Play as a transformative force

 In Change management, Coaching, Culture, Leadership

Play is a fabulous tool for behaviour change. We recognise it as a vital component of learning for children. But its developmental significance doesn’t stop when we become adults. The possibilities still remain – it creates the perfect conditions for learning as we shift from reality to a world of new rules and procedures. Levels and hierarchies disappear, and people give and receive feedback in a much freer way. In fact, play has been shown to be one of the best ways for teams to get to know each other. It’s fun and makes us happy, which is a great starting point for learning. 

So, let’s examine this superpower for change. 


What type of play are we talking about?

The word ‘play’ covers a lot of things – has 62 definitions listed for it. But for the sake of this article we need a definition. One that makes it clear that the transformative superpower comes from building a state of creative freedom rather than any particular format or game. So the definition of play we’re going to focus on here is the space it creates that’s distinct from reality. It’s an immersive state that’s constantly moving and gives people the freedom to show their natural selves. The focus is on the process rather than the winning, which takes us to a more creative level. Play provides a state of mind that, as Peter Gray said in his Psychology Today post on the topic, ‘is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavors’. 


We’re not playing to win

We need to also be clear on the difference between competitive and cooperative play, which trigger different behaviours. Remember that we’re aiming to nurture creative problem solving in teams. 

Putting a ping-pong table in an already competitive office will fuel and feed the competitive culture. The behaviours that are embedded in competitive play lean towards an individually focused and egocentric form, and are centred on winning. They don’t get teams working together on an equal footing. 

That ping-pong table can have its benefits – for example, it’ll relieve stress. But if it’s team transformation to create more equal contributions from all that you’re after, then you need to harness a different type of play.


Playing together

Cooperative play doesn’t have a set practical form – it’s about working together to create something new. That could be a piece of art, a story, a game, a drama or a shared daydream. It’s where you get lost in the flow and transported away from autopilot responses. 

When we’re at work, what we do each day is mapped out for us in the shared subconscious of the workplace. It ties us within roles we play. But creative cooperative play gives us a portal to a different set of norms. A sandpit, stage or playing field that comes free from the stresses and constraints of everyday work. All of which leads to freedom of being and increased connection between teams. 


Why play works

Play opens up a range of experiences and possibilities than we don’t normally have at our disposal in the workplace. It allows people to show a different range of behaviours which in turn helps teams learn more about each other. Participants get to find out what they can be outside the profile they’ve been assigned at work – and have fun along the way. 

Here are just some of the benefits.

  1. Play creates freedom 

Work comes with a lot of rules and ‘shoulds’ – social rules and subconscious influences. All of which help organise group life, but limit innovation and creativity. Operating outside of these in play gives us a new lens to see a problem through. New behaviours emerge. You get to see a different side of people, along with more ideas and suggestions for different ways of doing things. In play you can dress up as someone else and play different parts, which allows more of your true nature to shine through. 

  1. Play gets people used to the unexpected

Giving people increased freedom trains them for the unexpected. That’s because creating a broader repertoire of experiences increases spontaneity and makes them more comfortable with it. Loosening the straitjacket of known procedural work leads to more non-linear divergent thinking. 

  1. Play delivers a dedicated space for creativity

Play creates a dedicated space for different thinking – one that’s separate from habits, and habitual and socially constructed norms. Think of it a bit like therapy. It’s a different space which is ideal for growth and learning, like questions, exploration and a different world order. You can use regular play sessions to build your own creative incubator to come up with innovative solutions. 

  1. Play engages people in a stress-free way

When people take part in fun and non-competitive creative play they’re fully engaged. The mental state of play is ‘flow’. Attention is attuned to the activity rather than self image or deadlines. The mind is engrossed in the ideas of the game. And because there are no wrong answers in play, our minds are freed from the fear of failure and all the weight that comes with organisational stress and trauma. With the right design, self-image and preservation become less of a focus and psychological safety is heightened. 

  1. Play increases wellbeing 

Play creates happiness. That’s a fact. As Gwen Gordon states in her excellent paper on the background on the development of play (see p.16 / 33), research shows that playful adults live an average of ten years longer than their less playful peers. She goes on to list more research that shows that playful people have better coping strategies to deal with stress. It relieves anxiety and is a great forum to work out issues. This can stop work feeling like a battleground where everyone’s trying to prove something, because those issues move to a safer and more even playground. You can use play to help heal disagreements, and release unspoken pressures that have built up. 

  1. Play builds relationships 

Play includes a large amount of social interactions. So it’s great for building stronger relationships in teams. It’s also been shown to help people better understand each other’s social cues. It facilitates deep connections between strangers and can cultivate healing in teams that have been through tough times. 

