Play Everyday: The (not so) secret code to productivityFeatured

Who says work can’t be a playground? Incorporating play into the workday can lead to greater productivity, profitability, and even job satisfaction.

Here’s my story from Elementary school teacher to VP of All Things Fun, Meaningful & Rewarding to Human API to Chief Play Officer – and how I infused play into my working day along the way.

First, let’s get on the same page of what I mean by play. Oftentimes when corporate executives hear ‘play’, they might think wasteful irrelevant mucking around that’s not appropriate in the office that will take away from the work at hand. This mindset might have been appropriate in the industrial age where factory workers were doing repetitive manual jobs on the assembly line and focus on the task was paramount. Taking time out to play in this scenario might just impact delivery deadlines and quality assurance of the product. <think: the classic I Love Lucy episode in the chocolate factory>. Thankfully, we no longer live in the industrial age with a factory assembly-line mentality or mindless work processes (hello AI?). Play is good, not evil.

The kind of play that I am sharing is not just “play for playing” sake, but a play that engages and strengthens our creativity, communication, confidence, and connection with intention. These values come from some of my training in improv. Now before you ask where you can see me perform, I encourage you to hear me out (read on) that improv is not just about stage performances with a laughing audience, standing ovations, being funny or Oscar awards.

My flavour of improv is what I like to call “the other AI” or Applied Improv. Applied improv refers to the use of improvisational theater techniques and principles in non-theatrical settings, such as in business, education, community building, and even therapy. The goal of applied improv is to help people think on their feet, be prepared for the unexpected, communicate effectively, and collaborate in a supportive and creative environment.

Have you ever watched unscripted performers - think Whose Line is It Anyway, talk show hosts who interview celebrities or ‘people on the street’ - and notice how they make the scene or conversation flow? These professionals, while they have a camera on them, are skilled in the practice of making the people next to them look good and helping them out in moving the conversation or scene forward together. (Yes, there are those contentious disagreements on air, oftentimes to make for higher ratings, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here. Alas, I digress). These TV or stage improvisers, while unscripted, have been trained and skilled in the principles of improv which allows for three things:

  1. Confidence in being prepared for the unexpected (and when things go wrong)
  2. Moving storylines and conversations forward to keep things in flow
  3. Making others on stage look good which in turn, makes them look good

These skills, like most skills, are learned through practice - let’s call it play. If you’ve ever taken an improv class (and I highly recommend doing so), the principles you learn and practice are:

  1. Say "yes, and" to build on the ideas of others
  2. Make your scene partner look good
  3. Stay in the moment and respond to what is happening in scene
  4. Be willing to take risks and make mistakes (mistakes can be gifts)
  5. Be open to new and unexpected ideas
  6. Listen actively and be aware of your surroundings
  7. Be present and committed to the scene
  8. Show, don't tell
  9. Have fun and be playful

All these principles are practiced, tested, and strengthened through improv games and collaborative debriefs.

Now imagine if these were principles practised and played in your workplace. Replace the word ‘scene’ in the list with “meeting” or “office” or “workplace” and think about how you show up in your job.

While there is so much more I can talk about when it comes to what “the other AI” is and how to play with it (maybe another Elpha post?), I want to share how I’ve leveraged these principles (whether knowing they were improv principles or not) throughout my career from classroom teacher to Chief Play Officer (and some other fun titles in between).

During my time as an elementary classroom teacher in inner-city Atlanta - a challenging one to be honest - I was exposed to the early days of EdTech platforms and the internet. Think Apple IIe’s, PowerMacs 5400, no WIFI, Dogpile (a precursor to Google), and barely one computer per classroom.

I saw the power of computer programs where it was more than just “go play on the computer when you finish your work to stay occupied and out of my hair”. In hindsight, that ‘playtime’ shouldn’t have been just for the kids who finished their work first as it tends to be the same kids getting ‘to play’ - which inevitably results in the start of the inequity spiral. So, I chose to reframe that ‘play’ into opportunities to teach and leverage the computer as a ‘very expensive pencil’. A tool, rather than a toy. In other words, stay in the moment, and respond to what is happening in the scene (classroom).

