Tag Archives: Work culture

Why Play is Essential in the Workplace

pexels-photo-61129Play is magical.  And profound.  Not only is it essential to our growth and development when we are children and a source of joy throughout our lives, but it is also a largely untapped channel for innovative ideas in the workplace.

Play is essential to the survival of organizations in a complex and fast-changing marketplace, as it is a key factor in creativity and agility.  I have used play to help people become more creative, deal with challenging emotions like self-consciousness or even fear, and regain energy, enthusiasm, and hope when their company was going through difficult times.  Play opens the doors to our deeper creative potential, helping us achieve change and implement innovative solutions.

To understand how play works, it’s important to understand what it is.  It’s also important to understand what it isn’t.  Play isn’t some reprehensible at-risk behavior that threatens to make slackers of us all.  Western culture, unfortunately, often sees it that way.  Play is perceived to be, at best, a child’s pastime, or an indulgence for the very wealthy or in the worst case, the hallmark of a slacker.  Certainly play does not come across as something that serious people in serious businesses should be doing on a daily basis.  In fact, play isn’t even necessarily perceived to be beneficial for our children.  It is often thought to be more of an at-risk behavior that prevents children from doing more important things.

Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute for Play, who has extensively researched the functions and purposes of play, believes that one way to overcome negative attitudes toward play is to offer skeptics a view of play that is closer to their comfort zone: the science of play.  He says, “Our experiences indicate the executives require sufficient immersion in the science of play before they understand and value it.  The intellectual and scientific basis of play can provide the understanding—and permission—to deploy new play-based practices in their organizations. But, they must also value the new practices: without a positive play ethic, the climate for innovation is spoken of as important, but is not acted upon.”

So what is play?  Is it the same as fun?  Sort of. The key ingredient in play is engagement: engagement within your own mind, with another person, or with an object. Play is always a dynamic experience.  Play is really about immersing oneself in a pleasurable activity for the sake of it, with no other particular intent or specific goal.  It can be about immersing oneself in reading a book, drawing, sculpting, or fixing a collector’s item such as an antique piece of furniture for the love of restoring a beautiful object.  Play can be experienced alone or in a group.  In business, observing people play, I have seen the energy in the room immediately become lighter and stronger.  Play creates new ways of interactions, allows a different type of bonding, encourages trust among team members, lowers inhibition, and facilitates the production of original ideas because people dare to speak up and express themselves more.

According to theorist and professor Johan Huizinga, play is “free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life.” He also described it as being “‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”

The National Institute for Play defines play as “a state of being that is intensely pleasurable. It energizes and enlivens us.  It eases our burdens, renews a natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” They go on to note, “Scientists—neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, scientists from every point on the scientific compass—have recently begun viewing play as a profound biological process.” In other words, play is a core aspect of human nature.  As such, it needs to be an essential part of work in order to leverage all that people have to offer.  When play becomes a key component of a healthy corporate culture, it fosters positive thinking and creative imagination.

If we choose to leave our childish things behind, we not only deny our essential humanity but also cut ourselves off from a tremendous reservoir of creativity with the potential to make us happier and make us more effective contributors at work.

How to manage for creativity

creativityIt is a truism that the one thing that doesn’t change in life is change; we are constantly dealing with the unknown.  A decade immersed in the performing arts and cultural studies gave me a new perspective on how the modern world deals with change.  When directing or acting, I had to accept that great art is not about control.  It is about having discipline in the preparation and surrendering during the performance.  Management, at least the way I had experienced it, is about controlling the environment to ensure flawless execution and reach the expected results. Management is a powerful means to reach one’s ends, but my artistic journey made me realize that in the modern world, our fear of change and our inability to deal creatively with the unpredictability of change leads us to seek control over the process of life.  This means that although management should be about stabilizing our environment to facilitate the natural creative process belying any human activity, we attempt to control the process to secure the results we want; we do everything we can to eliminate the unknown, but in doing so we work against the creative nature of life.

In recent years, neuroscience research has revealed three key facts that may change forever the way we think about and approach creativity:

–       Instinct plays a leading role in complex decision making.

–       Eighty percent of our grey matter is dedicated to nonconscious thought.

–       Imaginative play is one of the most direct means of activating our creativity and problem-solving abilities.

These three discoveries open up unprecedented opportunities for progress, creativity, and efficiency if we only embrace the instinctual and unconscious aspects of the mind and the randomness and chaos of life.

The uncomfortable part of this is that we are not used to relying on instinct and the unconscious, and we are certainly not used to accepting randomness or chaos.  We are used to seeing life and reality as linear and logical when they aren’t.  Success in modern times mean making a leap from seeing the world as we think it operates to seeing how it really operates.  In reality both life and the whole of the human mind operate in a way that is closer to chaos than to linear order.

