Monday, 21 November 2022

Playful Leadership is... at the PLA meeting November 2022

Playful Leadership is the witches brew in the cauldron of knowledge

We had one of our biannual Playful Learning Association meetings last week in Huddersfield and I did a "Playful Leadership is..." exercise, so sharing the results here for convenience!

One group stamped a "headline" thing about Playful Leadership on one side of the card, then a separate group used that as a prompt for more detail on the other side. (Limited time, space, materials for the "headline" phrase or word, more time and space to write on the back!)

All the cards can be seen in a Google Photos album, but I've also tried to transcribe the text below

Playful Leadership is:




It may subvert roles

And structures

And expectations

And processes

And boundaries

And relations

And pedagogy

And play


So run, hide, tell

Projecting play into work

Focusses on the playful aspect of work

Has a strong intent

Projecting = role modelling


Power balances, mutual respect between leader and team – creates space for creativity.

Everyone takes ownership for the direction.

Choose your own adventure (but how does this work to … illegible)

A state of mind

A Playful Attitude.

Agency – you choose to. You have to want to be playful.

Persuasion – changing the state of mind of others.


Messy talk creates opportunity for emerging ideas. (Article was referenced in explanation for messy talk)

Creating space

A chance to breathe, pause, & reflect. Mindfully, socially, and bodily.

Set of symbols – multiple ?, !, &, #

Questioning, inclusive, and staying sharp.

The witches brew in the cauldron of knowledge

“Add some spice” to existing practice.

Stirring up habits and stagnant practice.

The unexpected

Who is it unexpected for? Facilitator needs to be comfortable. Breaks auto pilot of bad teaching.

Unexpected changes in boundaries / changes who is “in charge”?

Striking a pose.

Being unashamed of your authentic self

(ridicule is nothing to be scared of)

Boring (also included stamps of ice creams and flying hearts)

About making the boring not boring.

Because ice cream makes everything not boring.

The BORING button.


Everyone is invited and involved in the play.

The last round I added an extra limiter for, which they struggled with more, limiting the cards to a particular aspect of playful leadership, either Staff Development, Recruitment, or Performance Management:

Playful Leadership (in recruitment) is.. NEW




Creative approaches



Playful Leadership (in recruitment) is.. RO(U)LE BREAKING

The power of playfulness is to disrupt, transform, add ambiguity to rules/roles – thus breaking standards.

Emphasising the boundary breaking in recruitment processes exploring rules/roles as dynamic / flexible.

Playful Leadership (in recruitment) is.. CREATIVE ASSESSMENT

Introducing exciting / fun / collaborative / interactive tasks to assess key competencies for role.

Setting expectations that unexpected / imaginative / unique responses are valued.

Encouraging different behaviours to be demonstrated.

[Is it exclusionary to those less playful?]

Playful Leadership (in Performance Management) is.. CORE CONDITIONS (making sense of things, Rogers)

Go back in time and fix the things you didn’t get right the first time. (Note – this was verbally explained that they were playing with the idea of Steve Rogers in the Avengers films.)

Playful Leadership (in Performance Management) is.. STORY

Their career path is their own story.

Every story has a beginning and an end.

Where the person is now, where they want to be / should be.

Performance management is how to get there – see other card! (Note – this refers to “collective imagination card)

Playful Leadership (in Performance Management) is.. COLLECTIVE IMAGINATION

Joint negotiating on the persons destination and steps to get there – see also: STORY

Playful Leadership (in Staff Development) is… Symbols only for this one, mustache, kitten/dog faces, ice cream

Shrug Stamp.


Playful Leadership (in Staff Development) is… Symbols only for this one, 2 mustaches with a question mark in the middle.

Interactively differently. Even during Movember.

Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Playful Leadership Manifesto / Pamphlet


Three playful leadership pamphlets, illustrative of letterpress printed covers
I ran a little Kickstarter recently to sum up my thoughts on Playful Leadership in a way that was playful for me to create - so partly inspired by (17th Century?) manifestos that were short and easy to print on Letterpress printers and distribute.

So the printed version has a letterpress printed cover (inside is from a modern printer though), plus a few A5 prints of play quotes on the letterpress too as a little extra playing about from me.

