There is a Chinese proverb that says to learn something, give up something. The concept of ‘unlearning’ has become popular in leadership circles and organisations. Give up the expert mind in service of the beginners one, shelve competence in order to be open to the new, says late organisational behaviour and development expert Peter Vaill. The message is clear: in our times, we need to do more ‘beginners play’.
But what is play?
We can think of play as a universal bridge. We know how to play. We are born with this knowing and it serves an important purpose. Children draw on play to explore the world and relationships. As kids, play helped us make sense of what was new (practically everything!). We moved, experimented, explored, discovered. When we played with others, we began to understand more about how we are orientated in our surroundings, and about how others are too. There is so much to learn through play.
Play also develops energy. It involves spontaneous exploration and movement. When at play, constraints are relaxed, minds gently open. We are more curious, free, unstructured and immersed. When in deep, glorious play, we are ‘outside of time’. We forget who we are and who we are supposed to be. We explore what is, and what if.
Given all that play offers – learning, connection, navigation, energy, fun – should we not take it more seriously at work?
When play is serious it refers to the fact that it is applied – there is a point to it. You set and work towards goals, and use observation ‘What am I seeing now?’ and reflection ‘What have we discovered?’ to learn and move forward.
You cannot be a serious innovator unless you are willing and able to play – Michael Schrage
For Schrage, (of MIT Media Lab and author of Serious Play: How the world’s best companies simulate to innovate), there are clear benefits to using play to innovate. You build a model or prototype and feed it into a community for ‘play’. Like a toy, you push it around under different conditions. Maybe it breaks. And then you learn. Innovation is visceral, he says, more so than cerebral. If play is a bridge to the world, serious play can be a bridge to a flourishing future.
What serious play is not, is mere comic diversion. It is kind and respectful. Change expert Robert Goldberg playfully introduced a small soft toy giraffe into his dialogues. The person holding the giraffe was seen to be ‘sticking their neck out’, and thus deserving of a space and the respect of being listened to. We use the LEGOÒ SERIOUS PLAYÒ method extensively in our work with teams. It sets the safe space where we can explore and be listened to. It unlocks new thinking, extends thinking, and builds sharing understanding, all using LEGO bricks. A 100% lean-in method, everyone participates, everyone shares the stories of their models, and a level playing field for contribution is created. A beautifully human dimension also emerges as we get emotionally attached to what we create.
‘The creative mind plays with the object it loves.’ – Carl Jung
Leaders at serious play
Leaders have been called upon to confront established wisdoms with a beginners mind. Yet most leaders got to where they are based on their expertise, what they know and have done well. So this concept of unlearning, or giving up, is counterintuitive. We believe that leaders can be the curators of seriously playful, exploratory climates, and that these climates may be our most fruitful chance of building positive and prosperous bridges into the future. To make this a reality, we need to move beyond appreciating leadership as just competence, and see it as experience too.
Play is a universal bridge. It connects, creates, teaches, bonds and stretches. When people come together seriously and safely at play, they lean into the messiness of our times, forming new ideas, disagreeing, giving something up to discover something new, forming new commitments. Serious play engages us with deeper issues, energises us, and generates meaningful community.
The new wisdoms are in the system, in the networked minds of people. Serious leaders are aware of this. This is where their curatorship becomes so valuable in perpetual whitewater environments. They can play a role in activating, shaping and participating in exploratory climates of play – returning us to our naturally curious, optimistic, exploratory natures, with intention and purpose.