The Epidemic of Overseriousness in South Africa

Play as an antidote to Overseriousness

Play as an antidote to Overseriousness

This is a 5 minute talk I gave on 16th July 2015 at the Future by Design event held at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in Cape Town. 

I have no experience or expertise of the future but what I do have is Foresight. To quote Bobby Godsell, “ We cannot predict the future but we can hear its footsteps approaching.” And to my mind, the footsteps approaching are in big, ugly, black boots. We are experiencing a crisis of Leadership in South Africa. In a study quoted at the Business of Design in May, for a research project undertaken in sub saharan Africa, 57% of employees are not engaged and 33% are actively disengaged. That means that we have only an engagement rate of 10% of employees at work. 

According to an article in the Mail & Guardian this month, "South Africa is stressed out and suicidal". We have 21 South Africans committing suicide every day with 20x more South Africans attempting but failing to take their lives. We have the 7th highest rate of suicide in the world and in a recent study conducted by Bloomberg we are the second most stressed-out nation in the world, following Nigeria. 

This clearly shows an epidemic of Overseriousness. The symptoms of Overseriousness are disengagement, cynicism, fear of failure, lowered quality of output (mediocre work) and an increased focus on overbureaucratisation, more building of systems and processes to attempt to control the environment. 

We live in a world where Volatility is no longer symptomatic, but systemic. With markets growing and changing exponentially and levels of complexity rising, the environments we operate in are now inherently environments of uncertainty; part of what is now our new DNA. And for that we need new systems of being and leading. The beauty of design thinking is that it is a response to a world of uncertainty. It encourages us to experiment and play, to iterate and prototype not to over-invest in one solution. 

Design’s wingman is Play.

Play gets us out of Overseriouness immediately. Imagine doing a 2 min exercise like the one we just played that immediately increases your confidence, your creativity, your sense of mastery and purpose, your attention and your levels of engagement. This is what Play does. It is an urgent and necessary requirement to build into our new ways of leading today if we want to break our current crisis in leadership and our immanent epidemic of Overseriousness.

The Power of Play - Joyous Surprise at the end of a Keynote Address

I gave a keynote on the Power of Play at CounterPlay15 in Denmark a few days ago. At the end of the talk, I asked the 250 participants whether they would prefer to have a Q&A or a game instead. The unanimous agreement was, "A game."

This was the result....a tangible enactment of the Power of Play to connect and energise, and a reminder that it is in Play that we develop incredible insight and agility. 


I had the honour of working with Deutsche Welle Akademie at the end of last year on what for me was an interesting and important challenge:

How do you create a global manifesto on information sharing and freedom of expression with participants from 14 different countries, when each has with their own culturally valid and particular way of doing things and seeing things?

Here is a link to the article I wrote around designing the process and the results which followed.

Leading with PACE: Better Business Impact without the Burnout

Slow signpostWith news that South Africa faces a real slowdown in terms of economic growth for 2014 and forecast for even greater downward trends in 2015, the questions become, "How does one do more with less? How does one run a business which can create a better business impact without increasing the burnout of one's employees and one's self?" There is a new model for leadership which addresses these things. It is called PACE based leadership. Its philosophical underpinnings are grounded in four new leadership practices which take into account the need to create greater traction with less resources. Leading with PACE focuses on Play, Agility, Curiosity and Energy to achieve this.

joker_why_so_serious-wideWhen leaders adopt a playful mindset to the work which needs to get done, they become more comfortable in a world where boundaries aren't clearly defined and the landscape changes at a rate which is difficult to predict. It is not so much about building play activities into one's job. It is more about reminding oneself that when one is playful, we bring a sense of the present, of being mindful in the moment and a sense of focus to the work we are engaged in.

There has always been a misguided comfort in the belief that the Business of Business is Business. Unfortunately this kind of thinking leaves one open to the very real danger of Overseriousness where work no longer feels like an adventure, where we start feeling cynical about the processes we are engaged in, disconnected from our colleagues, fueled with fatigue at what lies ahead and scared of taking risks and innovating beyond the known.

For Lego, the largest toy company in the world, when we adapt a playful approach, when we remember the joy of seeing work as play, as the place where we don't know the outcome of our endeavour, our attitudes change; we become more courageous and realigned to the work we do.

