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The power of play: from "he did it" to "yes I can"

Liu Yan

Question: Can PLAY help 12 senior executives from a multinational engineering company get out of their daily shaming and blaming and feel empowered as a group of leaders with common vision?

Answer: Yes! I can guarantee you it is only a tiny fraction PLAY can help you achieve!

Last week, I was asked by my friend Tina to design a 3-hour-session to address the fear and anxiety of her team - a team of 12 HR senior managers from China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and India, when the company is shifting their role from operational to strategic. When we arrived there and attended the wrap-up session of their previous meetings, we realised the challenge is way beyond this. We came to understand that the HR function has been the target of many organisational failures. Many HR feel powerless even resentful, they seldom get the credit when things go well and often get the blame when things go wrong. There was a lot of defensiveness in the air. People talks more about how to protect themselves rather than finding a bridge to collaborate.

I thought to myself excitingly: "This is a very wicked challenge, it is the exact kind of challenge we could help them with."

After a few rounds of physical warm-ups of tossing invisible energy balls to one another. We invited everyone to form a team of 3 and build an individual model with provided Lego bricks, Playmobil materials and clay, a model that represents their super power, might it be mind-reading, bungie-jumping or heart melting.

This exercise is an energy lifting experience. It would not only help participants to loosen up and get into the "play" mode to get out of their daily restriction of being practical, following rules and pleasing others, but also create the entrance to a kind of new narrative wherein we are the "hero" who has to go through a tough journey to make a difference to him/herself and others. It creates an important foundation to prepare the "hero" to step into the challenge or receive the call to go on an adventure.

The 3-hour-workshop is designed in five phases in alignment with a Hero's Journey and LEGO SERIOUS PLAY application techniques: first we connect participants with their own gift, then we ask them to use these gift to tackle a self-identified common challenge, lastly the teams will build connections and combine their solutions with one another.

Throughout the process we ask participants the following five questions and ask them to build a model with provided materials and share their answers with teammates. At the end of process, we reflect.

1, What inspires you?

2, What challenges you?

3, What is your envisioned future?

4, How do you integrate your solution with others?

5, How do we build collective leadership to implement the solution?

The next section is about pinpointing the challenge or the WORST NIGHTMARE the participants are facing moving forward as a "hero": In this unknown world, our hero reaches "the innermost cave" or the central crisis of his adventure, first alone then with the assistance of helpers by identifying the common challenge among his team members.

This is a section where most of people open their heart and build trust. It is a section wherein vulnerability and emotion is not only allowed but appreciated, respected and encouraged. In all the workshops, I have discovered one thing in common, we human long for being seen and heard, regardless of age, cultural background, status and profession. I somehow believe if we give each other more chances to truly listen, there will be way less conflicts in our family, organization and we are half-way through to world peace. 

Following this section, we invite "the hero's" to come up with solutions for their own challenge, because we are a strong believer that each single of stakeholder hold a key to the complex problem we all are facing, it is the job of the facilitator to UNLOCK these wisdom and insights. Very often, participants have doubt about or are not even aware how much they know or are capable of. Through the constructive exercises of building idea's on top of each other, the mind and heart will be trigger to come up with a collective solutions.

Finally, we invite participants to identify relationship among the models they build and building a systemic solution through connecting and adapting their current solutions. In the end, there are three key themes been identified among all the models: direction, trust and communication; And they combined all the models to turn it into a new on-boarding experience for the new employee.

During reflection, we asked a set of questions (see below) and one simple action they will immediate take when they are back to the office. Most people reflected that there is an urge to connect purposes between organisation, department and individual and to change from silo-thinking to eco-system thinking. And everyone felt it is crucial to practice self-compassion and take the ownership to their own path in the company.

According to Dr. Stuart Brown in his masterwork book "Play - How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates": "For humans, creating such simulations of life may be life's most valuable benefit. In play we can imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn form them. We can create possibilities that have never existed but may in the future. We make new cognitive connections that find their way into our everyday lives. We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk. "

Play gives you joy and put you in a "flow", play gives you freedom to be yourself and the new imaginary roles. When playing, it is only fun when we say Yes...And to each other; when playing, we get to know each other and trust each other much quicker. Let's play more.

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