Collaboration and Play
One of the ways children learn to understand the world is with play. Watch a small child's first encounter with a new object. See how they turn it in their hands? How they press and poke at various things looking for some reaction? To that child, there is no 'right' way to use this object. As the child explores, the object reveals its nature. Through play, the child learns what this thing is 'for'.
By the time we reach adulthood, our relationship with play has changed. 'Play' is downtime from ‘work’. We use play to relax and have fun. Work is not a place, nor mode, for play.
Work is where we demonstrate ‘expertise’. The tacit expectation is that we know how to do to what needs to be done. At work, our ideas are not things to play with and explore. At work, our ideas are ‘best practice’, or ‘what I’ve done elsewhere’, or ‘my leadership style’. We are expected to be sure about our ideas.
For many situations, that logic adds up. Strongly held ideas and experience mean we can be efficient with our time. We can recognise a situation and use what we know to resolve it.
However, what happens when we encounter a situation that is new? That has a unique, hard-to-perceive complexity? What do we do when we’re trying to collaborate, and we all have strongly held opposing ideas? Or when we don't know how to combine our ideas into a workable solution?
It's in these moments where playing with ideas becomes incredibly valuable.
Playing with ideas means treating them like the child above treats a new object. It's about taking an idea and turning it around. Interrogating it. Looking for reactions from it – all without judgement. It means getting away from 'my idea' or 'her idea' or 'their idea' to 'an idea'. It means we work in iterations, where work is 'finished enough' to be tested. It might even mean having some fun with the ideas. Through play, the idea's strengths and weaknesses will emerge. Through play, we will discover which ideas will help us and which will not.
Creating an environment for playing with ideas means doing several things.
It means helping people release the emotional grip on their ideas. As I said above, and elsewhere it means facilitating people to transition from believing ‘this is my idea’ towards ‘this is an idea’.
It also means making the ideas explicit and tangible. The form of an idea needs to be more than spoken words – it needs some physical representation. This might be a sketch, or a physical model, or something else. The important thing is that the ideas have a physical form so they can be manipulated and changed.
The final requirement is that the environment encourages play, exploration and experimentation. This means both how you arrange the physical environment, but also making sure you design play how people work.
One popular definition of collaboration is:
Collaboration is not about gluing together existing egos. It's about the ideas that never existed until after everyone entered the room.
I've questioned the usefulness of this statement as a definition, but it is a nice statement of intent about collaboration.
Fostering 'play' is one way you can take the intent of that statement and make it a reality. Through play, you can discover those new ideas and put them to work.