Play and a developing sense of self

I continue my reflections on the stimulus provided by Herminia Ibarra form her latest HBR blog: The Most Productive Way to Develop as a Leader
In that blog piece, Herminia urges leaders to get or give themselves permission to play with their sense of self. This idea of play is a major challenge to current ways of working as those deemed to be successful in modern organisations may well have foreclosed on options and stifled the discontinuous growth that only comes when we suprise ourselves. Such successful people may be good at consistently relating their actions to a purpose, of being described as having ‘clearsightedness’. Any idea of ‘playing’ with options is perceived to be weak.
So, knowing as we do how organisations value rationality, and recognising the scale of challenge any change will face, how do we get or give ourselves permission to play? Herminia references James G. March’s ‘Technology of foolishness’ piece, an article that I wasn’t aware of so I have turned to it for explanations and a way forward. This ‘voyage of discovery’ into March’s work is an example of the behaviour that Richard Martin describes in his blog piece ‘Make curious with me’; ‘The curious individual constantly moves to the boundaries of their knowledge…we seek to bridge our knowledge gaps through curiousity, combinatory play and serendipity’

In ‘Technology of foolishness’ March describes playfulness as:

1. as above all, being a temporary suspension of the rules
2. allowing experimentation, but acknowledges reason
3. being obliged to accept that at some point the playing will stop or it will be integrated into ‘normal’ activity

March is clear that playfulness is not:
1. a release of emotional tensions of virtue; a ‘mardi gras’
2. an element of spirtual balance
3. supportive of self indulgence; play is an instrument of intelligence, not a substitute

Play allows a leader to explore alternative ideas of possible purposes and alternative concepts of behavioural consistency; to be playful with their conception of themselves.

March provides us with 5 procedures for playfulness:
1. treat goals as hypotheses-experiment with alternatives to discover new and interesting combinations
2. treat intuition as real-this permits us to see some possible actions that are outside our present scheme for justifying behaviour
3. treat hypocrisy as a transition-to give ‘permission’ to play and contradict our ‘normal’ selves
4. treat memory as an enemy-‘if we keep on doing what we have always done, we’ll get what we have always got’
5. treat experience as a theory-to allow for the retrospective learning of new self-conceptions

March concludes by asking for the design of organisations to attend to the problems of maintaining both playfulness and reason as aspects of intelligent choice. Organisations (and I would suggest leaders themselves) should encourage play by insisting on some temporary relief from control, coordination and communication.

By Matthew Payne

Working to make the most of the resources available to others to enable them to be more successful. Using facilitative leadership and process management to get things done, and really make a difference! Engaging with individuals and teams in both the public and private sectors.

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