The Power of Play...How to Rid America of the Puritan Curse

Apr 26 2014, 9:16am CDT | by

Several weeks ago I hiked partway up Tuckerman’s Ravine on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington with a group of fit Baby Boomers and some crazy young professionals.

Three of the younger climbed inch by inch to a rock ledge and then – with GoPro cameras on-head – they skied down for perhaps 30 seconds.  Two hours of hiking with skis on their backs and then 30 seconds down an icy slope.

After pausing, they and one 63 year old skied the rest of the way down Mt. Washington.

I work almost every day of  the week and most years travel more than 150,000 miles worldwide.

This day, on the mountain, with white-out snow in my face, was the first time in months I had not thought about work….at all.

This cross-generation group was just playing around.  No one spoke about work.  We were totally in the moment.  The “zone” as we long-distance bikers say.

So, what does all of this have to do with entrepreneurship or innovation?

That night while our group ate dinner in the Pinkham Notch common room, two seasoned school teachers began talking about educational programs in which people adopt complex roles and for several days act out a real-life version of Second Life or Sim City.  This was one of the most fascinating 30 minutes I have enjoyed in years.

Their “bottom line”….reinforced by developmental psychologists…was that Play is absolutely crucial to human learning and social cohesion – and over the past decade or so we have systematically drained Play from the public school system.  We have developed a factory that increasingly demands “serious” testable work….and yet has extremely poor dropout per dollar performance among developed nations.

As my friends spoke, I remembered that when I went to school, we had two recesses every day.  Regular gym class that included dancing with the opposite sex. Art and music every week.  Competitive sports at lunch.  And our best teachers joked around with us and blew things up in chemistry class.

At that moment it hit me.

I have worked with hundreds of companies in more than 40 nations.  I watched first hand – on the ground -  as Japan grew to power, South Africa emerged from apartheid,  and the Soviet Union collapsed.  Today I am watching India, China and other parts of Asia take hold of the entire world, and mobile communications re-forming Africa.

There is a common thread linking all this human innovation.  With very few exceptions the truly sustainable organizations are ones that Play. They have fun.  They make life fun for their customers and suppliers

Microsoft seriously destroyed shareholder value for years.  Job’s Apple brought Play to the Enterprise – they invaded Microsoft turf with a game-like iPhone and iPad.

Yahoo is complex and boring.  Google plays around every day with its goofy gifs above the search box.

Toyota is serious work every day, but strap on your seatbelts for a night with their people.  Honda’s execs made us work until late, so they could ride their motorcycles fast when streets were clear.

In Africa and Brazil I watched the deep educational rituals of local dancing.  Tourists think it is cute.  The locals do it to build culture and teach personal relations.  Serious executives in India get crazy and “break dance” on the floor./>/>

Our Mt. Washington dinner helped me see an endless stream of start-ups who make fun part of the equation.  Successful entrepreneurs make Play a part of the business model.  Silicon Valley works partly because they make life fun.  Same for the emerging tech centers of Bangalore, Berlin, and even China.

But at the national level, America has almost completely outlawed Play.  We are in another of those terrible Puritannical phases that have been circling back for 400 years.

We measure our social activity in billable hours and money.  We have criminalized thousands of actions that were once minor infractions.  Our Red and Blue teams in DC never play.  They don’t “trash talk” before the game, they spit vitriol and blame 24 x 7.  We have made much humor risky by law.  We work for elusive shareholder value, not for the joy of our customers and families.

Our dominant Entrepreneurial Myth is that one must suffer alone for long penniless nights in order to get that reward in the great beyond.  We have changed American business education from an experience to a process with audits of “repeatable outcomes” -  not  sharing the insights from doing stupid things and being able to laugh about them.

This does not require a serious $50 million National Institute of Health controlled study to figure out.  Look at 24 hours of American news.  How much fun and play do you see?

So what do we do?  As with many of the best viral “social innovations” the answer is simple.

Just do it.  Laugh at something.  Tell a joke without fear.  Get out of the office or the classroom and visit a museum (which often means ignoring the “risk management” processes now a core piece of our educational systems).

Don’t plan your play.  Don’t plan a gala company picnic.  Go for a spontaneous “walking meeting”.   When people move and breathe, they get to the point faster, and they may actually get insight by looking at trees instead of the next 500 Powerpoint slides.

We recently held a management meeting on mountain bikes in Moab Utah.  Our rest stops were some of the most productive sessions we have had in months.  People actually remember what others said.  In our minds, we associate our  new plans with an amazing vista of Canyonlands.  Much easier to remember than a stupid spreadsheet.

And – to our leaders….

As I look at the last 8 or 9 presidents, three stand out as the most successful.  Controversial perhaps, but effective in terms of really getting things done.  Kennedy,  Reagan, and Clinton.  They all shared one common trait.  They seemed to have fun in office and they used humor to shape global relations.  Whether you liked them or not, they stimulated some of the most entrepreneurial phases in recent American history.  Kennedy opened our vision after a horrible period of world war.  Clinton de-fused both tough policy choices, and his own self-destructive forces with humor.  Reagan was a master at inserting playful tweaks at the most serious moments while de-regulating airline and telecom monopolies – which helped spawn the internet revolution and new global mobility.

Franklin Roosevelt, another controversial but innovative leader said, “the only thing we need to fear is fear itself”.  If you visit the many 1930’s  “works progress” sites in America and look at their local museums, you will see that they not only built serious dams and roads, they built an infrastructure of play.  Tennis courts, swimming pools, national parks, museums, art galleries.

We have come again to that time.  We need the Un-business Plan.

America, get up and play.

 
 

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