Do you leap out of bed in the morning, ready to play at work? No? Then you might be missing some important information about how play helps teams – and you – work better.

What is play?

When you play, you are engrossed in the process.  Imagine a child with a toy broom. Yes, they are imitating a bit of work and using a tool that might otherwise be relegated to a completely work-oriented activity. It is the child’s mindset toward the activity that transforms it into play. The child gathers the pile of dirt, inspects it for interesting components, and might even pick up a few pieces for closer examination. Once the broom goes into motion the child might notice the patterns that are formed where the broom sweeps, and where it misses. The child is completely consumed by the immediate moment, and by making observations along the way.

What is work?

Work is something you do because you need the result, right? You process invoices so you can get paid.  You clean the floor because you want to prevent trip hazards and products of poor quality.  You don’t work just to do it – you do it as a means to another end.  You have to, you should, you must. Doesn’t that sound like a little parent is sitting on your shoulder whispering into your ear? No wonder some people don’t want to go to work!

Mistakes, learning and failure

When you are in the work mindset, you are likely to think in terms of right and wrong, succeed and fail, good and bad, and you are critical of mistakes. In contrast, when you are in the mindset of play, the judgment comes out of it.  Your activity has been transformed by your mental shift into a learning process.  For instance, when you play with blocks, this tower stands up, this tower doesn’t stand. You notice and learn.  You discover that if you add this to the structure, you can make the tower even taller. No judgment is involved here – play is just test, measure (observe), and repeat. Continuous improvement happens because of experimentation, because of PLAY.

What if you were to believe that you could not fail? What if you were to reward mistakes that your team makes in the process of discovering something new? When mistakes are made in your biz today, are they considered a natural part of the learning process, or are mistakes “bad” behavior that generate negative repercussions? If the management hammer is coming down for mistakes, it is likely that your business is missing opportunity from the ideas that fear is preventing from surfacing.

You have heard many times about how Thomas Edison discovered 1000 ways NOT to invent a light bulb. Are there inventions, innovations, cycle time reducers, that have not yet emerged in your business because people are too busy working to play at work? Are they too concerned about being judged harshly or reprimanded for making mistakes? Are ideas beaten down by nay-saying bosses, peers, or committees before they have a chance to be tested?

The best employees are attracted and retained by the companies with the healthiest cultures. The most talented staff don’t HAVE to work for you – they have choices. Companies with energizing visions, with high expectations – and yes, cultures that encourage play –attract the star players, and are the companies with bright futures.

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