Playfulness: The new killer app

Playing with ideas gave homo-sapiens a step up the evolutionary ladder. Now it gives corporations an edge, too. The question is not whether companies need their staff to be playful, but how they can best encourage it.  

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is rarely associated with fun. But he did say that “if people didn’t sometimes do silly things, then nothing intelligent would ever get done.” The combination of playfulness and brilliance is gaining traction in companies which have found that innovation, instead of rising from the bloody arena of competition, emerges best from collaborative, non-confrontational play.

Work and play have always mixed. With client lunches, office parties, team-building away-days, karaoke sessions and now the X-Box in the corner by the squishy sofa (usually red), a little play goes a long way in making the world of work turn more smoothly. Now it’s being taken more seriously as the path to competitive advantage—and a happier workplace.

Here’s how playfulness works:


  • It encourages innovation. The vogue for on-the-go repairs or a hack has introduced the Hindi word jugaad into academic curricula on innovation—creative problem solving that requires a fresh approach
  • It increases self-confidence as staff feel empowered to act because they trust their colleagues
  • It grows team cohesiveness as staff feel comfortable discussing ideas when there’s less risk of them being shot down. This has a knock-on effect with communication round the workplace being easier
  • It reduces staff churn and increases discretionary effort
  • It’s not just for the creative industries. Doris Bergen at Miami University calls it the best medium for teaching scientists and mathematicians, playing with elements, numbers and ideas.
  • Playfulness frees our minds from the pressure of having to perform and allows originality to surface. We can knock around several ideas without getting hung up on which one is the best. A playful, open mind allows us to “explore the possible” in the words of Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in the US


Work Becomes Child’s Play

Playfulness is a foundation of childhood development. Before children speak or understand language they wire their brains through creative play, and there’s a direct link between how much children play and how well they learn. Adults, too, know that they get more from training if they enjoy themselves.

Play links the two halves of the brain, combining creative and logical, verbal and instinctive thought. It lights up the brain and stimulates neurotrophins, molecules which help neuron development, according to Gwen Gordon in the American Journal of Play. New connections grow when synapses start firing as new ideas are knocked around until, like the arc-reactor in Iron Man’s chest, playfulness becomes self-sustaining as new routes open up more connections that makes innovation easier.

Perhaps because of this, millennials and playful organisations go hand in hand. The Cartoon Network and online fashion firm Zappos have designed their offices to be funky. Zoopla, Amazon and Innocent have the ubiquitous table tennis table. Pixar’s animators design their own wooden huts to work in.

Few companies can give be so generous with space in high-rent Singapore, but there are other ways to boost playfulness at work. Sessions with Lego (without instructions), collaborative board games, role-playing and improvisational theatre games, crayons, paint and paper, and messy play with sand and modelling clay all create space for fresh ideas to flourish.

These activities plant the seeds of playfulness. But there’s no picture on the packet to say what will sprout; that’s the point of playfulness—it allows for something new to emerge. Playfulness is process oriented, not goal-oriented. It indirectly leads to the goal, but it should not be undertaken with a fixed goal in mind.

Make it fun

It takes a while to hardwire playfulness into the corporate DNA. For the first step, playfulness is more like a costume in a dressing up box which people wear when the moment is right. Organisations which want to boost innovation and empower staff encourage employees to play—if they want to. Fun theorist Bernard De Kovan sets a simple rule: don’t force it. “As soon as you have to play,” he says “It’s not play anymore.” But once a group starts playing, it becomes hard for others not to join in, until it becomes self-sustaining.

Senior executives need to lead the way by showing rather than telling staff to be playful, for three reasons: first, it sounds weird to instruct people to be playful; and second, few staff are comfortable being the first one in the room to be playful. Third, and most importantly, multiple studies have shown that playful adults live on average 10 years longer, which C-suites would presumably consider a benefit.

Integrating playfulness into the workplace is not easy. But the next step for most companies is a move up the value chain, which depends on innovation and collaboration which are the lifeblood of both globalised MNCs and growing SMEs. So there’s a time for focus and getting on with things, but there’s also a time for messing about and low-risk playfulness.




Caroline Essame is the founder and Managing Director of CreateCATT and Create-Corporate. Her area of expertise lies in education, human development and creativity. Andrew Duffy is a director of CREATECorporate and an Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University. His area of expertise lies in training and written communication. Both specialise in human development, creativity and communication. For more information visit