Leader, entrepreneur, innovator, employee, it's easy to get caught up in our own professional analysis. But beware the best practices beast. Don't misunderstand. There is clear value in looking at how we do what we do and seeking to execute with greater proficiency and predictability. Without a doubt, order matters. But order alone does not advance us.
Yet order is the zone we focus most of our time and attention on. We work diligently to understand how to make the clocks (and everything else) run on time. We fastidiously hone the process to ensure the outcome. This emphasis on order permeates everything, from how we produce, to how we hire and promote, even how we try, counterintuitive as it is, to navigate change or innovate. We need to attend to the order zone. But to remain competitive long-term and to see our ventures grow and thrive we need something more. Play.
There is a growing mountain of research supportive of play as a positive, even as a necessity, and not just play in one segment of life, but in all parts, including the workplace. The patterns across that research tell us the obvious, but also the surprising. Play reduces stress. Check. It increases joy and wellbeing. Got it. And play is tightly connected to both creativity and productivity. Indeed. Less obvious but perhaps more important, play has been shown to help us develop and enhance our social skills and to build bonds in our relationships distinct from bonds based on dependency or hierarchy. These play-driven relationship benefits are always valuable, but they become vital in environments characterized by constant change - the very circumstances in which all ventures in all sectors find themselves today. When those relationship bonds exist they enhance and amplify all the other benefits of play and in total, make us more adaptable and competitive.
But beyond these benefits, play is the positive and necessary counterforce to that order zone we most often stay in. To see this, you have to understand the focal shift between order and play. Unlike order, in play, it's the act and the mindset that matter most. The outcome is secondary. In other words, it isn't the prize at the end that has significance or gives us reason, as it is when, for example, we focus on the most efficient way to deliver a product or profit. When we play, we explore. We cross into zones unfamiliar. We follow our hunches and our gut, and we navigate by curiosity and joy. Our willingness to make mistakes, to fail, and to recalibrate when these things happen is implicit. In total, we are open.
We need openness as much and often more than we need order. The proportions vary, but the absence of one or the other inevitable caps our potential. While the ingredient of order probably strikes us as self-evident, too often we fail to see that, without openness in the mix, our odds of seeing anything new are greatly reduced. And play is the surest path to openness.
It's stunning how easy this is to forget. In my work with entrepreneurs and in my research around creativity, time and time again I've seen the power of play. But the forces around us constantly encourage us to downplay its importance, so much so that when I began a project interviewing MacArthur Fellows (recipients of the so-called creative "Genius Award") about creativity, I inadvertently and subconsciously chose not to emphasize play in my interview questions. Thank goodness Columbia University Professor Pedro Sanchez was one of my early discussions.
At the end of each interview I would ask, "Is there anything we didn't talk about or that didn't come up that should in a discussion about creativity?" Pedro said, "What do you do for fun?" A bit thrown by suddenly being shifted into the role of interviewee, I awkwardly began, "Well, uh, I love to kayak, hike with my family, read, coach my kids in sports..." "No," Pedro said, "What do you do for fun? That's what you didn't ask me!" Pedro and other MacArthur Fellows may deny being geniuses, but his reminder was just that. Genius.
Play with that one for awhile.