ToolboxTools: Work as play as learn

"Work is hard; play is easy; learning is fun
Work is what I do to pay for my play!

If the comment above describes your own attitude, or that of your staff, you're in trouble - and so is your business.

And yet it seems so obviously true...

The notion that work should be hard, should be unpleasant, is one of the most mistaken, and most fundamentally foolish, ideas left over from the wreckage of 17th-century Puritanism. Work doesn't need to be that way at all; more to the point, work doesn't work if it's thought of only in that way.

And play... well, there's an equally mistaken notion that work and play are opposites... which is why it's assumed that no work is being done when people play. Or, for that matter, that learning is something that only happens in structured 'work training'.

To understand what's wrong about all those assumptions, just watch children in a playground or playgroup. For them, work is play is learn is play is work: it's all the same thing, and it all happens at the same time. More to the point, when any one of these aspects is blocked, it all stops: and it's then that the fights start to break out...

Though it usually isn't as obvious, exactly the same happens in business. When work is play is learn, business positively hums along: morale is invariably high, as is creativity, and there's a clear sense of purpose in everything that is done. But the moment that one of those components is lost, or is over-emphasised, or rigidly-compartmentalised in time or space, things can rapidly fall apart: morale collapses, productivity drops like a brick, and staff expend most of their creativity in the pettiness of office politics.

Work is play is learn: it really is as simple as that. So it's worthwhile spending a little time to ensure that all three components reach an appropriate balance in your own business:

  • work: productivity is highest when people want to work - and one of the best ways of creating that feeling is by maintaining a clear sense of the purpose of the business
  • play: productivity is highest when people enjoy their work - not hide from it, as in drowning it out with muzak or whatever, or isolating themselves away from it with phrases such as "work is what I do to pay for my play", but can actually involve themselves in it, and can express themselves in it and through it
  • learn: productivity is highest when people are extending themselves and their skills through that work - and especially when they can share those skills with others within a 'learning organisation'

Work is play is learn; or no play, no learning, and, ultimately, no work. All; or nothing. Your choice?

Peter Sengé and his team have probably been the most active proponents of the concept of 'learning organisations' in business: try his books The Fifth Discipline get it from and The Dance of Change get it from

The 'fifth discipline' in Sengé's model is systems-thinking - the awareness of the whole, and that each system is always a subsidiary component of larger systems, extending to infinity. Systems theory was originally developed back in the 1960s by generalists such as computer consultant Gerald Weinberg and psychologist Joanna Macy: books on business applications of general systems theory are rare, but most of the material can be usefully adapted for the business context.