The Power of Play

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga defined play as a freely chosen activity, which is not intrinsically useful, and is separated from serious life in a fixed space where specific rules apply. But it is not the definition of play that is important – it is the recognition that play is part of a process through which we can adapt to or change our serious world. Contemporary research in learning theory, innovation, business strategy and creativity shows substantial evidence that play practices can support better learning and better business outcomes. However, just because they can, it does not necessarily follow that they do. As with most things, the implementation of play-oriented practice or development of playful cultures is highly reliant upon good design and implementation, as well as an ethical approach to integrating desired outcomes with other organizational goals.

A large part of our behaviour is governed by routines, expectations of ‘normal’ conduct and concerns regarding how others see us. But these behaviours are often only good enough to maintain the status quo – to effect change and development requires adaptation and transformation. Studies of learning and development in children show how we acquire knowledge and develop new behaviour through play. In such games we construct a new reality alone or with others, and test alternative practices against what is already known. Studies of adult learning have begun to show that this is not unique to childhood development. In fact, this process enables deep and experiential learning in a way that traditional classroom-based education and training often falls short.

Through play, we can effectively communicate, convince others or collaborate on ideas utilising the potential of action ‘as if…’ without incurring real and serious consequence. Play also offers a medium for dramatic storytelling and re-framing of events. Such techniques can promote spillover emotional effects to help enhance creativity and performance, and even address problems experienced by individual workers in demanding roles such as emotional dissonance.   

For the benefit of researchers and fellow practitioners, I have listed below a range of key sources which support the growing evidence base on serious play. These include practical empirical studies and theoretical papers highlighting the ways in which play in general can enhance learning by stimulating employee engagement, improving employee well-being or developing social connections to spread knowledge in an organisation, as well as evidence in support of specific types of play intervention to enhance learning, communication, creativity and strategy building.

Evidence Base

Ashton, D., & Giddings, S. (2018). At work in the toybox: Bedrooms, playgrounds and ideas of play in creative cultural work. The International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation19(2), 81–89.

Bürgi, P., and Jacobs, C., and J. Roos (2005) From Metaphor to Practice in the Crafting of Strategy’ Journal of Management Inquiry, 14(1): 78-94.

Cantoni L., Marchiori E., Faré M., Botturi L. & Bolchini D. (2009). “A systematic methodology to use Lego bricks in web communication design” in the Proceedings of the 27th ACM international Conference on Design of Communication (Bloomington, Indiana, USA, October 5–07, 2009). SIGDOC ‘09. ACM, New York, NY: 187-192.

Dodgson, M (2017). Innovation and play. Innovation: Organization & Management, 19(1), 86–90.

Dougherty, D., & Takacs, H (2004). Team play: Heedful interrelating as the boundary for innovation. Long Range Planning, 37(6), 569–590.

Duerden, M.D. Stephen H. Courtright & Mark A. Widmer (2018) Why People Play at Work: A Theoretical Examination of Leisure-at-Work, Leisure Sciences, 40:6, 634-648, DOI: 10.1080/01490400.2017.1327829

Frick, E Tardini, S & Cantoni, L (2013) “LEGO Serious Play: A state of the art of its applications across Europe” EU Development Report

Gauntlett, D. & Thomsen, B.S. (2013) “Cultures of Creativity: nurturing creative mindsets across cultures” LEGO Foundation Report Available at:

Gauntlett, D (2014) “The LEGO System as a tool for thinking, creativity, and changing the world” in Wolf, MJP (ed) LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon Routledge: London. Available  at:

Hunter, C. Jemielniak, D. and Postuła, A. (2010) “Temporal and spatial shifts within playful work”, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 23 No. 1, pp. 87-102.

Jacobs, C. D., & Statler, M (2006). Toward a technology of foolishness: Developing scenarios through serious play. International Studies of Management and Organization, 36(3), 77–92.

James, A (2013) “LEGO Serious Play: a three-dimensional approach to learning development” in the Journal of Learning Development in HE

Keys, B., & Wolfe, J. (1990). The Role of Management Games and Simulations in Education and Research. Journal of Management16(2), 307–336.

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A (2010). Learning to play, playing to learn: A case study of a ludic learning space. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(1), 26–50.

Kristiansen, P. & Rasmussen, R. (2014) Building a Better Business Using the Lego Serious Play Method. Wiley. Read an excerpt:

Linder, M., Roos, J., & Victor, B. (2001). Play in organization. Imagilabs Working Paper. Available at:

McCusker, S (2014) “LEGO®, Seriously: thinking through building” in the International Journal of Knowledge, Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Müceldili, B. & Erdil, O. (2016) Finding Fun in Work: The Effect of Workplace Fun on Taking Charge and Job Engagement. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 235, 304-312

Oliver, D., and J. Roos (2007) ‘Constructing Organizational Identity Multimodally,’ British Journal of Management, 18(4): 342-358.

Perryer, C., Celestine, N. A., Scott-Ladd, B., & Leighton, C. (2016). Enhancing workplace motivation through gamification: Transferrable lessons from pedagogy. The International Journal of Management Education14(3), 327-335.

Pichlis, D et al.(2015) “Empower a Team’s product Vision with LEGO® Serious Play®” Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Product-Focused Software Process Improvement 9459:210-216

Plester, B. and Hutchison, A. (2016) “Fun times: the relationship between fun and workplace engagement”, Employee Relations, Vol. 38 No. 3, pp. 332-350

Primus, DJ & Sonnenburg, S (2018) “Flow Experience in Design Thinking and Practical Synergies with Lego Serious Play” Creativity Research Journal

Roos, J., & Victor, B (1999). Toward a new model of strategy-making as serious play. European Management Journal, 17(4), 348–355.

Schrage, M (2000). Serious play: How the world’s best companies stimulate to innovate. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Schulz, K. P., Geithner, S., Woelfel, C., & Krzywinski, J (2015). Toolkit‐based modeling and serious play as means to foster creativity in innovation processes. Creativity and Innovation Management, 24(2), 323–340.

Statler, M., Roos, J., & Victor, B. (2009). Ain’t Misbehavin’: Taking Play Seriously in Organizations. Journal of Change Management, 9(1), 21.

Spraggon, M., & Bodolica, V (2014). Social ludic activities: A polymorphous form of organizational play. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29(5), 524–540

Spraggon, M., & Bodolica, V (2017). Collective tacit knowledge generation through play: Integrating socially distributed cognition with transactive memory systems. Management Decision, 55(1), 119–135.

Spraggon, M & Bodolica, V. (2018) A practice-based framework for understanding (informal) play as practice phenomena in organizations. Journal of Management & Organization, 24(6) 846-869.

Statler, M., Heracleous, L., & Jacobs, C. D (2011). Serious play as a practice of paradox. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(2), 236–256.

Styhre, A (2008). The element of play in innovation work: The case of new drug development. Creativity and Innovation Management,17(2), 136–146.

Tews, M. J., Michel, J. W., & Noe, R. A (2017). Does fun promote learning? The relationship between fun in the workplace and informal learning. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 98, 46–55.

Tignor, S. M., Fombelle, P. W., & Sirianni, N. J (2014). Fun made me do it! Transforming consumer well-being through serious play.Advances in Consumer Research, 42, 718–719. Available at:

Tokkari, V (2015). Organizational play: Within and beyond managing. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal, 10(2), 86–104.

Webb, J (2017). Keeping alive inter-organizational innovation through identity work and play. International Journal of Innovation Management, 21(5), 1–22.

West, S (2015). Playing at work: Organizational play as a facilitator of creativity. [Thesis] Lund: Department of Psychology, Lund University. Available at: