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Playfulness at work: fun, vexing, helpful?

Seeing off a voice of doubt, Paul Gentle makes the case that intentional use of play at work can unlock greater collaboration and imagination, and suggests three ways you can do this with your own team.

What better venture is there for any of us than to try working with others to create something that’s stronger, more imaginative, more impactful than anything we could have done on our own?  And why not approach this as playfully as possible?

Because it doesn’t seem quite professional to do this. It might mean that people take us less seriously. That voice of judgement, sitting on our shoulder and pouring doubt into one ear, might not allow it.

Early attempts at play

Faced with the challenges in front of us now, I’d say we couldn’t afford to lose our sense of being playful.”

Okay, I’ll admit it. I didn’t really get playfulness. I did plenty of it, but I had no idea how powerful it can be when you do it intentionally. I was always excited by innovation, and by using creative approaches to generating ideas. Former colleagues will remember this from many different settings over the last three decades. They’ll recall standing around flipcharts, drawing, sculpting, and singing our way towards ever-fresher perspectives on the issue of the day. Faced with the challenges in front of us now, I’d say we couldn’t afford to lose our sense of being playful.

That was the subversive in you. You always enjoyed provoking people, just to see what would happen. Just because you disliked the way people always did things.

Fair point! What it took longer for me to realise was the importance of giving ourselves permission to do things differently: of saying it’s okay to seem a little flippant, to be our emotional selves, to acknowledge what we appreciate about others. Until I found how to signal this so that my colleagues felt safe, there was always a tone of bemusement among some people in the room.

You must have caused some discomfort. Not to mention annoying, frustrating or worrying some of your colleagues. Are you sure that’s okay?

Everyone was always talking about looking for the next disruptive thing: and then COVID-19 stormed in.

Working online now provides an environment that’s full of opportunity for playful flow”

Working online now provides an environment that’s full of opportunity for playful flow: a complete immersion in something meaningful and far from the humdrum of routine. That moment when you’re transfixed by the sound of your colleague’s voice responding to an idea you’ve put out there (or a succinct few words of positive feedback in the Chat Box!). It’s a magic that you can’t mandate, though it can be…




Fired up


…by simply finding the right time and place, and the sort of questions that open up conversations rather than pre-empt where they might go.

That all sounds too risky. What if it goes wrong?

Now there’s an example of a question that shuts things down!

For all that a playful approach might appear at first glance to vex some people, the chances are that they’ll remember the novelty of the experience and how they felt.

There will be plenty who find fun and liberation in playfulness.

And what will help most of all, if ideas are followed up in a clear and timely way, will be the sense of having made a breakthrough, together. 

Hmm, maybe worth a try…

Among my favourite playful approaches are:


Profound insight and empathy can come from setting up and working for a few hours in real time within an alternative reality. How good would you be at leading in the Millennial University of Wessex in 2021?

Drawing and sharing maps of the Known World

Discovering the variety between colleagues’ perceptions of the same department or faculty can be an eye-opener. All you need is a blank sheet of paper for everyone in the room.

Choosing unpredictable words

To describe what we do and how, and then seeing what this inspires us to think might be different in future. Use old magazines and open pages at random. Select the first word your eye alights on – and play with it!

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last twelve years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in higher education.

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