by Mandy de Waal (@mandyldewaal) When did business become so serious? It is likely that during the global financial crisis of 2007 [considered by economists to be the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s], much of the joy that could be had in big business evaporated. Elaine Rumboll — who helps leaders and teams achieve next-level of thinking using play — believes that industry is in the grips of a crisis of “overseriousness”.

In speaking about about why we should take our building blocks out of storage, and bring the joy of play back to business, this internationally accredited Master Lego Serious Play practitioner says that, If we do, industry could become more agile, creative and have better ideas about how to weather tough times.

Elaine Rumboll
Elaine Rumboll

Rumboll is managing director of The Creative Leadership Consultancy, a learning agency based upon global collaborations to build more “Agile, Playful, Curious and Energised leaders”. The former director of executive education at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, she spent two years as the professor and leader in residence for sustainable leadership practices at Curtin Graduate School of Business in Perth, Australia, and served as adjunct professor in the engagement, international and governance portfolio at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.

Mandy de Waal: How did business get so serious?
Elaine Rumboll: I think overseriousness is a response to an environment which is highly complex and constantly changeable. Old management practice teaches us that control and command are appropriate leadership styles to lead people. These may well [be] effective in markets where behaviour and outcomes are predictable. It fails to be effective when market boundaries are uncertain and new entrants to markets are not the usual industry players. The rate of change is happening faster than our ability to respond to it.

Our intuitive response is to try and match the speed of our environment. This “must go faster” drivenness sits at the heart of this current overseriousness. It results in us working longer hours, taking shorter breaks and multitasking more in an attempt to mimic a feeling of being in control. It results instead in feelings of burnout, disengagement and cynicism. Our mental and physical health suffers and our relationships with others get eroded. So, in short, I think overseriousness is a response to feeling overwhelmed by an environment which is no longer controllable, because we are using the wrong mechanism to lead in it.

MdW: Why does becoming an adult mean becoming serious?
ER: Stated differently, we know the importance of play in animals — rats that play have bigger brains and are better at decision-making, wolves play to understand their current and potential roles in a pack, kittens deprived of play are incapable of socialising. So, if we know about the power of play in the animal kind, why don’t we value it in our adult environments? Work is where we spend the most time and it is the one place where play is frowned upon. Playful employees are seen as timewasters when, in fact, being playful makes one present and profoundly in the moment.

MdW: What is play?
ER: Play is the state of being in the moment, of being in a state of emergence, of being comfortable with allowing things to unfold. You cannot predict the outcome in play; you can only embrace the process you are in. The opposite of play is not work; the opposite of play is depression.

MdW: What does play do to our brain?
ER: When we play, dopamine is released — the main reward neurotransmitter in the brain. Heightened creativity and self-confidence have also been evidenced as a result of play.

An article in The New York Times called Tracing The Spark Of Creative Problem Solving highlights these outcomes: “Dr. Beeman and Dr. Subramaniam had college students solve word-association puzzles after watching a short video of a stand-up routine by Robin Williams. The students solved more of the puzzles overall, and significantly more by sudden insight, compared with when they’d seen a scary or boring video beforehand,” the piece reads.

It continues: “‘What we think is happening,’ said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, ‘is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections’ to solve puzzles.”

MdW: How important is play to leadership?
ER: I think it is critical to leadership — without play, we have systems of ever-burgeoning bureaucracy, disengagement, lowered productivity, mediocre work. Playful leaders also build better connected teams; this is a huge thing as currently we are experiencing a disengagement level of over 85%, according to a 2015 report.

MdW: Do you teach people how to play, or just how to remember to play?
ER: We play and in the moments of play people remember their own stories of play, which energises them and give them hope to do things differently

MdW: What can people do to start learning about play, to start playing again?
ER: Just pick an activity involving a playful element that you like and do it. Don’t think about playing; just start.

MdW: Do you have a prescription for play? Should we play daily, hourly, weekly?
ER: No. Play is a muscle that you build. The more you do it, the more you want to do it.

MdW: How do you play?
ER: I love games. I am a gamer and love large-scale, epic, role-playing games like Skyrim, Dragon Age Inquisition, Shadow of Mordor, Witcher 3. Many people have a study in their home — we have a playroom with all manner of games in it, from board games to video games.

MdW: Who are the leading thinkers in the field of play? What should we be reading or viewing to find out more about play?
ER: The top global thinkers: David Gauntlett (@davidgauntlett), Jane McGonigal (@avantgame), Mitchel Resnick.

There is a great talk at TED by Steve Keil called A Manifesto For Play For Bulgaria And Beyond.

Books to read:


Mandy de WaalMandy de Waal is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow her on Twitter at @mandyldewaal or email her at MandyLdeWaal [@]

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