If anyone is interested in reading the content though, it's available as a PDF now for anyone from my Dropbox. Take a look, see what you think, let me know if you find it a useful way of framing Playful Leadership :)

Saturday, 30 July 2022

What play at work looks like?


A Generic university building on the University of Teesside campus
(Teesside University Library by Stephen McKay) 

I was invited to Teesside Uni the other day to run a workshop on various aspects to do with play, to a mix of librarians and a few other people from other student support services.

The brief was a tad longer than I like, they wanted me to cover lots of slightly different things related to play at work / in teaching / etc., so slightly less focussed and playful than I'd like to run a workshop, but there was an important point raised by someone there which might have still come up in a more focussed workshop, I'm not sure...

The boss of their service wants more play in everyone's work and explicitly says so, throughout the workshop I tried to push the idea of play and playfulness (rather than games) so it can run through lots of things we do, but still I got the pushback from someone that "of course we wouldn't be able to play at work except in this sort of workshop". 

Because of the quantities of things I was trying to cover, I probably didn't give as many practical examples as I normally do, but even so, I suspect the issue would have come up anyway? I suspect I'm guilty that I know what a playful workplace / teaching session / whatever looks like when I see it, but bad at explaining that to other people - I will tend to assume too much that when I explain what play is, then other people can see it.

The person saying they wouldn't be able to play was thinking of play in terms of a little exercise they did where they played with a balloon elsewhere on campus. Not in terms of approaching work with a playful mindset, so it can (at times) become play. I hadn't clearly enough explained that idea (even though I'd tried!). Someone else in the room (really helpfully!) had described how they sometimes have meetings they play about flicking elastic bands at each other during the meeting - I'm not recommending others do this, but it's a way they found of bringing play into an otherwise un-playful meeting which works for them. 

So flicking elastic bands around for the sake of it = no, of course that isn't work.

Flicking elastic bands around because it improves a meeting = yes, as long as it suits everyone there, it's work.

I think in future I need more of this in any workshop, explaining concepts is fine, giving examples is fine, but I think I probably also need that sort of comparison too. Trying to explain that when I talk about playful work environments there is an extra layer of the employer also being a stakeholder in the game - as long as they are getting something out of it as well as the direct players, then it's probably fine, but that line of "usefulness" is probably constantly moving, much as the potential players capacity and ability to play is constantly changing too. So back to playing around with a balloon - most of the time I wouldn't expect that to be part of work, but it might sometimes be? If everyone is frazzled and needs 5 minutes moving around before coming back more refreshed and productive, it's probably a good playful work thing. (I might take one into my office next week actually, to see if knocking it around every time the motion sensitive lights switch off!) But going out as a group for an hour each day to pass a balloon around, that probably isn't a good use of work time. I need to spend some more time in any workshop trying to get people to think about that moveable boundary of ok / not ok work play, as well as some of the subtleties of what play at work actually looks like.

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

The core of Playful Leadership?

The word leadership with tiny construction workers in from of it.
Photo from under a CC-BY licence 

I think I’m finally starting to get my head around what I mean when I think of “Playful Leadership”*.

First of all, it’s not about playing ourselves as “leaders”, it’s not about making others play either, but more about setting environments, structures, enablers, that mean that other people are free to feel more playful, so that play may emerge naturally in them, when it makes sense to do so. A working definition for me (which will change over time, I’m sure!) might be:

Playful Leadership is not primarily playing ourselves, but growing playfulness in others.

We can play of course, but I'd say it doesn't have to be the centre of what we do - the important bit is enabling play to emerge in others, the focus is on them, not ourselves. Not everything we do needs to include aspects of play, but I think it’s important that what we do doesn’t kill play. We don’t need to create games or play activities that our teams, or followers, or employees are encouraged to do, we need to enable play to emerge and encourage it to flourish. So it’s definitely not about what a friend (Hi Mathias!) called “Playwashing”, which at it’s worst might drag employees to social events, or promote companies as playful because they have a table tennis table in reception, while expecting them to work ridiculously long hours, try to meet unrealistic targets, and be vulnerable to being fired if they disagree with the boss. It’s more about creating places of psychological safety, teams where you can trust your colleagues and boss, where you can experiment and fail safely, be creative, play to your strengths, be silly at times, have fun, feel like you (as part of a team) have strong elements of control over your work, and generally be in a place where play will naturally tend to emerge (and be valued).

