Business is both complicated and structured. Our education, training and professional lives all teach us to think inside the box. Before rampant automation, and when problems sat inside the same box, this was ideal. The business world we are dealing with today needs a new approach.
It is increasingly popular to approach strategic questions using the power of games which encourage people to leave their assumptions behind. I’ve talked before about the role of games more broadly (see Turning decision making into a game).
While games are great, they still keep decision making within a frame. Games are a competitive activity within the confines of a set of rules. Every lunchtime kids launch into all manner of ball games in schoolyards around the world. Most games follow structure, build teamwork and have a win/lose outcome.
Sometimes, though, rather than play a defined game, children feel free to make up their own rules and migrate to free play.
To test this, give a group of kids a ball of any shape or size and tell them to make up a game. Watch what happens as they play and explore different approaches. Free play is really important for children to learn about the world around them. For children the world is far more full of mystery than known boundaries and rules-based learning doesn’t work until they have a better handle on their surroundings.
Many parents would know about the Reggio Emilia approach to preschool teaching. The idea of learning through exploring the world around you. Watch a child and they explore everything with an open mind.
It is interesting that modern sports went through an intense period of development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with free play exploring different sets of rules that might make for great games. Largely (and there are, of course, exceptions) today’s most popular games have had stable rules for many decades.
In our world of disruption, we can argue that in many business settings the world around us is full of more mystery than known parameters. The sport of business that seemed so well defined is now up for grabs. No wonder a structured approach seems to limit us to thinking inside the box.
It is hard to find a consistent definition of play, but it does seem to be an activity conducted for pleasure, with the journey being the goal rather than any end and it is self-directed with minimal rules. It seems that play is far more important to our wellbeing than we ever realised, as described by psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown in his TED talk.
When we’re looking for new employees, it makes sense to interview for the skills of the job they will tasked with. The trouble is that the return on the investment is unlikely to come with the first task that they complete but rather the job they will do over a number of years. Increasingly, that job hasn’t even been invented yet!
My personal view is that the characteristic that really matters in future employees is a curiosity about the world around them and a willingness to play for its own sake. In my own field of management consulting, I regard this as the renaissance consultant.
Elon Musk gets a lot of press around his intensity, but he does embody the idea of the renaissance with his wide range of interests (rockets, electric vehicles, batteries et cetera). Like Leonardo da Vinci, the best of our next generation will be interested in everything from science to music and much that goes in between.
There is a lot of discussion at the moment on the role of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in education and our future workforce. Some are arguing that many STEM graduates are struggling to find work, while the reality remains that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs that can’t be filled that require these skills.
The problem isn’t with STEM, rather it is that not all STEM pathways are equal. It isn’t any one skill that is needed, but rather it is a flexibility and willingness to learn. Even more important, it is the combination of STEM foundational skills with a natural curiosity and willingness to explore.
In a world that is changing fast, none of us can assume any existing approach to our work will serve us well even into the near future. We need to be willing to play in order to find the new rules that are going to define the business answers for the coming years.
The great news is that there is a child in all of us!