In my seminars at L’Oréal, SAP, and other companies, I often recount Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” a story that beautifully illustrates this aspect of chaos theory.  It describes how three brothers go out on their fishing boat only to be caught in “the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens.”  The storm drives their boat into a powerful whirlpool, the maelstrom of the title.  One brother is thrown overboard into the whirlpool and quickly carried under.  Another brother goes mad with terror. But the third brother is suddenly struck by the awesome beauty of the maelstrom.  With an inner calm he notices that some objects are being spun around at the top of the whirlpool rather than sucked into it.  Unable to convey this to his mad brother, he submits himself to the sea, clinging onto a barrel, and rides the maelstrom until it subsides and he is rescued.  In the meantime the mad brother, because he fights the chaos rather than submitting to it, drowns when their boat spirals down to the depths. Although the experience turns the surviving brother’s hair white and makes him look older than his age, it gives him a deep insight into the working of nature, and an enduring serenity.

I always remind participants that Poe’s story shows that the way each one of us chooses to handle confusion and chaos may have a huge impact on the final outcome for everybody.  Each brother acted his own way and by doing so chose his own final outcome.  In Poe’s story, when the third brother decides, in spite of his fear, to give up the fight with the maelstrom, he actually facilitates the organizing principle that creates all the marvels that have evolved in nature. In our minds, it brings reason, feeling, and instinct into balance, if only we have the wisdom to trust it and stop trying to override it.

How to Evaluate Any Corporate Culture

corporate cultureFor those of you who missed our post last week, we used the Intuitive Compass® to create a Corporate Culture Questionnaire that is suitable for both CEOs trying to get a clearer understanding of how their company culture supports performance and for people in the process of looking for a new job who want to evaluate how well they would fit within the corporate culture of a particular company.  (For those of you that need a primer on the Intuitive Compass, please click here.)

As promised, below is the decoding section for the quiz.  You should have a score between 1 and 5 for each of the four quadrants of the Intuitive Compass: northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest.


The northeast quadrant highlights the administrative function.  It shows how business is managed and organized.  This is obviously an important aspect of business:  how can an organization function well when processes are not well managed or are simply absent?  Typically, a financial institution or accounting firm would score high in the northeast quadrant, whereas a startup may not be focusing on how to manage a business that is still being shaped.  Therefore the important facts here are the nature and maturity of the business.  Businesses with analytical functions at their core tend to score high in the northeast quadrant simply because organizational skills are in their DNA.  Mature business tend to score high in the northeast quadrant because over time it becomes highly likely that systems and procedures have been put in place to ensure smooth operations that support continuation of the status quo.  If a business is still young (less than 2 years old) it is naturally more adaptable; its culture is affected by the nature of the activity but can be influenced more easily because day-to-day activities are less ingrained with habits built over time.  It is also important to evaluate the northeast in relationship to other quadrants; a low score in the northeast can sometimes be of lesser importance in a very high-performing culture (indicated by a high score in the southeast) or temporarily out of balance because the company is going through a major phase of reinvention of its business model, which brings more focus on the southwest and northwest.


In the southeast quadrant, we have insights into the focus on performance and the measure of performance.  A high score would be typical at a sales organization like a network marketing company.  A low score would typically be found in a company focused on administration.  This quadrant gives you insight into the level of emphasis that is given to results.  If you are talented at working with metric objectives, regardless of your function in the company (marketing or sales), you will probably be inclined to seek a company with a high score in the southeast, like a sales oriented company.  Conversely, if metrics are not your strength of interest, a company with a predominantly southeast culture is unlikely to make you happy or leverage your most valuable talents.  In this case you may look for a company that is more about creation (southwest) and/ or administration (northeast).  Again, the relationship with the other quadrants is key, especially the northwest and southwest quadrants.  I know of highly profitable large consulting firms that have no sales objectives and no ongoing measure of their commercial performance: however, because they are very strong in the northwest (strategic planning), they deliver great ideas, and phone calls from new clients continue to come in.


In the northwest quadrant we gather information on creative thinking and strategic planning.  A higher score is always better, because as we saw earlier, research shows that openness to new ideas is a factor of longevity. However, a business may be extremely successful a few years in a row simply due to a series of great deals (southeast) and bold moves (southwest), without much strategic thinking involved.  I’ve observed that a number of large companies tend to focus more on feeding the pipeline or following the “business as usual” routine strategy to meet sales objectives (southeast).  Often companies focus on market opportunities to boost sales, with little thought about sustainable value creation, which leads them to not adapt their business model to today’s new market constraints and their marketing strategies to a new type of consumer; a dangerous path in the long run.  So it is important to look closely at a northwest score and compare it with the score in the southeast.