There are probably 3 areas to think about around Playful Leadership.

The first area covers types of playful behaviours that emerge in a team that bring the sort of benefits that we’d expect (increased creativity, better productivity, better mental health, etc., etc.) that lots of people have written about. If we expect them to happen, we’ll probably recognise things as play in here, friendly challenges, humour, people going off to a yoga class together, whatever play the team feels happy with emerging that we can recognise, support, help to grow… but probably not initiate too many of them.

The second area are things we can do that help that playfulness to emerge in teams – which might not look like play in themselves. Things like helping make shared team values explicit (and acted on), setting clear boundaries (this is what the organisation expects, so use those as “constraints” to work within), making physical and virtual workspaces conducive to great teambuilding / working. Sometimes these things will look like the opposite of play (e.g. dealing with “underperformance”), but as long as they are done in a positive, enabling way, they aren’t – e.g. NOT having frank, serious discussions with a member of staff who is letting the team down in some way would damage playfulness.

The third area are things that are explicitly anti-play – disablers, rather than enablers. We should avoid doing them, but probably also need to watch out for them and to try and protect our teams from them as much as we can. Bullying, controlling behaviour, unnecessary secrecy, favouritism (the list could go on…) would tend to kill the environment needed for a team to feel playful, and for us all to feel the benefits that happen when play emerges from that. As a playful leader, as well as avoiding these behaviours ourselves, to some extent we often have to act as a shield from others “anti-play” behaviours, which can make us feel anything but playful ourselves.

I’ll hopefully develop this more in the near future, digging deeper into the 3 areas above, perhaps with examples of what playful leader type behaviour might look like in different situations? I’ll also link it to some more leadership models that are out there already that have aspects of psychological safety, perhaps some elements of playfulness about them too, but which don’t really focus on play or playfulness at their core.


 *It could, I suppose, also be playful management, but “management” tends to have strong implicit aspects of control, of direct line management against targets, etc. I believe there should be a strong leadership aspect to management, but “management” isn’t necessarily leadership. So I’m using “leadership” here, which can include (to me) positive, people-centred management, but isn’t exclusively that.

Friday, 20 May 2022

Playful leadership and performance issues

 Just a quick, half formed idea…

How do we deal with performance issues with staff if we’re trying to be a playful leader or manager? Can we be playful?

This could be seen as boundary setting, defining the edges of the magic circle, the constraints, the rules that everyone agrees to, that then allows play to happen elsewhere.

It doesn’t have to be unplayful to tell people they aren’t performing how we’d like, it can be this that ALLOWS play to continue rather than being stopped by the person who doesn’t do what the team wants or expects?  As long as they operate within a playful environment to ‘improve’, then it fits the overal playful approach perhaps?

It might even be that pointing out the rules, the expectations of other players, help people to realise that they’d be better off playing elsewhere, and that should be seen as fine too? We shouldn’t have to desire playing with the same group of people all the time, and as long as people are supported, it’s fine for some to want to go and work elsewhere with a new bunch of players, as long as it’s a positive choice, not a negative one?

EDITED from here on...

I'm aware this is very vague, so I've added a quick video below that might confuse things even more, but probably suggests where I'm going with any playful leadership model. 

1) An environment / community / workplace where we're doing very obviously playful things and you can see play happening.

2) A set of behaviours that we should be avoiding as they are antithetical to play

3) What I was trying to say above, which is a set of behaviours and tools that don't look like play, but are required in our toolkit to support the play in happening.

Which I (probably quite confusingly) show in the video below using paper, a sharpies, some playpeople, all together showing the boat of play (1) being hammered by bad weather (2) and supported by a body of water / behaviours (3).

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Changing Signature Pedagogies for IL, LILAC Talk Summary

 So... lots of waffle in the last few posts about the talk I gave at LILAC recently! I'll try and pull it all together here.

