This year, our lifestyles and ways of working were altered dramatically by COVID-19. Offices shut down, people scattered to remote outposts, and anxiety about the future was ever-present.
With a vaccine now being deployed, we can finally start to imagine what a return to work might look like. And yet any number of disruptive forces might still lie ahead, and it will be imperative for individuals, teams, and organizations to be open to transformation.
This is a challenge even under the best of circumstances. People generally resist change, or at least the uncertainty it creates, and have a hard time considering alternative realities. But using playfulness as a framework for thinking about transition can give people an easier entry point. Designing with playfulness—a curious and experimental spirit—can help engage employees and give them more buy-in to the changes. Here are three ways to start.
Playfulness helps overcome a fear of change
Playfulness lowers the stakes and provides permission to take risks, ultimately helping to overcome a sense of fear and resistance to change.
I once was part of a team working with an iconic fashion brand led by a legendary creative founder. The company was undergoing a leadership transition, and because of this, there was tension among the executives between those who believed the fashion company should be led by a creative and those who thought they needed a more business-focused leader.
In response, our team designed a game for them. The card game consisted of a deck with different key company concepts (such as “Our values,” “Our brand and story,” and “The way we work”) printed on each card, and a place mat with the words Creative Dream at the center. Each executive received a deck and placed their cards closer to the center if they felt the concept was core to their personal creative dream for the company, and farther away on the edges if they felt the concept was a lesser priority.
When we introduced the activity to the business executives, they initially seemed puzzled. A card game at an executive meeting?
However, the inviting and informal nature of the card game helped them overcome the discomfort, and provided the space for them to share their true thoughts about the company’s direction. The game revealed that while there was tension, they were mostly aligned. It also clarified where their mindsets, values, and visions diverged. From there, the leadership team was able to work through the discrepancies together.
It doesn’t have to happen through a game. Sometimes playfulness is expressed more intangibly, in an attitude or approach. Even designing conditions that encourage openness to creative, experimental experiences more subtly—such as through your use of language or visuals—can lower the pressure and invite people to engage in new ways.
Playfulness encourages creative thinking
Playfulness opens the door to new experiences that are more sensory and impactful than reading a presentation. This provides a fresh perspective and encourages creative thinking.
In his memoir Onward, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recalls an executive off-site meeting soon after resuming his duties as CEO in 2008. When his leadership team walked into the room, they found large-scale banners of the Beatles laid throughout. They were each given iPod Shuffles loaded with the Beatles’ canon.
Schultz wrote, “Everyone was deep in thought, but playfully so. The meeting had begun on such a sensory note with the music, the effervescent posters, even the writing with pens instead of keyboards, that it immediately transported our minds to a different place, in some cases back in time.”
The unconventional multisensory meeting set the stage for a conversation about what it took to reinvent an icon—whether a timeless band like the Beatles or a beloved brand like Starbucks. Seeing their company in a new way allowed them to reframe their business challenges and set off a company transformation toward a grander vision of what Starbucks could become, the international success it is today.
Play at work has long been touted as a good thing at creative companies. More and more, it’s backed by research, too, such as a 2016 study that found using cues to permit play in work meetings significantly enhanced creativity without risking meeting productivity. Playfulness sparks the senses and activates different parts of the brain. In a work context, it prompts us to think more creatively.
Playfulness unites us
Particularly for teams and organizations, playful moments foster stronger bonds and a shared sense of accountability. Undergoing transformation requires trust and buy-in to be successful.
One of my most impactful experiences witnessing the power of playfulness occurred while I was a graduate student in the design program at Stanford. While the program had been founded in 1958, it was completely reimagined in 2015.
Professors organized a series of workshops with key stakeholders within the larger design community at the university. One workshop aimed to determine what could and couldn’t be changed about the program, using the game of Jenga as an inspiration.
At the center of a whiteboard was a circle. Within the circle were Post-its, each featuring a different characteristic of the program, such as, “Two-year duration,” “Focus on creativity research,” “Focus on the art side of design,” and “Focus on the engineering side of design.” Together, the group discussed which characteristics were the most essential parts of the design program—the elements that couldn’t be changed without sacrificing its integrity—and moved the other, nonessential Post-its outside of the circle.
In the face of a daunting task like redesigning a nearly 60-year-old research and education system, playfulness was a powerful tool. Even with many people involved—faculty, students, administrators—this whiteboard exercise allowed stakeholders to play a participatory role in transformation and to hear each others’ opinions. In 2017, they completed the redesign of the program, now called the Stanford Design Impact Program.
Inspired by the Stanford workshop, I’ve created a tool called Transformation Jenga to help teams start their own transformation journey. You can access the exercise here.
The power of playfulness
The writer David Foster Wallace gave a now-famous commencement speech in which he told a story about two fish swimming. At one point they pass an older fish who asks, “How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
In my design work with clients and partners, even in traditionally corporate environments, my goal is to help people see not just the water, but the air, land, and everything else around them. I want people to conceive of what’s possible beyond what they’ve always known.
I’ve found that a playful approach can help build awareness of possibilities and set in motion a transformation from a current product, service, or culture. Playfulness is powerful. It helps people ease into change. It permits us to be experimental and to think about alternative states of being. It reveals the various perspectives within a group, and creates the conditions to work toward alignment.
Following a challenging year like 2020, when it’s become clear that there’s so much to transform, playfulness can help us go beyond our water.
Takuo Fukuda is a creative director at SYPartners.