and mindsets that engine organizations are often the very factors that suffocate creativity and the generation of those superpower ideas that have the potential to revolutionize your company from the inside and out.
Creativity and the generation of superpower ideas are the currency of play. And play can only happen in atmospheres of freedom and trust- not fear.
Does Your Organization Have an Atmosphere of Freedom? Or Fear?
Prioritizing play means preparing the organizational atmosphere to enable play to happen. And this first begins with executive leadership- the ultimate cultivators of organizational atmospheres.
When coaching organizations, I frequently repeat my mantra "organizations are a direct mirror reflection of their top leadership- good, bad or indifferent." Organizational action and behaviors directly mimic your top leadership. And so do mindsets. If you want to prioritize play in your organization, your leadership must be authentically receptive and ready to cultivate a playful mindset in themselves and in their organizations. And a playful organizational mindset is animated through the creation of atmospheres of freedom and trust modeled and esteemed by your executive leadership.
During my Master's work, I studied the work of Stephen Krashen and his principle of "lowering the affective filter". In fact, this is a throughline in our work here at ExuLAB. So what on earth is it? When I first learned about it, I was instantly captivated because it was a method that conveyed my core belief about learning. The method, research etc. is quite detailed but in a nutshell it means that the more you can design and create learning conditions that are positive, fun and engaging, the more your learners will learn and be able, open and free to learn. They are free to have fun in their learning process, free to laugh, experiment, to try, to wrestle with ideas, to develop new ideas, to have those WOW AHA moments, to collaborate, to communicate and bond with others, to take risks, to innovate, to share, to think, to question, to analyze, to come to new conclusions, to develop, to succeed, to celebrate, to build, to create... isn't this the essence of play?
Play is fun and free and enables creativity and superpower ideas. It's energizing and wonderful. It's joy. It's delight. It's building. Together.
This togetherness is an undeniable benefit of play and what constitutes true belonging. When a team builds and creates together, the energy is proud and palpable. Imagine if all your teams pulsated at this energetic level. What could be possible for your organization and its contribution to our world?
Play inspires, provides momentum and energizes your organization.
Intermission: 5 Ways to Prioritize Play in Your Organization
1. Get Your Teams in Person- this one is huge. Probably the most important. Play is most effective in person. Even just one learning or leadership development touch point in person can have powerful results for your organization. Even if just once a year. The effects of playful experiences conducted in person are long lasting and highly memorable- worth your time and investment.
2. State Changes- In meetings formal or informal, incorporate music. I like to use high beat music to launch a meeting or an event - to get energy going! Or if I feel a slump during a team brainstorm, I'll infuse it. Or I'll just give it as a surprise- just because! When your teams feel the energy they are in a better state to perform and they feel better, they think better, they are free to ideate, solve, create etc.
3. Emotive Changes- Encourage what I call "spotlighting"- where your teams select individuals to spotlight and thank, show authentic appreciation for their contribution to the project, how they helped make things better- be detailed and specific- make a fuss, celebrate and cheer on the people on your team. Genuine authentic gratitude in play is an unstoppable catalyst.
4. Colorfulness- Try to bring in colors wherever and whenever you can. From bold reds, to inspirational pinks and fuchsias, to vibrant greens and yellows to profound purples and more! Colors are playful and fun- they evoke a spectrum of individual and collective feelings as well as promote playful mindsets.
5. Bluesky Days- Have a day for free sky's the limit thinking, building, collaborating to take place in any way, in any form, any shape and for any reason (legally that is!). Without a forced outcome or deliverable- make it natural see who and what steps forward- you'd be surprised.
These 5 Ways are just the very tip of a very large and wonderful iceberg. Contact ExuLAB and reach out to us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for so much more- it is one of our very favorite topics, in organizational learning and leading!
