How to boost expertise through playfulness?

Blogs February 14, 2017

Our Growth Booster Tanja Piha explains the power of playfulness in her TEDx Talk

In my August 2016 TED Talk at TEDx Otaniemi , I talked about ways in which playfulness can help boost expertise. In my work at Fondia, I encourage our lawyers to find a business perspective to improving client work and also to try out sales work. At Fondia, playfulness enables and fuels our culture of experimentation. Fear and shame hold people back in too many workplaces. Most of us can probably remember the game ‘musical chairs’ from our childhood, where children run around chairs while music is played and when the music stops, one child is always left without a chair. Shame and fear were strongly present in the child’s mind: “I can't be the only loser who is left without a chair.” According to my experience and to Harvard professor Amy Edmundson, such games are played at work too often. Edmundson has studied the impact of fear on work, and found that people don’t express their opinions and are more reluctant to take risks when their workplace has an atmosphere of fear. So what are people afraid of at work? Sources of fear include dismissal, being mocked by colleagues, and not getting approval for your ideas from the team. Fear can be seen in the workplace as mediocre performance, “let's do this the same way as in the past”, or as the most sensitive team members not expressing their opinions. The goal of playfulness is to remove this fear and shame from the workplace, so that creativity can flourish. Creativity and courage are important elements if a company wants to create a culture in which fearless people dare to take more risks, create something new and are more confident. Courage is daring to do new things in spite of fear.

Playfulness removes fear at Fondia, we constantly ask ourselves how do we encourage a culture of experimentation, courage and creativity by changing the traditional world of expertise. What is playfulness? Playfulness in the workplace is openness, joy, team sport, colours, emotions, human interaction and experimenting with creating something new on a voluntary basis and without fear of failure. What does creating a culture of experimentation require? How do you fuel a positive customer experience through playfulness? For us, it’s important that people can work here with a smile and without fear of failure. We are open to wild ideas. And it’s okay to mess up. We don’t experiment when managing our clients’ legal matters, but we’re very playful when it comes to our business models, concepts and new ways of working. Adding playfulness to working life may look easy and superficial on the outside, but it’s not by any means. We’ve found that through playfulness even conservative lawyers have further developed the skills required in their role and are doing their job with a smile. The premises of traditional expert organisations are quite clinical and colourless. Sales people have sold things and experts have implemented things; the work is very inefficient and compartmentalised. You’re welcome to come visit our premises and see how colours can be used to create atmosphere. We set out to dismantle the traditional configuration of an expert organisation. By developing their skills and being exposed to new things, lawyers have realised that sales work is actually just assisting a customer: service and an activity that makes more sense than simply waiting for an assignment, as was done in the reactive old world. Experts have realised that sales work is not trying to impose or force something to the customer against their will. This myth is being dismantled through playfulness. As a result, customers get a better service and lawyers develop professionally, receive more interesting work and get to do this with a smile. In this model, two people help each other, and both benefit and learn. Well, what have we learned from being playful? Making work culture more playful may seem easy and superficial, but it’s extremely difficult, as it must be an integral part of the company’s values, and freedom from fear must be part of the company's DNA. Only when this is the case, can playfulness be used to remind people of this. Innovative, successful companies such as Google, Supercell, and Ben & Jerry’s are at the forefront of a global movement towards a more playful work culture. Some concrete examples include:

  • Making the work environment more playful: colours, mood, perhaps being able to have your own memorabilia in the workplace. For example, Supercell has London bankers and woolly socks, and Fondia has The Playroom, Café and The Japanese Garden. These convey the role of playfulness in everyday activities in an effective way. Yellow walls and The Playroom are not just fun design ideas. Their task is to effectively remind people about the culture of openness and joy in everyday life, and they also communicate these values to customers.

  • Models based on voluntariness. In the old world, people were forced into roles and moulds in the workplace. In the new world, work and development that stems from personal interest brings better results.

  • Developing expertise through interactions between experts, where the role of managers is to thank, coach, encourage, and help as required.

Making working life more playful doesn’t simply mean painting the walls in happy colours, but a smarter and more professional way to lead smart, committed, and motivated people. When thinking is freed from the normative compartmentalisation, this change in thinking is not only going to be limited to the development of working methods, but will also be reflected in improved productivity and new innovations. Fear holds the workplace back and leads to mediocre, routine performance. These shackles can be broken through playfulness. Playfulness is a change in attitude.