Culture   //   November 3, 2023

‘Try the mashup brainstorm’: How to bring a play mindset to the workplace

Think of one thing at work that feels tedious. Let’s say it’s a certain meeting you don’t look forward to. Now think about something that gives you joy. Maybe it’s going for a long walk. Now mash the two up: try a walking meeting with the team. 

That’s the formula that Michelle Lee, partner and managing director at IDEO Play Lab, suggests workplaces try out if they’re looking to introduce more play in the office. Other examples include listening to music while sorting through emails, doing stretch breaks during calls, or telling your favorite joke before heading into the business agenda.

“Try the mashup brainstorm if you have trouble getting people to start coming up with new ideas,” said Lee at Charter’s Workplace Summit in NYC at the end of October. “But challenge the way things are done, because you don’t always have to do expenses the way we have, or hold meetings the way we have.”

The concept of play-centric work is centered around channelling the spirit that we have as a child, which allows people to look at challenges with a sense of curiosity and wonder that leads to constant problem-solving without even realizing it. 

But to really foster a sense of play, there needs to be psychological safety in the workplace that allows for people to lean into a different way of thinking that we once all had as little kids. Lee argues play isn’t just about engagement, it’s something that is helping people regain their creativity, which helps you get excited. That means changing the mindset of “let’s get straight to work” to “let’s pause and think about how to be more creative here.”

“How do you bring that sense of curiosity back when people have already kind of shunned it from their lives?,” Lee told WorkLife. “It takes small steps to get there. You can’t just dive right in. It’s introducing it little by little.”

“How do you bring that sense of curiosity back when people have already kind of shunned it from their lives?”
Michelle Lee, partner and managing director, IDEO Play Lab.

For example, ice breakers – or creative warmups as Lee likes to call them – can be used to warm up the creative muscle and intentionally apply the right amount of play into that. Even things like meeting rituals, which sports teams do all the time before a game, could help lean into the play mindset while creating a collective feeling. And beyond that, during brainstorms, it lets people dream a little bigger by putting on their kids’ hats for a moment and stay away from criticizing too much. Once you think big, then you can go back in and put the constraints in place to see what can really work. 

“It helps people speak more,” said Lee. “It’s thinking how do we abstract further. And things become memorable. Play is great at creating memories. If it’s memorable, you can retell that story to other people and whatever you’re working on catches fire and spreads impact far beyond what even one team could do.”

The benefits are clear: “play is such a universal behavior,” said Lee. “It resonates and can bring people together, but also levels the playing field.” You can think differently and imagine new realities. People can put aside their titles and play different roles to think of unique solutions. Play also offers a bias towards action. When you play, you’re not sitting around making powerpoints. You’re actually experimenting and trying new things.

Lee’s advice for a company dipping their toe into a more playful mindset at work? Just try it.

“See if people gravitate towards it and what kind of feedback you get,” said Lee. “Use that and inform how you move forward.”

Iris Clermont is an executive coach who has incorporated play into her work, which involves providing leaders with knowledge and tools for inspired and motivated workplaces. She draws on the world of music to inspire teams and improve their team communication, work and conflict resolution. 

“When I work with teams and leaders, I draw on ideas from music to encourage listening skills through synchronization exercises, improve communication, clarity and future direction,” said Clermont. “Or, I ask people to explore team rhythm exercises, a way to work through conflict resolution exploring and appreciating individuals’ different specialisms, develop team trust and best working practice.”

“When I work with teams and leaders, I draw on ideas from music to encourage listening skills through synchronization exercises, improve communication, clarity and future direction.”
Iris Clermont, executive coach.

She admits that some adults do find it challenging to come into an inner mindset of play – a barrier Lee also recognized.

“But even those people I occasionally see smiling throughout workshops, and there is hope for a change of mind,” said Clermont. “For the majority, exploring rhythm and idea creation exercises are very welcome.”

Music is an easy one for people to get on board with, especially because it could be something as simple as a shared team playlist where everyone adds their favorite songs. However, there is a fine line between fostering play and forcing play. 

“Play is important, but in the workplace it needs to mimic how we build relationships and relax outside of work, too,” said Kathleen Burnett, founder of remote team trivia company Anywhere League, which allows organizations to incorporate play at work.

And play can be incorporated in other aspects of businesses too, like office layouts for example. IDEO Lab for example, has large shared worktables, drawers full of materials, concrete floors that make clean ups quicker, and photo and video studios. Employees even used their play mindset to come together to create new couch layouts whereby couches are positioned in circles to create a conversational chill space at the company headquarters, referred to internally as “couch city.” 

Whatever way a company tries to go about creating a more playful work environment, Lee said it’s important to think about what it means for your organization.

“You have to understand what play means for your culture,” she said. “Different groups respond to play in different ways. What is the culture? What does play mean to them? And how do you align that with the goals of the company and what you’re trying to achieve?”