Understanding the Innovative Power of PlayPublished: May 13, 2009 in Knowledge@Emory
In the new book The Red Rubber Ball at Work: Elevate Your Game Through the Hidden Power of Play, Kevin Carroll discusses the innovative power behind play. In a recent interview with Goizueta Business School's Knowledge@Emory, Carroll, a speaker and founder of the Katalyst Consultancy in Portland, Oregon, says that what we learn in childhood—to be spontaneous, resourceful and full of imagination—offers us lifelong lessons for creativity and problem solving at work. In the Q&A, the former Air Force linguist and head athletic trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers, highlights key points of the third in a series of books, noting that even when economic times take a downturn, play is the means to “workplace satisfaction, increased employee retention, and, ultimately, more innovative, successful companies.”
Knowledge@Emory: The basis of your book is applying the lessons learned in childhood play—whether it be what we learned in role playing a pretend restaurant game or in an impromptu basketball or baseball game. You note how these types of impromptu events as a child are not only fun, but they also teach us to be creative and to see our way through challenges. Are there some businesses out there that have figured out how to tap into this?
Carroll: There are some businesses that still embrace a culture that allows people to be excited about the work they do—companies that create an environment that’s stimulating and exciting. The entire business world hasn’t lost that sense of play. They may not necessarily use the word “play,” but they may say they’re an innovative company. The design firm IDEO in Palo Alto, California is an example of that. They’re a phenomenal organization, and they do great work. They truly do honor the passion and the purpose of each of their people and the talents that they bring to the workplace. They’ve found a really wonderful way to meld the two together. Businesses have to make the bottom line, but you can also have fun doing it. It’s not mutually exclusive. GE and Procter & Gamble are large organizations, but they do a nice job of it.
Knowledge@Emory: Why, as adults, do we lose our sense of play, and why do we think it’s not important in our work world?
Carroll: We dumb down the role of play, and we marginalize it and push it to the weekends. But the new generation growing up—the microwave generation—to them, play and work are one and the same. Their play comes with them in the form of a handheld device, and they can plug into play even in the middle of classes. They are going to challenge the standards of behavior.
Knowledge@Emory: There might be a good and bad side to that plugging in. How do you deal with balance, directed work time, and not having people who are constantly distracted by new technology?
Carroll: But isn’t that a leadership issue? Leadership needs to be ever evolving. Technology is always going through a new iteration, and leaders will need to change, as well. For instance, they need to think about what the younger generation is bringing to the table that is innovative and unique. Leaders have to get people engaged and invested. Work and play can be one in the same, and we have to figure out how to have purposeful play. I think there is going to be a new type of leader emerging—people who can lead in difficult times, lead with emerging technologies, and lead a younger generation who need to feel as if they are making a difference in the world, yet be productive and play.
Knowledge@Emory: Considering the current economic times, how is this philosophy applicable? Certainly, many people aren’t feeling very playful, given the downturn, and many are worried about the shrinking bottom line or losing their jobs. How do you get people energized around these principles, when the day-to-day realities of life or keeping a company afloat may be difficult?
Carroll: It really harkens back to how it was in your childhood—when you had to do a lot with very little. You were being challenged to do more with less when you didn’t have the resources available to you. Maybe you only had one giant refrigerator box, and it’s all you had to play with, what did you do with it? How could you extend play with that box, so it could provide weeks of play? I find it interesting that for many small, boutique companies and organizations, this really isn’t a departure from their every day. They have to do more with less, and they have to be great problem solvers and stretch resources and operate with very little. Companies need to look to the people in the organization who have always had an entrepreneurial spirit about them.
Knowledge@Emory: The book includes comments and thoughts from some very innovative and successful business leaders. One of the people you feature is entrepreneur and author Seth Godin. You mention how he parlayed his childhood love of scenario-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, and applied it to his working life. But he’s a very focused guy. Most people aren’t quite as focused to apply their childhood attributes and passions to life. How can business executives be as focused?
Carroll: Being committed, setting a goal and manifesting a dream into reality separates a lot of people. Seth obviously has these wonderful traits. You can take a lot from individuals in the business world or people in the sporting world, as an example of how dedication, commitment and focus can result in an end goal. We really need to be disciplined and commit to a goal. You have to want to succeed. It comes from focus and goal setting. I always pull from my sports background, for example. It all begins with our childhood, and we are hardwired to want to master things—learning to walk, manipulating something or building on your physical abilities. That focus has to extend into your work habits and your approach to it.