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Let Your Employees Play!

When you're determined to make your start-up succeed, it's easy to be serious. But it's the companies that work hard to establish cultures of play that attract great people, continuously push the boundaries of innovation, and ultimately win.

Courtesy Company

Play drives innovation at Napkin Labs: CPO dresses up as an old professor for a company meeting.

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I always laugh when people talk about the frivolity of start-ups. Sure, ping pong tables, electric go-carts and video games may seem more fitting for a college dorm than a start-up office, but most people don't realize that creating a culture of play can be one of the most important drivers of innovation and productivity within a young company.

So, how does play affect success in a start-up?

Play is a catalyst of innovation.

Kids are super creative. Why? Because when they play, there is no limit to their imaginations. So, it's not too surprising that when we're forced to grow up and leave Neverland, it becomes pretty difficult to let our creativity run wild. At Napkin Labs, when we have a problem to solve, we often try to step back and emulate a child-like state of mind, essentially ignoring reality. Sometimes that means our CPO dresses up like an old professor for important meetings, but most time it just means we let our guard down, joke about crazy new products, or share ridiculous "what ifs." Yes, many of the ideas put forward will never work, but the act of stretching our minds often times leads to a breakthrough.

Play relieves tension and raises moral.

Start-ups are stressful, so play is a great way to break the tension and help people get a clear perspective. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Trada, another start-up here in Boulder. Trada created a hilarious scooter race called Palio di Trada, which gives employees a chance to relieve tension and stress so they can more easily focus on their work. Fun activities like this one are also big morale-boosters, since employees are able to let loose and re-energize themselves for the work ahead.

A culture of play helps attract and keep great people.

Who wouldn't want to work at a company that makes having fun a priority? The fight for top talent in the start-up world is extremely competitive. Since most start-ups can’t compete on salary and benefits, many try and set themselves apart by offering a fun company culture. Also, emphasizing your unique, playful culture during the interview process can help you find people who are a great fit personality-wise for your company. For start-ups where employees work long hours together, seven days a week, a good mesh between personalities is incredibly important.

Play promotes openness and acceptance.

Many companies develop a culture of fear. Fear of appearing unintelligent, fear of not hitting numbers, etc. While fear might help drive employees to achieve results in the short term, it also can have a devastating effect on innovation. When you have a culture of fear, people will hold back on suggesting an idea for making something better. On the other hand, companies that establish a culture of play—where it's totally fine to laugh, joke, and even get crazy—will promote openness and acceptance between employees. People will become much more likely to take risks and fight for what they believe when they feel comfortable around their peers. This freedom makes your team much more willing to experiment, and will cause your company to learn and grow faster.

Start-ups require constant creativity and hustle in the face of uncertainty. When you're determined to make your start-up succeed, it's easy to get serious. But it's the companies that work hard to establish cultures of play that attract great people, continuously push the boundaries of innovation, and ultimately win.

Does your company promote play? If so, how has play led to creative solutions? Share some great examples of using play to drive innovation at your company to help encourage other companies to do the same!

Last updated: Feb 14, 2012

RILEY GIBSON | Columnist | CEO, Napkin Labs

Riley Gibson is the co-founder and CEO of Napkin Labs, a start-up that builds tools to help companies turn their Facebook fans into an army of collaborators for new insights and ideas. For more, check out the Napkin Labs blog.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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