Following my curiosity using technology in the classroom as a fun learning tool, I landed a role as a technology specialist running the computer labs in a middle school with no formal tech experience (read: computer fixing and networking). Without knowing it, I subscribed to the improv principle “be willing to take risks and make mistakes”. I did that daily. (Don’t tell the teachers it was often me who would accidentally break the network - they always were just thankful that I was the one who fixed it so they could get their cc: Mail).

As serendipity and the universe would have it, I met an influential visionary in 1998 who was building a startup that would be one of the leaders in cloud computing before cloud computing was a thing. He also was keen to make a difference in the world and ‘bridge the digital divide’ by starting a foundation when he launched the company.

Long story short, after a brief exchange of what each of us was up to, I “listened actively and was aware of my surroundings” and suggested if he were going to start a company that worked with kids and technology, then he should hire teachers and not just ‘give away money’.

Little did I know, that suggestion to Marc Benioff turned into a job offer as a founding member of the Salesforce Foundation in 2000.

So I moved myself, 12 years of my life, and my cat from Atlanta to San Francisco to join a company of 115 employees primed to figure out what it meant to start a corporate foundation focused on education and technology. Since there were no frameworks or examples of previous startups (or companies of 115 employees) doing this, we got to make it up as we went along. Like playtime.

As a founding member of the Foundation, I was able to design my role (and titles) that helped make the Salesforce Foundation a fun and meaningful reason for people to join the company. After all, the concept of a Foundation at a startup was begging employees (and the market) to be open to new and unexpected ideas.

I decided to be playful with my titles as we created the model. My first title as Curriculum Imagineer, Technology Inspirer, and Volunteer Energizer explained my role in engaging employees and designing after-school computer lab programs. The title I had when I left the organization 12 years later was VP of All Things Fun, Meaningful & Rewarding. Having a playful title makes for a much more enjoyable “so what do you do” conversation. I do hope someone (many) steals this title for the work they do!

In my recent corporate role as Head of muru-D, a corporate startup accelerator, I had the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs and founders. As part of the interview process to get into the program, our muru-D team added a playful element. In addition to small group interviews, we had a room with LEGO and we challenged the founders to play. We instructed them first to create a duck using 7 pieces in 4 minutes. As interviewers, it gave us a chance to see how founders were thinking, how they did under pressure, and how they creatively responded to the task. Secondly, we asked the co-founders (or team) to work together to design a playground or scene representative of what the world will look like in 5-10 years when their company is successful. There were no wrong answers, but we had the chance to observe how founders worked together, problem solved, and had an aligned vision. We also were on the lookout for how (and if) they made each other look good (or not).

Another playful thing I did in this program was change all the conference room names to names of games: Monopoly, LEGO, Risk, Twister, and our big room was called The Play Room. The furniture was bright colours and we sat on green, orange, yellow, blue, and purple cubes when we had events. Given this kind of environment and permission to play, the founders sent me photos when they were there late at night working (and playing) stacking the cubes like blocks into a “throne of games”. This fun feedback was evidence of a fun, playful, and creative environment - one needed in the stress of growing a company.

Unfortunately, my role was made redundant in late 2020 which allowed me to explore my own path and consult with startups and founders through a playful mindset. Given I’m on my own, I get to choose my title - Chief Play Officer. I continue to design creative yet relevant titles with the companies I’m working with (ie Corporate Play Enabler) as well as bring in games (like Zen poetry, portkey, or Story Spine) that will help us be more creative, solve business challenges and feel less isolated working remotely.

Today, in addition to working with startups and founders, I’m designing workshops that hold space and time to practice playing and applying it in all aspects of life.

What are you doing that brings more play (or defines some principles of improv - ‘the other AI’) in your workplace or everyday life?

Recommended books about Play at Work or Applied Improv: