Exploring people potential

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Written by Sue Stockdale on 22 December 2022

Playfulness is not often associated with the workplace. Why?  Perhaps because traditionally work is considered to be serious, which means the playful childlike quality that we all have within us gets left at the door when works begins each day.

For some however, it’s part of the secret sauce that has contributed to their success. Legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, who has recorded and produced over a hundred soundtracks and film scores, winning two Oscars and four Grammys believes that being playful is vital. He once commented “the more playful we get, the more we can get rid of the rules”.  And in a documentary that recently aired on BBC TV to celebrate his forty-year career, Zimmer explained that creating an environment of fun and experimentation in the studio, not only encourages his creativity, it also stimulates the team of talented young people in the team to contribute.   

His process of creation begins with getting a sense of the big picture, and then experimenting by recording something. “There is nothing that stops playfulness more than seeing someone taking notes,” he says. “Suddenly it becomes a job’. Questions, on the other hand he uses with great frequency to enable new ideas to emerge, and to generate a solution. It is an approach that some leaders in business are replicating, whereby they are asking more questions instead of telling someone what to do, and is synonymous with a coaching style of leadership. 

If creating an environment of playfulness and curiosity is so beneficial, why is it not the norm in most work cultures?

Zimmer recalls taking piano lessons as a child. He imagined that the teacher would be encourage him to ‘bring the noises in his head out through his fingers’.  But his experience ended up being quite the opposite. Rather than encouraging him to learn through discovery, the teacher’s approach was more formulaic, getting Zimmer to practice scales and play other people’s music. Ultimately any creativity shown resulted in a sharp rebuke and rap on the knuckles if the teacher’s plan was not followed. 

Today, because the world is changing so fast, leaders in business do want people to be creative and innovative but can be more reluctant to accept the consequences of what this means – acceptance of mistakes, wasting time and endless prototyping. Companies that are embracing playfulness tend to be some of the world’s biggest tech companies. Whether its lounging on a bean bag, or playing a game of ping pong with your colleagues, the intention is to help employees feel relaxed and happy at work, because then they are more likely to be more productive. Strategic design firm Designit rewards their top talent by giving them one day a week to follow their own projects of interest. This is not purely altruistic, because the leaders know that there is a significant chance that one of these pet projects could turn out to be an innovation for the future and therefore benefits everyone. 

If creating an environment of playfulness and curiosity is so beneficial, why is it not the norm in most work cultures?  Perhaps because it can challenge an existing hierarchy and order within a group, and bring about uncertainty, or a feeling of unease.  It may also raise the issue of trust, because it’s difficult to create a playful organisation is there is a lack of trust in existence between leaders and their employees. 

Despite the risks, if organisations want to encourage playfulness it will be down to the leaders to role model this behaviour.  So don’t throw away your Lego set just yet - it might turn out to have a new use. 

Sue Stockdale is an executive coach and polar explorer 

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