It’s playtime!

Marc Mekki explores the power of play in the boardroom...

three assorted-color monkey plastic toys holding each other during daytime

Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.”

Legendary writer, humourist and all-around rascal Mark Twain coined these sage words way back in 1893. The fact that he was referring to the bravery of fleas attacking unwitting human victims should, I believe, not detract from the profundity of the insight; it is as relevant today as it was at the turn of the 20th century, perhaps even more so.

As the pandemic wanes (famous last words?) and we emerge from the fog, most of us understandably seek out the warmth and security of old routines. We crave the familiar and the foreseeable, only to discover there’s nothing particularly stable or predictable about the world we’re now allowed to venture back into.

But rather than lean into risk and volatility in the way a judoka leverages the momentum and energy of an opponent to their advantage, we lean back into old habits and seek out a status quo that no longer exists. 

Understandable? Absolutely. Sustainable? Nope.

"Why are taking risks and challenging the status quo so deeply uncomfortable in the first place?" 

Take inflation, for example, it’s a wallet killer right now. If at the time of writing this piece in April of 2022, you’ve not made lifestyle adjustments while earning the same level of income, you’re effectively bleeding money. Maintaining a financial status quo during historical levels of inflation is achievable only by taking action that results in generating more income or by lowering spending. Otherwise, you’re regressing financially. 

Well, similar dynamics apply in the context of innovation, or lack thereof. Let’s call it ‘innoflation’ (you heard it here first!). 

Leaning back into old habits in the hopes that the tempest will settle is devastating to the future prospects of a business or a job. Just as inflation erodes future buying power, innoflation erodes future prosperity. 

To do nothing is to inevitably diminish, even disappear.

Like the metaphorical frog in a pot, too many organisations and associations are seemingly content with slowly being boiled into oblivion. Does anyone really believe that Covid was the last seismic societal shock in our lifetimes? Didn’t think so.

But why are taking risks and challenging the status quo so deeply uncomfortable in the first place? 

"Play isn’t a conscious act, it’s our natural state of being"

For most of us, somewhere around our early teenage years, something dramatic happens: we’re immersed in the Doctrine of Perfectionism.

We enter secondary education and we’re told that the key to success is in achieving good grades, the acquisition of knowledge and outperforming our peers. We’re led to believe that the formula for a career path that goes ‘up and to the right’ in a steady and predictable line is to always plan very carefully, mitigate risk and avoid failure.

Yet, before we reach our teenage years we’re immersed in a very different doctrine; the Doctrine of Experimentation. Of course, we don’t call it the Doctrine of Experimentation, we call it ‘play’.

Play isn’t a conscious act, it’s our natural state of being. Until it is replaced by the Doctrine of Perfectionism, a reality that haunts our society during an age where radical, unbridled experimentation and iteration offer the most potent defence against uncertainty and volatility.

One of the challenges I like to run during innovation workshops is called the ‘Spaghetti and Marshmallow Challenge’. Small teams are asked to build the highest possible tower with nothing more than sticks of spaghetti, some tape, string, and a few marshmallows. 

Time and time again this simple exercise unveils some inconvenient truths about the current state of innovative thinking.

Most participants will spend the first few minutes debating strategy, vying for authority and planning the perfect execution. And when they do finally start building, the same flawed structures tend to emerge, a remnant of the Doctrine of Perfectionism. Most of the time, towers will have collapsed into a sad pile of wasted calories by the time the challenge ends.

Which demographic outperforms almost all others? Children. And the simple reason why kids are much more proficient at executing what appears to be a simple challenge is that they don’t spend time on power grabs or planning. They just start. And fail. And start again. Most importantly, they enjoy the iterative process as an integral aspect of group bonding and building trust. Playing power trumps power plays. 

"You can create playful and creative safe havens anywhere."

Experimentation and play aren’t just sound business innovation strategies, they are also powerful community-building tools. Team building retreats and offsites are a multi-billion pound industry because we have no better mechanism for fostering cohesion and community than bringing people together in play, adventure and freedom of expression. 

The idea that propels your organisation into the future probably arose while you were dangling in a treetop somewhere or while paddling across a river. You can’t innovate from a boardroom.

Too bad then that for most organisations it’s something they do once a year in Spain or Greece, not a systemic formula for innovation and organisational endurance. 

And it’s not about travelling to exotic locales. You can create playful and creative safe havens anywhere. If you’ve ever witnessed the sheer joy and ingenuity of a couple of toddlers in a small sandbox, you know what I’m talking about.

Innoflation is coming for you, like it or not. Your choice of whether to lean back or lean in may very well define the future of your organisation and its influence in and on a changing world. 

Get cracking, and start playing.

About the author:

Marc is a speaker, author and educator in the field of digital innovation, design thinking and user experience. His mission is to demystify the digital world and to empower organisations with the tools, insights, and skills to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution. More information on