Nature goalAgility, the second part of the Pace based leadership model reminds us that being comfortable with changing course mid-direction is an important leadership quality to be able to call on. Apple is notorious for driving its professionals crazy for their constant mid directional changes. They are however changes which have built it into the most admired company, according to Forbes, in the world. Agile leaders are able to better mitigate their risks and hear the footsteps of the future approaching. Being agile, like being playful, is never just about one decision. It is an approach to leading.

Curiosity, the third piece to the PACE model of leadership, is an enabler of agile and playful practices. When we are curious, we notice other opportunities, we let go of our assumptions and make better commercial decisions; curious leaders are more able to rid themselves of dogma, prejudice and judgement. Being able to notice helps us to unlearn, to begin again in the middle, if need be.

Leadership insight 1When we lead with PACE, we lead at a rate that feels resonant for each and every one of us. It requires that we change our mindset from focusing on the time we have available to the energy required to complete the task at hand.

Leading with PACE gives us the tools to reframe our thinking, engage and connect meaningfully with others and avoid the burnout so often associated with trying to match the speed of the environment we are operating in. It provides counter tools to the traditional methods of control and command and enables leaders to reshape their leadership challenges with energy, ease and insight.




PlayandmagicElaine Rumboll has developed a one day masterclass on Leading with PACE. The programme has been designed for organisations looking to generate a more meaningful impact through less resources, and to gain more traction through a more fulfilling way of leading and doing. For a detailed description of what the masterclass entails, download the pdf here.










The Dangers of Overseriousness

GameOnIt is ironic that we are hard wired to include the word 'fear' when we speak of Uncertainty - the fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of judgement. However if we look at artistic and entrepreneurial practice, all efforts at innovation, creativity and engagement come from a place of NOT knowing what the outcome will be.  It is in this place of not knowing that we create, connect and innovate. It seems that it is the nature of creativity to come from a place of uncertainty. History is peppered with stories of people who started off believing they were inventing one thing and ended up inventing another. It is precisely this uncertainty which is at the heart of innovation which allows for something different to emerge when we trust the process and allow it to unfold into what can be.

There is however another place where uncertainty is inherent in the system but does not bring with it the accompanying feeling of fear. That is in the place of Play. When we play, we have no idea of what the outcome will be. Play is always accompanied by uncertainty, not knowing what the end result will look like. However Play is also fun. It is an immersive experience of flow, of being energised in the moment and losing oneself in the joy of an experience. When we try to control the outcome of an experience, we go out of Play and into a place of performance anxiety.

There is a direct relationship between playing well and leading well in business today. Both have uncertainty as systemic in their systems. We no longer operate in environments where we can clearly delineate the boundaries of our operations, our competitors often come from disparate industries. If one attempts to lead in this environment with an 'overseriousness', the consequences are dire. We run the risk of creating stifling environments because people become scared to immerse themselves in the uncertainty and just stick to the well traveled path. By not equating work with a place of fun, of emergence we run the risk of getting stuck in systems that are mediocre, we run the risk of increasing bureaucracies. When you replace overseriousness with the spirit of play, it does not mean that you are not accountable for results: scores are part of the game.

At work, we want fully engaged teams that understand their roles in the state of play, where we don't assume fixed odds. No game is ever predictable so why do we treat our businesses as if they are?

We talk so much about teams, rewards, awards, competition in the  jargon of business but the direct concept of Play even in its structured form is considered anathema to the 'serious business' of business. Consider a game like football, where all the players are expected to be in top form, but yet the outcome of each game is unpredictable. It wouldn't be exciting if people couldn't be trusted to improvise and take the risks necessary to achieve extraordinary outcomes.

What could Leadership look like if we treated it as a state of Play?

A playful leader energises other by bringing with them a sense of infectious fun, challenge, and the possibility of glorious achievement. The team’s flow and sense of involvement is more important than any individual act. The spirit of the game is all important - it is here where both the rules of the games and the relationships in the game matter.

Improvisation would be encouraged. We would allow for stellar acts of personal achievement - which we would reward and celebrate. Camaraderie and the spirit of fair play would be emphasised over the achievement of results at all costs. Here opportunities for people to connect matter . For one cannot play well together unless you connect well together. It is no small irony that the first thing to go when budgets are tight are the social activities. However, these are not indulgences, or frivolities but critical to the heart of play and possibility.

In Play we see other options. Sometimes playing through our most difficult challenges allows us to see other solutions as I so often see in the Lego Serious Play coaching I do. So if you want to avoid the dangers of overseriousness, which brings with it disengagement, mediocrity as a result of fear of failing, and bloated bureaucracies, embrace Play as a powerful leadership tool.