Unlocking Play, the Secret Ingredient of Teams that Work

March 8, 2019

Many people view play as a leisure activity that takes places outside of the office. However, in our latest webcast, Suzi Hamill, the former Vice President of Design Thinking at Fidelity Investments, shared strategic approaches to designing play into work.

“[In] all work, there is a focus on process. … [But] there’s little focus in these processes about the emotions and how these teams work together,” Hamill said. “Any team that I’ve been part of that has created something new, and really put something out there, really had this mastery of play.”

During the webcast, Hamill defined play as a “voluntary, fun activity, through which you grow and learn, and you feel that the rules are valuable.”

According to Hamill, play often occurs at the beginning of projects when co-workers familiarize themselves with each other. However, she said as projects move forward, the amount of play is often reduced. In successful teams, employees experiment and play as they work through challenges. She said that play allows people to unlock their creativity, exercise improvisation, and find optimism in their tasks.

Watch the full live call below, read some of the highlights, or download a PDF of the slides to learn more about the value of play. 

Over the course of the call, Hamill recommended that teams participate in four types of play: imaginative, body, ritual, and object. She then shared how her team at Fidelity used each type of play to work more cohesively and effectively.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play, according to Hamill, focuses on storytelling, roleplaying, and envisioning ideas — a discipline she called “the creation of myth.”

While at Fidelity, Hamill’s said her team used this concept to understand the idea of wealth. “I needed my team to be very comfortable with wealth,” she said. “Many of our customers … did have a lot of money and a lot of our executives had a lot of money.”

In order to allow her team to step inside of the world of the wealthy, she brought them to an upscale bar in Boston, allowing them to act out the experience. “What I wanted them to do was to enter into this space and kind of explore what it means to be in this environment and be wealthy,” she said.

Body Play

“Body play,” Hamill said, “is really about how you can use your body to explore your environment, explore the world, and make new things out of it.”

According to Hamill, people use physical movement as a way of maintaining audience attention when presenting to a crowd. To help build that skill, she and her team would go out for karaoke. “If this person can [perform] like this here at karaoke, imagine what they could do back at Fidelity,” she said.

Ritual Play

Ritual play focuses on a game that has a large number of rules that the player must have a mastery of to win. At Fidelity, Hamill said her team pushed people to take risks and really test the boundaries of what was possible in the company.

Whenever team members had created a risky, culture-shifting activity, team members would take a picture winking and send it to an online group as a way of keeping morale high. For example, two team members sent a photo of themselves winking after running flash ideation sessions in the Fidelity elevator with any employee who walked in.

“We got this sense of we’re winning at this,” Hamill said. “We’re taking these risks. We’re having fun, and we’re getting into the culture.”

Object Play

Object play enables people to explore by making, like sculpting figures out of Play-Doh or building prototypes with Legos.

As an example, Hamill shared how her team rearranged their office space and dismantled traditional cubicles: “We got into this practice of dismantling our space and really building it out how we wanted our space to be, the way we needed it, the way we believed our environment should be,” she said. “We let people make the space really messy … but we wanted people to feel like their space was something that they could play with.”

She displayed a photo where an employee had turned a hallway into a meeting space, complete with sticky notes on the wall and papers on the floor.

Work Versus Play 

Hamill ended her presentation by comparing work and play. She said: “Everybody says the opposite of work is play, and we know that’s not true. … Work and play are really just two dimensions of creating new things.”

She also emphasized the importance of balance. 

“If you look at teams that work hard and play hard,” she said, “they’re super generative and super optimistic.”

Hamill also shared the slides below. The first shows a quadrant, with “hard work,” “soft work,” “hard play,” and “soft play” defining four different states that teams can be in. The second serves up one of Plato’s quotes on play.