I’m convinced that we can become better at problem solving in an environment where work feels more like play.
An environment where learning is embedded in every activity, where sweat and laughter complement each other, where we can show up every day as the perfectly imperfect human being we are.
Read on to learn how your leadership style can help to shape a playful problem solving environment.
Divide and conquer
As leaders we most often feel responsible to get the job done.
Eager to see results we break the problem to solve into smaller, more manageable problems and assign them to the people or teams reporting to us. We tend to assign work based on appointed roles or our gut feeling how fast individuals can produce results.
From leader to information facilitator
Even if we don’t directly assign work packages to teams and instead pass down the customer needs: the moment we start managing the information flow we go from leader to information facilitator.
As a result we will spend more and more time in steering boards and alignment meetings, passing information up and down, left and right. Soon we will feel stressed by the content, amount and speed of the information flow.
This feeling is why leaders are paid more, right?
From divide and conquer to play and learn
Working in a small, interdisciplinary team of extraordinary individuals has helped me understand, how in my previous role as department head I was often falling back into the divide and conquer leadership style.
How does play and learn work?
In the play and learn leadership style the goal is to turn work into play. The customer is invited to play along.
Everyone emerges himself into the domain, the target market and the problems to solve. Understanding the problem and finding appropriate solutions is not appointed to a special role, expert or leadership person. In an interdisciplinary, diverse team, each individual will propose how the problem could be solved from his or her point of view. It’s the team’s task to go beyond what they could achieve as individuals.
As a leader your job is to invite everyone into this playful problem solving arena.
Starting to play
Armed with a good understanding of the problem the play starts. I call it play, because the word implies that there is no right or wrong. It’s about being fully present, open to learn from each other and having some fun.
Everyone brings everything they have to offer to the table. Ideas are sketched out, feedback is given. Business, UX and technology all play their part. Instead of working in different arenas, in separate teams, these sessions should feel more like a playdate: smaller fights might break out at unexpected moments, but in the end everyone will be happy.
As a leader you’re part of the team. Don’t hold back. It’s your job to bring everything you have to offer to the table, fully aware that your voice is in no way more important than anyone else’s.
Ask questions if you don’t understand what is being said. Summarize. Interrupt to create space for an idea that was not heard. Invite more people to play along, if the team feels that an important skillset is missing. Document the progress and support the team in finding common ground.
By encouraging everyone to lead and to follow, the team will achieve more in less time.
Don’t forget to tell everyone when it’s time to take a break.
Acting on what you’re learning
Armed with a deep understanding of the problem and solution space, everyone will be eager to stop talking and start acting. From there the information flow will naturally pick up. Instead of reporting on progress the team members can report on what they learned, what they need to turn ideas into solutions.
Soon the team will be able to ship the first release of your new product. Your customer will be thrilled, the team will be happy.
Time to party.
Resist the tendency to lead by divide and conquer. Instead create an environment where playful innovation can happen, where information can flow freely.
You will feel less stressed, everyone will feel more connected. Connected to each other and connected to the problems you’re trying to solve.