Success on the playing field is winning. Teams square off against one another in a well-defined activity with a definitive endpoint. No one on a team succeeds unless the team succeeds. Players have roles, they are expected to develop expertise in their roles, and they are accountable to one another for specific tasks. Performance is measured, reported, and there are consequences when performance outcomes don’t meet expectations. Some authorities judge the quality of play, other authorities dictate what constitutes allowable play. On the playing field you have opponents. James Carse describes a game played on a playing field as a Finite Game. A “finite game” according to Carse, “is played for the purpose of winning.”
Success on the playground is joy. Individuals choose activities and make use of the available equipment. On the playground, we play alone or with others. We can be challenged to accomplish a skill or overcome a fear, or we can simply create and imagine. We can agree to adopt roles in a spontaneous joint project, but no one is waiting for the project to produce any outcome. There are no authorities on how to play on the playground. Carse describes the game played on a playground as an Infinite Game. An “Infinite game” according to Carse, “is played for the purpose of continuing to play.”
How much of your work feels like being on a playing field and how much feels like being on a playground?
How much of your organization’s purpose is about winning and how much of your organization’s purpose is about thriving so that play continues?
Strategic Agility is a hot topic these days. Whatever we mean by “strategic agility,” the concept is fundamentally about the tension between being prepared (strategic) and being quick to adapt (agile).
Strategic agility seems useful on the playing field. You would want to have a game plan and you would want to adapt and respond when conditions change, or when your opponent does something unexpected. When success is winning, strategic agility may provide a competitive edge.
Strategic Agility seems counterproductive on the playground. Developing a plan for how you engage on a playground suddenly changes your relationship to other players and to the nature of your play. When activity becomes part of a larger plan, play becomes a means to an end; players become allies or obstructionists.
When organizations see all activity as moves on a playing field, everything feels like a competition. Meetings become arenas in which people move ahead or fall behind. People covet resources, take credit, and place blame. When organizations see all activity as moves on a playground, harmony trumps decisiveness. People avoid conflict while harboring resentments.
In our organizational lives, we need wins to thrive and we need to thrive in order to win.
I would assert that even more arises than harmony when “play” is really present. More interaction causes additional, unexpected results. More playful conflict (“I had this toy first!” “But I need this toy to finish my game!”) leads to negotiations that deliver better outcomes. Manipulating things in new and different ways opens up new perspectives and allows for new concepts to come to life. Organizations that truly harness the power of play elevate their game to a level of engagement and contribution that is otherwise unavailable.