Informal networks often form and a play community can stay in place even after the session is over – a great vehicle for team bonding and reconnection. People also laugh when they play, and laughter creates connection, trust and intimacy with others. Being playful loosens the culture, breaks the ice and allows connections. 

  1. Play levels the field 

Play is a great space for levelling power as it can change a battleground to something more creative. You can play with the issues and states without having the real war. You learn to play nicely. Think about the language of play and how it reflects its social rules: field of play, level playing field, play the game, let them play, free play, turn taking, play the part, pass the ball, rise to the challenge, good sport, bad loser, spoil sport. Play levels power as no one person can dominate – if they try, the others will stop playing. 


Design is key

So how do you create a play session for teams that can nurture creativity?

Get the design right

Doing pre-work to understand what’s right for each team is vital, as they’ll have their own play profile and preferences. Take time to work up the right design. 

Get a  good ‘play designer’

An external facilitator is useful to take into account what suits your team. They can keep an eye on the group dynamics and protect the team from the possible dark side of play – where competitive behaviours and work hierarchies seep in. A lot of this will be driven by the chemistry the facilitator builds with the team – so the person you choose will be a crucial factor in shaping the session. 

Go somewhere new

It’s really important that you take teams out of the office for your play session. This lets them spend time together doing something completely out of the norm and away from their normal auto-pilot behaviours. Stepping out of the office creates a different vibe, even before anyone’s picked up a Lego brick. 


Examples of creative play

Here are some examples of forms of creative play sessions used with teams to build bonds, creativity and problem solving.

  • Creative play – where teams use object play. This can be clay work, Lego, games and creative exercises to literally build, draw or paint solutions to challenges. It’s a great way to unleash ideas and free solutions.
  • Playing with stories – most people miss that culture is the stories we tell about our roles, each other and the organisation. Storytelling sessions explore the words we use, how they constrain us and what new words can unleash.
  • Personal impact play – where people use fun acting exercises to play with who they are, how they embody their role and the impact they have on each other.
  • Other techniques like team-building days and improv – humour is a great tool to use for team bonding. 

Basically, you’re aiming for a networked type of activity where people mix in different combinations and no two sides can form. The sessions must be fun and you can’t force people to come. Having said that, a gentle prod to remind them that play is fun and worth time away from a busy desk might not hurt. People’s first reaction will be to look to their to-do list, so they might need help to see what happens when they get lost in their creative mind. 


Make people feel safe

You must pick something that feels safe for your whole group. Improv won’t be for all. Nor will karaoke (I hate karaoke and feel ill at the mere mention of it). The job a team does is a good clue to what might work. Improv can be great for roles like teachers, police and customer service types who deal with the public everyday and have to think on their feet a lot. But it won’t be as much fun for analysts or accountants. 

Find the form of safe creative play you know they’ll feel comfortable with. Safety is what creates the transformational space and accesses the creative superpowers of a team. People will only play if they feel safe. 


What our play makers say 

We have several play makers at Making Change Happen. They work with teams to unleash more potential through playful workshops. Here’s some of their advice.


Creative play 

Alex Mecklenburg from Truth and Spectacle is on a mission to set creativity free in organisations. She runs sessions with teams using their own creative play games – look at this page for a sneak peak of their very special creative play game. Here’s what she says about play:

Alex - Making Change Happen“Playful provocations have long been a powerful tool to encourage children to think independently by encouraging their interests and the exploration of those interests. When you connect the idea of provocations and play you get to create an environment that helps unlock creativity, critical thinking, and develop meaningful questioning habits. When we create provocations for teams, we “provoke” and inspire the beginning of creative exploration.”



Playing with stories

Fiona Hiscocks helps teams design cultures grounded in belonging, connection and participation. She’s worked with stories in organisations for more than 20 years. Tapping into stories is the best way to truly understand culture – she uses them creatively with teams to generate insight and the potential for change. Engaging the people who truly understand the day-to-day reality of organisational life creates the knowhow to co-design new ways of working and sustainable long-term change. She’s also the founder of Thrive.

Fiona - Making Change Happen

“Using storytelling in team sessions creates a safe space to explore difficult situations and organisational tensions. It’s always a delightful experience to see participants in sessions step into connecting with each other differently by sharing their stories. In every case a different and deeper relationship is built between the people in the room with more trust and potential for better collaboration. The power it unleashes when together they create their own new stories has a transformative and long-lasting effect.’


Want to set up a play session?

If you’d like our help, please get in touch by mailing me at We’d love to talk and see how we can help you play to make change happen. 



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