The southwest quadrant shows how much a company is dedicated to R&D and creation.  This quadrant is crucial in the new economy.  A high score in the southwest quadrant indicates a buoyant culture that can generate new ideas and creative initiatives and can support an entrepreneurial spirit.  What can be problematic, though is a high score in southwest and low scores in the other three quadrants, as it would indicate a company where leadership and management are not well rounded and business functions are not well integrated.  CEOs evaluating their own company should strive for a balance whereby creativity is supported from the perspective of both allowing and funding such activities as well as supporting the marketability of the innovations that are generated by developing strengths in the other three quadrants.  Individuals evaluating the possibility of joining a particular company should also look for evidence of this balance.

From these results a number of conclusions can be drawn.

If you’re looking for a job, it is important to review the relationship between the culture of the company you are considering joining and your own Intuitive Compass® to determine whether it is a compatible match.  For instance, if you are more of a southwest type of professional, you should really consider whether you’re being offered a position in a company that displays a northeast culture, and vice versa.  These results are also insightful if you’re simply evaluating whether or not you should stay in the company you work for.  I have a client, a C-level executive who realized that he would enjoy the southwest culture of a start-up much more than he did the very northeast/southeast culture of the multinational he had been working for since the beginning of his career.  He finally decided to leave his job to create his own start-up: a consulting firm with a built-in incubator to launch new digital companies in the new media industry.

If you’re the CEO of a company and would like to improve the culture of your organization, analyzing the Intuitive Compass in relation to the culture of your company will lead you to identify areas for improvement in every quadrant where a score is low.  You need to put the profile of your Intuitive Compass in perspective with your objectives and also your context at the time of the review:  industry, market situation, mission of the company, corporate strategy.  Each quadrant with a low score or any imbalance between the four quadrants represents an opportunity for growth.  In addition, the Intuitive Compass can help you clarify and articulate to your teams the reason behind the new goals you may set for them.

How to Create a Work Culture that Maximizes Creativity and Agility

Excerpted from Francis Cholle’s The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-BassScreen Shot 2015-07-19 at 11.59.51 PM

To get the most out of employees in terms of creativity and agility, you need to create a work culture that enables them to explore new ideas freely and fail without fear of reprisal.  A work culture that is open to new ideas is key to success over the long term.  A work culture that honors autonomy generates unexpected–and often lucrative–new products.  A fluid, vibrant work culture resonates with and balances the complexity and unpredictability of today’s business landscape.  The following are some questions that can reveal the state of your work culture as it stands currently.

  • Is your work culture about anticipating your employees’ deeper need for meaning?
  • Is your work culture hierarchical only?  If not, do you have systems in place for informal gatherings, informal exchanges of information, informal participation?
  • Do you really care about people being happy, or do you just give it lip service?
  • Do you make it explicitly safe for people to try new things and to fail?
  • Do you encourage diversity in age, ethnicity, professional background, gender, and sociocultural styles?  If so, how?
  • Do you allow for and promote play?  If so, how?
  • How do you inspire employees’ creativity?
  • How do you create among employees a natural sense of belonging to your organization?

 Each question represents one key aspect of a work culture relevant to the new economic environment.  Answering these questions should help you understand your current work culture and see ways that you can improve it.


Why You Should Revisit Google’s Interior Design Strategy If You Want Your Employees to be More Creative

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 11.33.49 PMExcerpted from Francis Cholle’s The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass

Thinking paradoxically is an exercise in setting linear and logical patterns aside for a while and opening ourselves up to the possibility that solutions and new ideas can come from places that challenge common sense.  To wit, Einstein once said:  “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”  The question that follows, then, is this: what happens if a company departs from the traditional business approach, where executives focus on reason and results and where everything that count can and must be counted?  Could this company still be successful with a business approach that reaches beyond conventional logic?

The best example is a company that designed the most playful and instinctual work environment we’ve probably ever known.  This company is Google.

Google’s European headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, offers a slide to take employees to a gourmet company restaurant, swing chairs hanging from the ceiling in study rooms, bathtubs to lie in and relax in front of lit fish tanks in rooms with low light, massage tables and masseurs available for employees’ breaks, and igloo-shaped meeting rooms with penguins and snow as background  It looks like a kindergarten playground, not like the offices of a serious company.  Yet it probably has one of the most analytical and efficient work culture if judged by the number of patents it register every year and its exceptionally high profitability.  This is because Google fully embraces paradoxical business thinking.

