Academic journal article The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving

Playing at Work: Professionals' Conceptions of the Functions of Play on Organizational Creativity

Academic journal article The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving

Playing at Work: Professionals' Conceptions of the Functions of Play on Organizational Creativity

Article excerpt

Organizational leaders report that creativity is the most crucial factor for success in today's innovation-based economy (IBM, 2010). Mirroring this emphasis on workplace creativity, research on the creativity process has shifted from a focus on individuals towards the study of collaborative and co-creating work groups (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). The importance of creativity for organizational success, along with the steep global rise of the creative worker (Florida, 2005), has sparked interest in the study of diverse methods for organizational creativity enhancement, which increasingly includes play as a key component (Mainemelis & Altman, 2010). Although the idea of play as vital to individuals and society is not new, nor is the general link between play and creativity (Freud, 1926), the stream of research on play as a vital aspect of organizational culture, and as a source of creativity remains a trickle. Play is one of the least understood behavioral phenomena in organizations. It has however been suggested that play benefits organizational creativity through increased task engagement as well as by allowing temporary suspension of organizational objectives (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). If play is a catalyst for workplace creativity, what then are the constituents of play that give creativity a boost?

What is play? The construct of adult play and playfulness is not easily defined (Kruger, 1995). Brown (2009) defined play as an absorbing and intrinsically motivated activity that is apparently purposeless and provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness. Similarly, and building on earlier definitions, Gray (2009) defined play as a structured and voluntary activity, that is of an imaginative and non-serious nature, where means are more valued than ends, and involves an active yet nonstressed frame of mind. Scholars within the organizational sciences have defined play as a behavioral orientation consisting of five elements: a) a threshold experience between convention and illusion, b) boundaries in time and space, c) uncertainty-freedom-constraint, d) loose and flexible association between ends and means, and e) positive affect (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). These definitions of play, like earlier definitions in the literature, share the notion of play being a behavioral approach to a task rather than a specific type of game or play activity.

Play can be an array of diverse activities. With a playful state of mind, just about any activity can become play such as tourism, television, daydreaming, sexual intimacy, literature, academia, kayaking, gossip (Sutton-Smith, 1997). When done playfully, a usually non-playful activity such as giving a lecture becomes play just as a game of baseball ceases to be play once it is taken too seriously. A normally boring work task such as participating in a staff meeting becomes play when the meeting is vitalized with toy guns that shoot foam darts at unusually attentive participants.

Theoretically defining play is made difficult by play's inherent ambiguity, in that a specific activity may or may not be experienced as play depending on the individuals and the context. For example, playful work activities orchestrated by management are easily experienced negatively by employees (Bolton & Houlihan, 2009). This paradoxical ambiguity is an irritating feature of play, and has lead some scholars to argue that that attempting to theoretically confine play is futile (Sutton-Smith, 1997). Like other scholars, we find play an elusive concept to define. We find however, that as a behavioral approach to an activity, play can be defined by its basic elements. The more play criteria an activity meets, the greater the degree of playfulness. Based on the above-mentioned scholar's definitions of play, we suggest that the elements that define play are that it be self-chosen, fun, frivolous, imaginative, and in some way bound by structure or rules.

Organizational creativity. …

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