Regardless of whether or not we are parents, we all have been children. Children’s world and adults’ world are not the same, but we do yearn for certain aspects of our childhood. When we describe some adult as “having the heart of a child,” it is usually said with a mixture of mild rebuke and considerable envy. What we wish to recover but can’t seem to reach is what we think of as the carefree spirit; however, if we push a bit harder, it is simply the ability to “play” we would like to regain. We adults like to claim that child’s play isn’t quite the same as adult’s play; theirs is considered frivolous in adults. Why?
Children are encouraged to play; the implicit assumption, by adults, is that they learn through playing, about math, about behavioral codes, about teams, about art, about nature…about life. And with adults’ “guidance,” they will gradually acquire a set of values that we deem worthwhile. Children’s “choosing” to play does not involve purpose or predetermined intention; however, adults’ choices are to fulfill purposeful intentions. Adults have to formulate some goals, then make choices to reach those goals, while children’s choice just is. Why the distinction? Because we adults always assume that the goals, regardless of their origin, are not to be questioned, but are important to have. I will come back to this later.
The above contrast is part of the premise of an article, delightfully titled, “The Technology of Foolishness,” by James March, a preeminent scholar in management and sociology.
In adults’ world, we rationally argue that thinking should precede action because action is to fulfill purposes, and that purposes are defined in terms of a consistent set of pre-existing goals. Recall the earlier post of “the knowing-doing gap:” organizations tend to get stuck in the thinking mode (actually individuals do so as well) when in fact, we probably would gain more valuable knowledge from doing first. Not unlike a child’s world! I remember my son, somewhere between 3rd grade and 8th grade, making several versions of a trebuchet, from small to huge, a voluntary exercise from which he learned a bit about physics, math, and engineering design. A trebuchet is an ancient weapon; as adults we have some values attached to weapons which we pass on to children. Children, on the other hand, are just fascinated by “cool” things and simply want to play (of course, we adults have to teach them not to harm anything in the environment while playing). (Ironically, the trebuchet was made popular [again] by a recent television show that starts with a piano being hurled several hundred yards!)
So, as we grow up, we gradually learn to formulate values and design our goals based on these values. As if these values and goals won’t change over time once we become adults!
Let’s work it through. We set some goals at current time x that we hope to achieve in the future time y. As time moves forward, whether we change noticeably or not, there are many other exigent factors that can impact our progress and development, sometimes even our values. So by the time we reach time y, we either will have had to modify our goals or to stay rigid in our ways since time x, in order to reach the goals made at time x. In adopting the latter option, of not changing anything, what difference if we are at time y or time z-100? This is not to imply that we always have to modify goals, but to ask why we hardly ever challenge the making of goals. In reality, there is much ambiguity and fluidity in making goals. Decisions are not always based on perfect information and we aren’t perfectly logical and rational beings. Within organizations, or within ourselves, I think we don’t spend enough time contemplating how to develop interesting goals.
Rigidly defining and observing goals tend to force people to dwell on consistency,
exemplified in track records and documentation of which most organizations are very fond. So, March advocates allowing some playfulness within organizations; “interesting people and interesting organizations construct complicated theories of themselves.” Most of the time, we are reasonable entities using all the rational tools to help us formulate goals and decisions, but sometimes, we also need, yes, need, a degree of “foolishness/playfulness,” to act before we think, to wrestle with uncertainty to gain new knowledge. The constant insistence on reasons, consistency, and purposes limits us to act within what we know. The occasional “irrational” act relaxes us and may bring us to new territory or new perspectives.
There are may examples of “inventions through accident” and multiple websites that discuss them. One such “accident” (a form of play?) resulted in Dr. Fleming’s famous discovery of penicillin. It was through sheer neglect that Dr. Fleming allowed a mound of mold to grow over his Staph Petri dish after going away for a 2-week vacation. The mold was probably disgustingly looking but it killed the bacteria. Years later when Dr. Fleming toured a gleaming new medical laboratory in the States — the environment was impeccably clean and probably sterile – when his guide asked what inventions he’d be able to create here, his reply was, “not penicillin!”
March defines playfulness as “the deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules in order to explore the possibilities of alternative rules.” Playfulness is both experimentation and reasoning; it has a built-in obligation that it will either be stopped at some point or incorporated into the existing structure. The rules are only suspended temporarily. In this context, being playful is NOT (1) mindless party-like activity, (2) self-indulgent deviation from the norm, or (3) pursuit of some mystique balance, e.g. fire-water, gentle-tough.
There are a few concrete guidelines for playful activities:
- Treat “goals as hypothesis;” this would allow us to explore alternative goals.
- Treat “intuition as real;” this can help free us from constantly justifying our behavior.
- Treat “hypocrisy as transition;” this releases us from the bondage of consistency.
- Treat “memory as enemy;” this leads us to try something new.
- Treat “experience as a theory;” this creates alternative interpretations of what we think we have learned.
If organizations allowed some room for playfulness, imagine that! Managers don’t have to act as if they always know what to do and what’s going on. That kind of pressure has to be enormous. Planning can be much less onerous; if we allow playfulness to change our goals, we don’t need to follow every step in the plan for the next year. In fact, some of us rather like the notion that planning should be viewed for interpreting past experience rather than laying out steps for the future. Similarly, we don’t need to tightly specify all the criteria for evaluation because new ideas may intrude at some point! A more relaxed environment has a higher probability of enabling innovation and creativity.
A few years ago, I consulted for a small art organization. I recommended the whole staff take a few hours off to view a then-recently released film, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” In this way, they could spend some “fun” time together (not that the movie was “fun!”), discuss their reactions, and probably gain some insights into their organization. They didn’t manage to do that but they took my suggestion to heart and pursued some other types of playful activity. And felt better for it!
If you know of any organizations that encourage playful activities, please share.
Imagine if our organizations allowed us to play; imagine if we allowed ourselves to wander! Till you get there…
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
By the way, some of you asked how to alert you whenever this blog has a new entry. Flattered I am, but don’t really know how… however, with friend’s help and someone’s trial and error, here is a tip:
“when I pasted THAT into Google Reader, voila, now it works!! 🙂 Incidentally, leaving off the “/#” does NOT work but instead results in a subscription to the feed for generic WordPress.com news announcements.”
Do let me know if there are other methods! Thanks.
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