The Problem with PLAY

The word play is a big, big problem. The ambiguity of current definitions are holding back serious discourse that can advance the social sciences.

The essential problem is that the word play is both a noun and a verb. This terminology is not precise and leads to all sorts of problems, debates and misunderstandings in figuring out what play is, what is going on during play, and what the relationship between games and play actually is.

This situation is causing epic levels of confusion, debate and wasted energy in the social sciences. All the energy going into debates on what play is and is not could be used to seriously advance the state of the art in the social sciences. Instead we are mired in petty debates because the terminology we are using is completely imprecise.

And that is a big problem.

Play: the Noun

The word play is a noun. A play is a move in a game. And there are SIX other definitions of the noun play. (See related links following this post.). Suffice to say that the word play is a noun. Most of us do agree to the common noun definitions for play. Even so, because play is both a noun and a verb, we have problems using both the verb forms and the noun forms of the word when attempting to precisely describe social phenomena.

Play: The Verb

The word play is also a verb. Play is an activity, a verb, as in “playing a game.” This and FOUR additional verb definitions exist for the word play. (See related links.) Now we can begin to see the problem. The word play is at best a highly ambiguous one.

Here is an example: John Taylor Gatto was a highly accomplished and innovative educator, and book author. He is also a recognized authority on how people learn, and how to facilitate learning.

John Taylor Gatto was a very clear thinker.

Check out this quote from him in his essay on play (see related links):

“[Play is] something we do in between being serious, isn’t it? When machines “play” we get worried and say they’re broken, yet men and women and animals play all the time. What’s going on?

Even the term is ambiguous; what we mean by it isn’t automatically clear.” (emphasis added)

You might be wondering if I am planning to offer you a more precise definition for play. And, you also may also be wondering if I am planning to describe a complete vocabulary for discussing play, and games, in a much more precise and generative way.

The answer to both questions is most definitely YES.

Related Links:

Link: The 7 Noun and 5 Verb Definitions for Play in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

Self-Organization, Self-Management and Decision Rights

Any discussion about self-organizing teams is actually a discussion about how teams make decisions. The first assumption here is that the limits and scope of the team’s decision-making authority is clearly specified by upper management. The second assumption is that these limits are understood, agreed-upon and adhered-to by the team in question.

In this context, “self-organization” is actually referring to a group’s self-management of the specific decisions that it is formally authorized to make.

So, don’t be misled: when you hear “self organization” in a business context, what’s really being discussed is how teams are self-managing their authorized decision rights. And the decision-making process itself.

For any of this to work, the limits on the scope of those decision rights must first be clearly specified and then formally conferred to the team by upper management.

Mezick’s 3rd Law of Culture:

Everyone, with few exceptions: wants (and will accept) a coherent story.

Even when that story is B-S.

Example: well-meaning executives incorrectly assume that forcing change can work long-term (this is mostly because the ‘agile institutions’ and ‘agile thought leaders’ have not warned them otherwise.)

The result is that consulting firms tell a coherent yet false story about how “big-bang” “transformation” can work…at cost of millions of dollars in “big bang transformation” consulting and training fees.

In other words: that story is B-S, but coherent. It is a story executives already believe. A coherent narrative yet, one that is completely false. But everyone wants a coherent story.

In this manner, coherence trumps the truth.

End of story

Everyone, with few exceptions: wants (and will accept) a coherent story.

(This law has wide-scope applications)

Mezick’s 2nd Law of Culture

If it works small, it might work big. But if it does not work small, it can never, ever work big.

The law has widespread application and speaks to the nature of complex systems. “Scaling” means taking something that is working at small scope, and applying the basic idea to a wider scope. The thing you are trying to scale has to work small before it has any chance of working big. Kanban and Scrum systems are good object examples of tools that work small. Because they work in the small, there is a chance (but not the guarantee) that you can scale them. But before you try, you must confirm that you have it going in the small.

Because if it works small, it might work big. But if it does not work small, it can never, ever work big.

Mezick’s 1st Law of Culture

To change culture, simply change the way decisions get made, and who makes them.

This law has important implications for leading change. It means that leading change in the direction of better results is actually about leading change in how decisions get made and who makes them. When the frequency and quality and volume of value delivery needs improvement, how decisions are getting made is usually a big part of the problem. Look here first.

Predictably, those who are subject to any downgrade in decision-making authority will rationally become worried and will resist the change. This implies that leading genuine change is an exercise in leadership communication, an exercise in leadership storytelling. It means that leading change is really about communicating a coherent and reassuring story about the WHY of the changes in decision rights.

Culture is not “read only” and changes in the way decisions get made and who makes them will change your culture almost instantly.