First, let’s remember that research shows human productivity does not follow a linear continuum with time.  Specifically, according to Pareto’s principle, people produce 80 percent of what really matters in approximately 20 percent of the time they spend at work.  So when I hear clients complain about summer hours, coffee breaks, or employees’ short days, I always remind them of the result of the study. Timesheets for employees are a relic of the past.  They made sense in the industrial era when the scientific management of labor was implemented to organize work in assembly lines.  But in today’s global economy more and more companies rely on their employees’ creativity for their success.   Because creativity does not follow a linear relationship with time, time management for creative employees shouldn’t either.  For instance, great advertising copy can take weeks or even months to be worked and reworked to final edit, whereas, conversely, a brilliant slogan may come to mind in just a few seconds.  Time spent on copywriting is not a guarantee of success.  So when Google provides employees with space and resources for a break, relaxation, or a massage they actually are managing the 80/20 rule of human productivity very well.  They know that at some point in the day it inevitably becomes useless to require employees to sit at their desk.  Google embraces the paradox of creative time management.  In my work I regularly hear executives in creative firms stating along the lines of conventional wisdom that summer Fridays off are unnecessary and counterproductive and the employees sitting at their desk all day long is their ideal representation of productivity.  They do not recognize the paradoxical nature of creativity management and have a hard time thinking paradoxically when it comes to managing employees’ time.

And what about the slide to get to the restaurant?  What does it do to people? What would it do to you? Do you remember the last time you went down a slide? It’s a physical experience for many of us, it’s fun, but, for others, it may feel risky. In all cases, it involves our body and therefore engages us in our guts and puts us in play mode.  Simply put, it sends people to a place where they can best access their genius.

Similarly, the swing chairs get us literally off of our feet and off of the ground, and take us away from verticality, Language first developed in human beings when we moved from a horizontal position (resting on our hands and knees) to a vertical position (standing on our two feet).  So when we’re sitting back in a swing chair we’re away from the axis of language, which is the instrument of logic.  Therefore sitting in a swing chair takes us away from our rational mind and opens us to our imagination.  Here’s the paradox:  Google is extremely analytical and specific in the steps they take to engage their employees’ creativity and commitment in a playful and instinctive way.  Google is probably the greatest financial success in the history of capitalism.  It’s work reflecting on the face that Google handles the paradox of relying on hardcore brainpower and intellect very well while simultaneously offering headquarters that look more like a school playground than a studious and orderly library.  It obviously understands something that would very likely benefit many other companies seeking higher levels of innovation.  If you wish to have creative and agile employees you need to embrace paradoxical thinking, because creativity does not follow any predictable rule, but rather demands specific ingredients: flexible time management, proper play, physical engagement, and some element of random collaborations, among other things.  In the same fashion, if you wish to tap into more personal creativity you need to embrace paradoxical thinking, because new ideas will not come from common assumptions.

The Importance of Rituals in the Workplace

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 9.56.51 PMRituals are significant and powerful.  Symbols can have a great impact, as they communicate beyond words and convey meanings without explicit explanations. Rituals and symbols play an important role in the success of managing the creativity and innovation because they speak to our subconscious, comfort our unspoken fears, enable us to tap into solution that cannot be found in a linear fashion, and connect us emotionally to our friends and colleagues.

Ritual is a powerful way to harness the life force the lives deep down in every one of us.  The way rituals impact us is through rhythm (rituals occur at well-defined moments: Sunday mass, birthdays, the end of puberty, end of year graduation) regular repetition (Thanksgiving every year, morning ablutions, Sunday family lunch) and dramatic staging (Christmas tree, sculpted pumpkins, candles for a Valentine’s Day dinner).

Rituals imply a certain level of ceremony and require time, but they are profoundly efficient in both the short and the long term.  For example, think about how football players huddle before they go onto the field at the beginning of a big game.  It is a moment that may include a prayer or words of encouragement from their coach, but most important it is time that they set aside to reach beyond self-doubt and turn fear into audacity by connecting to their guts.  In Rugby Six Nations Tournaments, national anthems are played at the beginning of the game to invoke a sense of pride and responsibility for the success of the team.

Rituals are transformative because they help us deal constructively with the intangible dynamics within us and within groups.  They productively channel instinctual forces into creative powers.  Ritual is what allows us to gather the energy needed to achieve great things, often beyond what we could imagine ourselves capable of.  When managing the creative process, celebrating wins and awards is one effective way to reassure creative teams, whose members often question their own talent.  And one thing is certain:  not celebrating wins can cause a lot of damage to the spirit and motivation of your creative team.

Navigating creative and innovative processes is rarely easy; it often entails a lot of unknowns and a lot of erratic moments.  No matter how seasoned and brave you are, self-doubt and fear are simply unavoidable in the process of creation.  Rituals address fear of the unknown, self-sabotage, and procrastination, which can all happen during any creative process–hence the importance of rituals in southwest management.

There are many ways to spark creativity and establish an atmosphere that resonates with creative teams.  These are effective ways to improve creative output that you can apply to your business.  Consider how many of them you’ve thought about before and how many of them you actually implement in your management.  Leaving these out is not a valid option.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.