Play on the Front Line
Recently, when interviewed for Authority Magazine, I shared how impactful dancing, a form of play, was to break through and better leading through uncertain and turbulent times. Here is an excerpt from that interview and the full interview can be found here.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Dance- no joke. You can even do it when remote or virtual. I was once working with a colleague in a leadership development program we were running who used to work in the Peace Corps. When things became stressful- I trusted this person implicitly and learned a ton- what an extraordinary leader- the response was “when things get rough…we dance!” The group of us started to dance and soon we were laughing and in a better state- immediately. My friend did this while working on the ground and leading with the Peace Corps and I think it’s a great practice. Strong and confident leaders pull this off. Your weak ones will criticize it. Don’t let them- because it is so highly effective especially during times of high stress, boosts team spirit, is non-threatening, and gets your team to a higher place where they can think, act and perform better.
Organizations and their executive leadership who prioritize play are at a competitive advantage because they are tapping into this fathomless treasure trove and fountain of limitless creativity, ideas and potential- this secret elixir that also boosts team morale, spirit, esteem and togetherness. Prioritizing play unlocks the true potential of human performance in your organization. You never know where the next big idea, strategy or solution for your organization will come from- those superpower ideas that will revolutionize a program, product or service, enable organizational resiliency, creative survival strategy in high stress high stakes situations and catapult you forward in your market or industry.
The Playful Mindset
Remember I mentioned that it all begins with leadership. Appoint effective leaders who are at least open and receptive to a playful mindset and combine this also with appointing leaders who are extremely competent and buoyantly playful! They are your strongest asset. This intriguing mix on your leader bench is the best because your strongest leaders will propel the others up. I have found that leaders who are hesitant but open, who see other strong leaders adopting a playful mindset, are more willing. Your weak ones will abjectly criticize, dismiss, demean, undermine and devalue it. Sadly, even just one could sabotage your effort.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give to leaders when adopting a playful mindset is that you first have to be clear and strong on where you are ultimately headed. You don't know every detail of course and you may be full of questions and uncertainty but you sure know your end goal- even if it is uncertain- there is a grain of something there. Find it even if it is blurry. Get as crystal clear as possible- I can tell you that if you are bristling at this, look to your organizational purpose (hopefully you have one, if not that is a whole other blog!) and that will help navigate you forward. Only when you have this caliber of clarity- when you know what your ultimate goal is- when you know where you are taking your people even if it is small or uncertain- play can be invited into your organization and becomes a powerful way to help you get there.
With this clear focus, you now have the power to release unnecessary constraints and unleash the real potential of your organization- what's really possible. Let the power of play become the organizational mindset that oozes through every pore of your organizational DNA- the secret to how we are, how we solve things, how we get great ideas, how we explore new concepts, how we innovate, how we experiment, how we create, how we build- how we become a vibrant dynamic success culture. We are free. We trust each other. We respect. We share. We help. We are kind. We have fun. We celebrate. We win. Together.
Work Hard Play Hard
This has been my philosophy since college and it continues to fuel my work. I like this because of the harmony and balance this creates for me personally and professionally. The same can be said for organizations. Organizations (yes even the most compliance-based) who balance the seriousness of work and a playful mindset are the most effective. There is something almost magical that comes from creating this harmony. When you have the experience of the balance of both, it flows almost effortlessly. Leaders create this.
I think of some of the greatest leaders and mentors in my life. They were able to create this beautiful harmony. It was not something mandated or "operationalized" or "policy"- it was something else- something more. It was genuine. It was felt. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be invited to the dance. They modeled the way. I listened. I watched. I observed. I learned. They cared. There was freedom. There was trust. There was success.
Prioritizing play is not an operation or a mandatory event. Prioritizing play means that it is embedded in the approach to the " thinking and doing" of the organizational culture. It is how we make and discover meaning. It is natural and it flows. It is accepted. It is treasured.
Born This Way
The acceptance, receptivity and openness to play is perhaps the most vital element to prioritizing play in organizational learning and leading. In learning, it enables visceral experience, strong memory and applicability. In leading it unleashes human performance and "permission" to humanly perform like we were born to.
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