Once, while picking up my four-year-old kid from daycare, I noticed him playing with other kids—how easily and seamlessly they made friends, smiling at each other, speaking gibberish, and constructing imaginary worlds. Their energy was infectious. I wanted to play with them. What was even more intriguing was that the kids came from different countries. They had different cultures and spoke different languages, yet they fluidly interacted with each other. What seemed natural to these kids, seemed difficult at the workplace. How could this happen? How were they communicating? Was there something common that bound them together? Why do we struggle as adults to communicate across different geographies and cultures?
One undeniable fact is that the language of play is universal, and communicating in that language brings joy to humans. We are born to transact in this language, but when we grow up, we are either conditioned or choose to forget this common language that has the potential to bring us together and break barriers of communication and interaction. Decades of research by a modern play pioneer—Dr. Stuart Brown, medical doctor and psychiatrist, founder of the National Institute for Play, U.S.—indicates that the ability to change and innovate largely comes from the ability to play. Play allows us to attain a higher level of existence, and new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture. It gives us the irony to deal with paradox, ambiguity, and fatalism.
Triggering play behaviours and using the language of play in the workplace are more critical now than ever. With AI taking over routine information and manual tasks in the workplace, we need an additional emphasis on qualities that differentiate human workers from AI—creativity, adaptability, and interpersonal skills, according to a recent Harvard Business Review report. Ironically, children seem to be the most qualified to perform the jobs of the future. There is an inner child in all of us, which can be transformative when rediscovered. Once play helps you regain the mind of the child in you, it enables the process of dealing with problems and challenges more effortlessly.
Play is how we develop and adjust to change. It involves experiential and trial-and-error learning. It allows us to express our joy and connect most deeply with the best in ourselves and in others. This sets the stage for empathy, cooperative socialisation, and collective ownership of outcomes—much-needed competencies for human-centric transformation and innovation. When meaningfully applied, play can facilitate the mindset shift needed in today’s BANI (brittle, anxious, non-linear, incomprehensible) world that has replaced the pre-pandemic VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. Shifting from working seriously to playing seriously can break silos, enhance co-creation, accelerate transformation and sustain innovation.
Playing on the Mindset Islands of Transformation
Transformation in the post-pandemic era requires a holistic, human-centric mindset. To build such a mindset that accelerates change and sustains innovation, there is a need to shift the feelings, thoughts and behaviours of leaders and managers. Considering we are embarking on a journey to untap the potential of our inner child, let’s call them the mindset islands: Heartland, Headland, Handsland. The concept of the ‘heart, head and hand’ comes from educationalist and philosopher Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s model for learning that shows the holistic nature of transformative experience as it relates to feelings or affective domain (heart), thoughts or cognitive domain (head), and behaviours or psychomotor domain (hands).
To stay relevant and thrive in the new BANI world, six key accelerators have been found to significantly influence human-centred organisational change: vulnerability, compassion, strategic foresight, disruptive thinking, creative agility, and group dynamics. To shift feelings on Heartland, we will explore how play helps us share our vulnerability and build compassion; to shift thoughts on Headland, we will examine how play enhances our strategic foresight and ignites disruptive thinking, and to shift behaviours on Handsland, we will discuss how play drives creative agility and improves group dynamics. Since our feelings tell us whether to hold steady in our current state or make a change, let us start our voyage with Heartland, where we will explore the potential of play to share vulnerability and build compassion—our first set of change accelerators that focus on the self.
Heartland: Leaders today are expected to be courageous enough to deal with prolonged uncertainty, tectonic geopolitical shifts, and business fragility. But being brave does not mean being authoritarian and always knowing all the answers. It means rediscovering your innately empathetic inner child and knowing that it is okay to share your vulnerability and to reach out to your teams. The first step in shifting mindsets is to change the way you feel about your people and how you come across as a leader. Showing compassion, not just empathy, is the need of the hour. This includes showing concern for individuals whose lives are affected by the transformation, including both departing employees and those who stay on to work towards the new vision. Also, when the purpose of existence is co-created by the leader and their teams, change is accelerated as it builds a sense of ownership of the changes. Businesses that foster an empowering culture enable employees to perform at their highest level.
Headland: It is difficult in the ever-changing business landscape to commit to a vision of the future, but giving the organisation direction is still crucial. To create an aspirational vision of the future that is digitally enabled and growth-oriented keeping sustainability, diversity and inclusion in mind, leaders must use their strategic foresight and disruptive thinking skills while considering their customers' needs and desires, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams.
On this island, it is necessary to prioritise change by playfully visualizing a better future with positive constructive daydreaming developed by American clinical psychologist Dr. Jerome L. Singer, and then generating the big ideas that produce long-term value, also referred to as the ‘big rocks’ by Stephen Covey, author of the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; he filled a large mason jar with rocks (the most critical tasks), then gravel, sand, and water (items of lesser importance). They guarantee the leadership team’s buy-in and alignment, as well as the commitment of middle to lander management.
Handsland: It used to be sufficient to carry out a predetermined set of measures to produce immediate changes in the bottom line. Organisations now must innovate while carrying out their current tasks, and they must do both with creative agility in this new norm where the future is uncertain and the present is ever-changing. Companies today need to design work for empowerment: empower lower management and build joint ownership of the continuous transformation agenda with senior management, rather than assigning responsibility for implementation to a transformation programme owner, who occasionally informs leaders.
Upon triggering playful micro-behaviours for effective co-creation and group dynamics, teams can collaborate and experiment better, resulting in wise, timely decision-making and execution of change. Previously, building organisational capabilities was often an afterthought; now, companies need to become learning organisations that operate as a complex adaptive, co-creative system and build capabilities while undergoing transformation.
The three mindset islands spotlight change accelerators, but it's crucial to remember that feelings, thoughts, and behaviours form a connected system influenced by each other. For instance, your feelings impact how you think and act. Imagine being disappointed by a business performance decline; this feeling shapes thoughts and choices, like addressing manager issues (a) or self-doubt (b), showcasing how emotions drive decisions. The link between feelings, thoughts, and actions highlights how we interpret situations, affecting our responses and outcome. When driving transformation, being in a state of playfulness has the potential to trigger three sets of change accelerators (vulnerability and compassion, strategic foresight and disruptive thinking, and creative agility and group dynamics) related to the mindset islands.
When leaders playfully shed their egos, reduce their fear of failure, and let go of their obsession with past knowledge to shape the future, they enable human-centricity and strengthen the holistic mindset in the organisation. Hence, while they have been assigned to specific islands, they are not mutually exclusive to the island where they will be discovered.
The leaders have been assigned to the islands based on their ability to create the greatest impact. In fact, the change accelerators influence each other. For instance, sharing vulnerability leads to empathy and creativity. Once they are triggered by play, they activate other accelerators and act like a domino effect. During play, when participants are in a state of flow, the entanglement of these accelerators is so natural that it goes unnoticed by the participants, and therefore post-intervention reflection and debriefing become necessary to sustain the impact of outcomes.
To thrive in uncertain times, adopting a holistic, people-focused mindset through play is key. By increasing playfulness, you enhance your ability to handle uncertainty. This "play factor" can be activated by creating the right playful environment, using tools like LEGO and playdough, and embracing various types of play. Playfulness contains four ingredients that supercharge change: psychological safety, motivation, positivity, and flow. These mechanisms bridge playfulness and change enablement, making play a universal catalyst for transformation.