Professional Playfulness. (Episode 62)

Professional Playfulness. (Episode 62)

Interview with Lisa Dennis, People Director at King.

Playfulness is not the opposite of being professional. It’s a requirement for it. That was the lesson I was reminded of today when I met with Lisa Dennis, People Director at King.

KING is the hugely successful game developer most famous for the insanely popular game Candy Crush Saga. KING has more than a quarter of a billion (!) monthly active users on the more than 200 games they have created, they have game studios in London, Stockholm, Barcelona, Malmo, and Berlin, along with offices in Malta, New York and San Francisco. And their vision is that they are “Making the world playful.”

I met with Lisa at their office in Stockholm and we talked about the value of embracing playfulness at work and how it connects to creativity.

The office of KING is, as you might expect, designed to be playful with colourful statues of the main characters from their games in the reception, a stage for ad-hoc performances, lots of games, and meeting rooms with names like “Mt Chockolympus” and “Honey dragon”.

But playfulness is much more than fun work environments, it’s an approach to business and a mindset, explains Lisa. It’s about creating a mental work environment where people dare to try things out, feel empowered to experiment, know they can change things around, and understand that it’s ok that things do not always work out as planned.

Yes, playfulness and creativity are very closely connected.

Lisa: “Playfulness allows for the subconscious to mull over things while the active brain is having fun. And then there is the other benefit of playfulness: when we are given permission to laugh and have fun we are given the opportunity to create a healthy distance to what we are working on. And that let’s us look at things with a new perspective.”

When I asked Lisa to give me an example of you could give permission to playfulness she broke out in a large laughter – Lisa laughs a lot – and told me “Here at King we do not have a dress code. People walk in here in pink pony-tails or super-colourful clothes, or whatever and they still get taken seriously. It’s so liberating. It lets people express who they really are.

When Transcendent Group, one of Lisa’s former workplace where sha worked as a CHRO, was listed on Nasdaq. Lisa looked at videos of other companies being listed and saw company after company send up a few top-leaders in dull suits to ring the bell. What should be a joyous moment looked duller than dull. So Transcendent Group sent in as many of the staff as they were allowed and asked everyone to dress as colourful as they wanted. “We color bombed them”, laughed Lisa and then added” Nasdaq said it was the coolest bell ringing they had done.”

“But is playfulness professional?”, I asked in an effort to question the power of playfulness.

Lisa stopped laughing and looked me in the eyes as she said, “Yes, pure playfulness can (!) be unprofessional, silly and shallow, and playfulness in a serious context without professionalism is reckless. But – and this is important – professionalism does not equal boring.”

Lisa then explained that you, of course, need to make sure that your employees are competent in their job and secure in their roles – but once they are they should be allowed to play.

Think of astronauts playing pranks in each other on the International Space Station or professional football players throwing the Gatorade bucket on their coach after winning.

Messi is great at playing soccer, because he plays the game with a healthy dose of playfulness. That does not make him less professional. It makes him more professional.

But because word “playfulness” tends to get a lot of people to THINK it means something unprofessional, perhaps we should introduce the concept of “Professional Playfulness” – to separate it from the playfulness of children and dogs.

I asked Lisa to give me three things that companies could do to encourage Professional Playfulness in their organisation.

She gave me this:

1) Have a playful mindset as a leader.

Just like other desired values we want to see in our organisation, we will only get them if the leader has them. If you want an organisation that is more playful you need to be more playful as a leader.

It might sound obvious, but here is the question you might find difficult to answer: “How playful are you yourself in your leadership?”

I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you reading this scored yourself rather low. So what could you do to score higher in the future?

2) Create playful moments.

Remember “Dead Poets Society” and how Robin Williams as the new teacher unlocked the students potential by creating a more playful learning environment? One of the key scenes in the movie is when he gets them to do challenge their conformity and challenges them to walk in a more playful way.

From the movie: “Now, I want you to find your own walk right now. Your own way of striding, pacing. Any direction. Anything you want. Whether it’s proud, whether it’s silly, anything. Gentlemen, the courtyard is yours.”

How can you create your own playful moments in your organisation?

3) Make sure people feel safe and secure in their competency.

If playfulness without professionalism is recklessness, it follows that we need to make sure that people are secure in their work. (No, I would not like to fly with an inadequately trained pilot who decides to be a bit playful…)

But as Lisa said, “When you are secure in your professionalism you can give yourself the freedom of being playful. And when you add playfulness to a group you widen the dynamics of that group. It’s not about taking away depth or seriousness – you still want that too – it’s about widening the spectrum of human thoughts and emotions.”

And here is, perhaps, the most important lesson: When we create an environment of playfulness we also CREATE a feeling of safety and security!

Think about it: A human being who plays is a human being that is safe and secure. And as a bonus you also get a human being who is more creative, is having more fun and who gets a broader perspective.

Talking to Lisa I am reminded of the classic Albert Einstein quote that “Creativity is intelligence having fun”. Perhaps we can add a version of it: “Playfulness is professionalism having fun.”

Professional Playfulness has made KING into one of the most successful companies in their industry. What could it do for you?

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