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Learning Through Play – Could bad management be the result of too little play?

October 26, 2012

This Christmas children will be pleading for the latest toy and many families will dust off their Monopoly sets and rediscover the simple joy of playing a game together. But should we limit our game playing to childhood and holidays, or can play help us in our work, our thinking and our leadership?  

Could playing more games be key to better management?

Attitudes to play are changing and the once ridiculed video game industry is now recognised as a valuable contributor to the economy and culture.  Lord Puttnam is even chairing the GameCity Prize for game creators. “The GameCity Prize fills a gap in the cultural calendar and provides a much needed call for video games to be taken more seriously”
Lord Puttnam.

In education, play is regarded as a primary vehicle for learning, especially in the very young.  Specialists argue that social skills, communication, cognition and emotional maturity can all be developed through structured play. Even grown up educators at London Business School have researched play and found:

‘Play at work improves employees’ motivational and cognitive processes and diversionary play fosters creativity. Ultimately, it helps organisations generate ideas for their new products and processes, respond to new challenges and create a social context that promotes on-going creativity.”
Professor Babis Mainemelis & Sarah Ronson, London Business School.

In music, playing has always been at the heart of learning to master an instrument.  It would be ridiculous to expect to learn the piano from books and lectures without actually playing the instrument.  Yet that is exactly what we expect people to do in organisations, we train them, set goals and then expect them to be able to perform in a new role without having had the chance to practice.

This is especially true in the area of leadership.  We know that leaders are the greatest factor determining an organisation’s performance but we expect our new leaders to learn from their mistakes while they are in post.  Surely some time invested in role play and team building activities would be a safer route.

In the same way that museums have moved on from displaying artefacts in glass cabinets to building interactive displays, learning organisations must add some play to their theories. Managers need a safe place where they can try new skills in the knowledge that there will be no recriminations but instead supportive review and most importantly the opportunity to have another go and improve.

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