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“Culture arises and unfolds in and as play.”
Johan Huizinga, 1872-1945

I use a lot of play techniques in my everyday work. It’s the fault of John V. Willshire of Smithery. His Artefact Cards moved me away from flipcharts and keyboards, from browsers to brain. And for that I thank him.

Why do I like to use play? I find it breaks people out of the working mindset and relaxes them. It uncovers things that more structured work environments bury. Well, not everyone likes play. Some people – generally those at higher managerial levels – are often distrustful of playing games. If you’re having fun you can’t be working very hard on solving problems – some of which are extremely complex.

I always take time to talk through the process when someone objects. I make it a part of my introduction when writing up what we’ve learned from any workshop or Q&A. I write about why I do it and why I think it’s important. Yet, I didn’t have any scientific reason to back it up. That is, until I went to The Drum Live and attended the best session of the day. It was a session where Dr. Beau Lotto introduced me to why neuroscientists accept play as a good thing.

Let me explain.

A lot of what I previously described is taking people into a place they find uncomfortable. If the group I’m working with stick with what they know, we’ll only ever talk about things we already understand, and no type of innovation or creative breakthrough will be possible.

Dr Lotto explained that play is used to make sense of uncertainty. That we can safely try things out until we make understand what they are, or what consequence they might have. I had my aha! moment when I heard that.

Much of the time, working with people who are trying to transform some part of their business, or their communications, they know they have to break out from the way they are doing things now. The status quo is not going to be their friend. Yet, moving into a new space leaves them fraught; so they question the whys and hows. This is where playfulness helps.

Using workshop techniques to make the work feel like anything but helps participants to deal with the uncertainty and to feel as if they can say things that might not sound as silly as they might when contrasted against the current methods employed; they can question what they know and discuss how things can shift into a different space. Play provides a framework that doesn’t feel too taxing, that can be put down and backed away from (although I try to ensure that people push through with the idea). Essentially, no harm can come from playing with things. Yet, you can bet your last financial asset that results often surprise, delight, and enable real transformation.

This is play that’s not about winning or losing, it’s about discovery. Enough rules to give things structure, yet loose enough to allow for individual flourishes. Not unlike sport, or LEGO, or drawing.

In fact, Beau Lotto had a slide that sums up perfectly why using play is not only more fun than brainstorms, it unlocks potential and provides the bedrock of actual change, and can launch you and your teams on a wave of discovery.


The results can be quite powerful – not just at an organisational level, but also on individuals. Removing the shackles of how they act in a work environment, it leads to discussion, collaboration, perhaps even a friendly argument.

The key to making the most of this is through facilitation. To be the umpire, as it were (a role I find myself in often, and one that is incredibly enjoyable to do).

Of course, knowing that the work I do is centred in uncertainty, it’s no wonder that using playful ideas get results. Positive ones. It’s really worth trying. You can get a lot done in an hour, even more in a day. As long as you plan out how to play the games so that they will help you achieve something, all will work out fine.

As a final example, have a read of the Smithery post on using LEGO to do empathy mapping. Smart, playful and gets far better results.

Now, go play.