As we prepare for our second annual Nonprofit Management Summer Camp, I am reminded of our motto, “proving that nonprofit management can be fun, and in fact, should be.”
I like it because I wrote it, but also because I totally believe it at my core. I am at my best, most open, connected, and creative self when I am having fun at work. When a staff meeting involves a great joke, when solving a problem together makes me lean over the table with excitement, when a presenter engages with the audience by getting a big laugh–these are when I build good relationships with my co-workers, feel safe to think big, and work becomes more than punching in and punching out on the time clock.
But is that a universal experience? Am I right? Or am I just a stand-up comic devolving each and every work environment into a distracted, amorphous and unproductive wreck? I wondered if I was wrong, if “nonprofit management is serious, and in fact, should be.”
By virtue of working at Marlboro College I have access to individuals who are studying adult learning in real time. I asked Associate Dean Sean Conley for his thoughts on the matter. He shot back a quote, and a whole lot of research. John Dewey, an American Philosopher (and Vermonter) writes, “To be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition.” Sounds like having fun while working.
Through the research I learned that there is a place for play in adult learning. According to “Exploring the contribution of play to social capital in institutional adult learning settings” by Pauline Harris and John Daley, play helps to create adult learning communities. Through play adults are able to invite and nurture dialogue and increase trust in the group. It invites adult learners to bring their own experience to bear and to share that experience with one another. Play creates spaces where flexibility, diversity and inclusivity of ideas and people are valued. It encourages adult learners to reach beyond their group to access other people and resources. I would argue that these moments together and spaces for innovation are critically important in a sector like nonprofit management, where (like it or not) we have to work together, and the very context in which we do business is changing all the time.
And there is more. Play also engages adult learners in shared hands-on engagement, enjoyment, absorption and active participation. It opens up avenues of collective thought and intellectual corroboration by valuing intuitive thinking and following hunches and streams of consciousness, and creates a zone where adult learners reach beyond their actual capacitates and work towards their potential. It started to sound like play could help us lose ourselves in our work. I wondered, can play help us achieve a sort of group flow?
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a deep state of concentration where we both feel our best and perform our best. It’s those times when you lose yourself completely in a task and you really really enjoy it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi started studying flow in the 1980’s. He says that when you are in flow “you know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” I say “you know you’ve been in flow when you come to your senses and realize you’ve been working for six hours straight and have ten seconds to make it to the bathroom before you pee your pants.”
We are more productive when we are in flow, and researchers are interested in figuring out how to trigger the state. I found a list from Steven Kotler, the author of the book “The Rise of Superman.” Outside of putting yourself in mortal danger, there are a handful of things you can do to trigger flow. Four are psychological, three environmental, one creative, and a whopping NINE are social, triggering more group flow.
The whole list can be found here, but things that caught my eye include good communication, familiarity with one another, equal participation, and always saying yes to amplify each other’s ideas, to create momentum and togetherness. They mirror the very same conditions that play is shown to nurture in communities of adult learners and make another case for cultivating play in the workplace.
In conclusion, if you are striving to become a learning organization, if you value inclusivity and diversity of people and ideas, if you want to be happy because you go to work, not in spite of it–then play can be a part of that equation. It’s up to us to strike a balance in which we’re not having fun at the expense of our mission, or avoiding getting serious when the situation calls for it. Knowing when and how to incorporate tools that inspire play, fun, and flow is the next step. We’ll be figuring that out together at Nonprofit Management Summer Camp 2015.
Hillary Boone, MSM is Organizational Development Specialist at the Center for New Leadership at Marlboro College. Hillary has trained and coached organizations across New England in the use of Results-Based Accountability (RBA). She has presented her work nationally and internationally and is a member of the Vermont Accountability Group steering committee.
In her free time, Hillary is a stand-up comedian and host of the Moth StorySLAM in Vermont. She serves in leadership roles on the board of the Pride Center of Vermont, the Milton Mentor Advisory Committee, and the Divas Do Good initiative.