Creating a playground mentality at work

Our goal is to create for leaders the chance to reconnect with the concept of play, fall out of their own thinking, take risks, experiment, and with a soft place to land – learn fast. These play areas or playgrounds are created to be a safe place but they do include the concept of stretch + rest = growth.

Creating a playground mentality at work



Playgrounds is a contentious word. For some, it conjures up feelings of fun and playing sports as a welcome break from school lessons. For some, it’s a painful experience of being bullied and being exposed to the taunting of classmates for not being good at sport or being ‘unprotected’ from teacher supervision, which led to being bullied. For some, it’s the thought of hanging from a zip wire going at great speed, or going round in circles on the roundabout – feeling gradually nauseous. For some, it’s the thought of diving off a cliff with a parachute. For some, it’s the swimming pool on holiday playing with siblings, friends, or parents. For others, it’s the challenge of heading off into a natural playground like the Himalayas or Yellowstone and losing yourself for a while.

The question is why would we choose the term playgrounds for our work with development?

The reason is embedded in the simple concept of ‘play’. The following definition of play is enticing: “an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children”. The fact is when we are young as children we are at our most adventurous and curious. We have at this stage a naturally self-correcting system – the mind – that can flow like a river cutting through rock and valleys – carving its own path. We can be laughing at one moment with a friend, arguing with the same friend in the next, and happily exhausted at the end of the day – friends again. Our mind gradually freezes over with fixed mindset thinking that leaves many of us with a trickle of our potential and the inability to, as Jamie Smart says, “fall out of our own thinking”.

Our goal is to create for leaders the chance to reconnect with the concept of play, fall out of their own thinking, take risks, experiment, and with a soft place to land – learn fast. These play areas or playgrounds are created to be a safe place but they do include the concept of stretch + rest = growth.

It is no surprise when we ran a session on Coaching recently that the biggest change came when we gave the senior leaders a chance to ‘play’ and have a go at coaching. There was vulnerability, learning, and “aha” moments all over the place.

When viewed as a place to explore and take a risk, a playground is a useful notion for business leaders to allow themselves to try out new practices, habits, and systems that make themselves more resilient. It is a place where people can play, learn, push the boundaries, stretch themselves, love their work, and be happy. It’s amazing that then they can go back and explore or pass on that happiness and learning to the team. A playground, in this context, can disrupt the way people are led; or put another way it is a place where leaders can allow their people to fail forwards, with a purpose, with a soft place to land.

And by the way, they, in the process, suddenly come up with incredible ideas to drive a team or business into new, exciting (and yes, profitable!) ventures.

When people think about workplace training, they may groan to themselves because it may appear banal. They will think it is about sitting down being lectured to death by PowerPoint from somebody who couldn’t “do” and decided to teach instead. When they experience stretch, learning, and maybe even fun they have their view of learning transformed. So, having experienced that wouldn’t it be great if they then went back and created a sense of fun, a feeling of playfulness, into their team’s development? The “How Might We?” question suddenly becomes how might we get ourselves and our team jumping out of bed in the morning to transform the way we wow customers with a sense of excitement?

You also can begin to think about the culture of your team, and experiment and play with different ways to transform how you connect, communicate, debate ideas, create ideas, celebrate and redefine being more wrong as good. Therefore, the culture alters, there is more excitement in the air, and things suddenly become possible; you are now changing mindsets, changing perspectives, and throwing out stale routines and practices.

Take this a step further, and think about creating a playground with your clients. Bring your clients into that space and develop a culture of learn fast through having fun in stretching and achieving great things and bringing to life fresh ideas. Once you have embraced the mantra of, “when things are going well, tell your client and when things are going badly, run and tell your client”, your clients will begin to view the relationship in a different light; a more engaging and open atmosphere can be created.

This is the essence of a playground in the workplace; to create a mindset of not fearing failure, not fearing when things go wrong (which they inevitably will!) but rather to accept and embrace failure, to discuss it, and bring it to the front and centre and learn from it, because this will strengthen your team and their client relationships. Encourage your team to practice really critical conversations with clients and to stretch themselves to try something different to keep the topics fresh. Keep in mind the idea of failing early, failing often, and failing forward to learn fast. Think about how to get your product out there, get some ideas, immerse yourself into your customer’s world – and above all, learn fast!

Harnessing our capacity for fun and ability to play in our work, can bring out the creativity of make-believe. That playground has to feel as safe as the playground at school and it’s the leader’s job to create that feeling of safety. Have a go at creating a playground, throw all the old ideas out the window, and start again from a different perspective.

As Abraham Maslow (an American psychologist) once wrote, “almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”


Interested in finding out more on how you can harness the ‘playground’ concept? Take a look at Virtual Reality for Leaders.