Play – the new tool for corporate survival

Efficiency is no longer enough. Businesses need to be agile and adaptable to thrive in the new age of uncertainty, and play can help them achieve that.

In Google’s office in Sydney, staff can spend their breaks in the gaming arcade, scaling the climbing wall or letting loose on the drums. At LinkedIn in New York, they can sing karaoke while at Groupon in Chicago, staff play on the swings.

Tech companies around the world are spending millions creating buildings that are more akin to giant playgrounds than conventional workspaces. However, the ping-pong tables and PlayStations are not just gimmicks to attract talent and persuade them to spend longer at work.

According to Professor Mark Dodgson, an innovation expert with UQ Business School, they are part of a wider strategy to bring play into the workplace – and it is one that other organisations could learn from.

For many years, psychologists have understood that play is an ‘adaptive wildcard’ – a way for advanced mammals to test strategies for survival. The evidence suggests that it can do the same for businesses operating in today’s challenging environment.

“The business world has changed,” says Professor Dodgson. “Everything now is much more uncertain, unpredictable and complex. Technology and internationalisation have introduced new sources of competition and disruption – the issue is how businesses can adjust and deal with change.”

In their recent research, Professor Dodgson and his colleague Professor David Gann, Vice-President at Imperial College London, sought out leaders from all walks of life who thrive on pressure and uncertainty to understand how they coped. They found they did so by playing.

In their new book, The Playful Entrepreneur, to be published next year by Yale University Press, they tell the stories of these ‘serious and interesting’ characters who range from Australian engineers to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and brilliant scientists and the lessons we can learn from them.

The authors believe that being playful helps people from all walks of life to adapt and thrive in uncertain times. Play allows people to search for new possibilities and insights and encourages innovation.

“In fast-moving knowledge economies, agility and adaptability are crucial,” explains Professor Dodgson. “Play provides a means for organisations to explore, learn and deal with uncertainty. When we play at work it not only helps us deal with an increasingly turbulent world, but we have fun when we’re doing so.”

However, he admits the focus on play is at odds with conventional business practices such as lean thinking, which aims to standardise processes, remove inefficiencies and reduce the capacity for error.

“Techniques like lean manufacturing worked well when the world was more predictable, markets were large and relatively slow to change and businesses could plan for the long-term future,” says Professor Dodgson. “That world has gone. These days firms can go out of business very quickly as new entrants emerge from unexpected areas.”

“Efficiency is good but if you pursue efficiency alone and have no spare capacity to test new ideas, you are not able to adapt. Efficiency is about removing failure from the system – to be able to test new ideas, you have to be able to try and fail.”

So what can we learn from the playful entrepreneurs? Professor Dodgson offers five key insights:

Be open to opportunities

Be prepared to take risks and be keen to experiment. “If you don’t continually experiment and explore, you will not be able to keep up and respond when unpredictable circumstances arise. Continually try new ideas and be ready to reinvent and rethink the way you do things,” he says.

Give people permission to play

Leaders need to give people permission to get excited about the things they are doing, and create a culture which allows staff to fail without it affecting their career. Bonus or incentive schemes need to take this into account.

Create a sense of fun

Work is dull for many people and the focus is often on standardisation and compliance, but that approach is not sustainable in the new world. “Nowadays we need people to show initiative and creativity, and use their skills and intuition. We need to encourage more fun workplaces. Offices such as those of design company IDEO in Silicon Valley and Airbnb in San Francisco are amazingly productive places, with lots of energy and ideas. People like going to work.”

Encourage interaction

Very few innovations occur through the actions of individuals so it is important for teams to collaborate. In a traditional office layout, there may be few opportunities to interact. The new work spaces which the big tech companies are creating are designed to encourage people to collaborate and interact with others in different areas of the business.

Express your personality

The entrepreneurs they studied all expressed their personal freedom through their work, revelled in being involved with new ideas, and nurtured their ability to decide for themselves, rather than being told what to do.

Professor Dodgson adds: “Play is important for all organisations – not just businesses but also government agencies, universities and the third sector. In order to adapt and thrive in a world of great uncertainty, unpredictability and complexity, play is part of the solution.

Last updated:
25 March 2019