I talked about Signature Pedagogies (a quick summary of what they are) and how I think we had quite a poor one in IL instruction - I saw the same things cropping up in lots of different places, which didn't really match what I felt about information literacy, or about why / how we should teach. But a lot of consistency in what I did see, so we probably had a vague signature pedagogy for people who taught information skills in libraries. More recently I think  that's been changing, but very slowly and patchily - as newer definitions of IL have been accepted, as ideas like critical librarianship have become more mainstream, I think a newer signature pedagogy is probably developing, but I'm not really sure. I don't think it helps that when we go to conferences, webinars, etc., there is a lot of surface level things going on - people show how they teach, tools they might use, a particular approach that worked for them, and people copy that. Occasionally people talk about values, beliefs about teaching and learning, etc., but less so than the "surface level" stuff. Rarely do the two explicitly mix, where we say "I teach like this, because I believe in that". So we get a bit of the deeper level stuff spreading through librarianship, but much more of the "oh, a shiny thing to try" that doesn't get past the surface level - so you get a disconnect between how people teach and what they are really trying to achieve, which is why I suspect it's taking a while to shift to that "newer" signature pedagogy I'm seeing bits of these days.

[This sentence edited to link to slides on LILAC archive page] My slides are now on the LILAC archive pages, along with all the other presentations, etc., from the conference.

It was only a 20 minute talk, but I asked a few questions during my talk. I found it interesting that the things people say were important in what they were trying to achieve in their teaching was a mix of very practical, skills based stuff, as well as what I think we're probably moving towards, of things like "critical thinking". So maybe we are part-way between two ideas of what we're there for at the moment? Are we there to impart a few basic skills (how to find stuff?) that are "absolute" in some way, or is what we are doing more uncertain, more contextual to the learner, about helping them to be the best they can through questioning, through critical thinking, etc? 

It was interesting that people struggled to link what they were trying to achieve to their acts of teaching, which reinforces my suspicion that one of the brakes on a new signature pedagogy emerging is that people just don't have the time, space, or support to reflect upon their values and how they come out in their teaching. 

Finally, when I asked people to think about what we could do as a profession to address these things, we got a set of suggestions that seem to support each other - suggesting that perhaps some sort of national peer support / community of practice could help one to emerge. That might be through a course / reflection, or a reflective portfolio, or something else, but somewhere where we could have non-judgemental, supportive discussions, especially around the "difficult" questions that we've not addressed properly as a profession previously.

I have pondered running courses in teaching for librarians previously (I've done 1 day things, especially on particular approaches to teaching, but nothing more broad brush), but perhaps now is the time to think about something bigger? Maybe linked to an ongoing community of practice and peer support for a reflective portfolio? Preferably through ILG, but it doesn't need to be I suppose.

Changing Signature Pedagogies for IL, LILAC Talk part 3

 The final exercise I gave people was in the final minute or two of the session, plus it was a hard question, so only got a few answers back. I essentially asked, "so what do we do next?" How do we have broader conversations to help shift to a newer signature pedagogy (I think we're part-way between an old and new way), how do we bring people to more consistent understandings, to reflect upon these things, etc?

A real mix of answers, from "We need to stop looking inward", "I'm not sure how much we can move" (talking about a particular context), but I'll extract / paraphrase a few concrete suggestions below:

  • We need awkward conversations addressing the many things that we have ignored previously (especially inclusiveness / neurodivergence)
  • National teaching qualification for librarians / community of practice
  • Examples of how this might look / a shared framework from ILG as a starting point (from two people)
  • Creating a reflective portfolio and safe peer review
  • Encourage people to be comfortable with not having all the answers, uncertainty, complexity & ambiguity are fine
Could probably combine these suggestions into 1 - a "chartership" type thing for infolit peeps? Not as a gatekeeping thing, but supportive via reflective portfolio with lots of examples / community support? This could be linked to a short course on learning theories, different pedagogical approaches, etc., that helps people reflect upon their own values, those of librarianship in general, and how they meet teaching and learning? Perhaps focussing on those areas that we've traditionally been a bit rubbish at, but see as valuable? It's certainly something that would be do-able in some form.

One more post to come after this, trying to sum it all up and linking to my actual talk!