The nouns shape the verb

Earlier today, Hugh Macleod tweeted “Funny how Dell is so heavily tied to the GAMING industry, yet as a company it could use a much greater sense of “PLAY”. “Playfulness” etc. He then took the conversation over to his blog, where an interesting commentary ensued, which I shall not try and summarise.

For some reason the entire debate reminded me of a passage in one of my favourite books, Serious Play by Michael Schrage.

In the preface to the book, Schrage has this to say:

Writing Serious Play has turned some of my assumptions and expectations inside out. I came to realize that I had lived my entire professional life under a serious misconception. I had thought of myself as someone who was very good at – and loved to play with – innovative ideas. Give me a clever metaphor, model, simulation, or prototype and I was a cat with a ball of yarn. There was no idea that couldn’t be transformed or unraveled simply by batting it around with the right mix of rigor, curiosity, and playfulness.

But as chapters were reviewed and revised, I was forced to confront some simple truths about what I was doing: I really wasn’t playing with ideas; I was playing with representations of ideas. The notion of talking about “ideas” and “innovations” divorced from the forms that embodied them increasingly struck me as absurd. How I played, how well I played, was overwhelmingly dependent on the nature of those representations. Playing with computer-generated images is as different from playing with spreadsheet software as playing with a football is different from playing with a hockey puck. The nouns shape the verb.

The nouns shape the verb.

When you “play” with something at work, it is the “something” that matters, not the “play”. Don’t get put off by the use of the word “play”, as most people do. For “play” read “experiment, with low cost of failure”.


Of course there is a “provided”. Provided you have good feedback loops, that you respond to those feedback loops, and that you take corrective action to prevent recurrence.

Play is serious. Play at work can be even more serious. If you let it.

Talking about feedback loops reminds me of the first time that someone told me about the loser putt. A loser putt has one of two mutually exclusive characteristics:

(a) it is short of the hole, in which case the loserness of the putt is the same as in the “never up, never in” sentiment. You didn’t give the hole a chance.

(b) much worse than (a), it goes beyond the hole. And. You. Turn. Away. The loserness of the putt is caused here by your turning away, and thereby throwing away all the valuable information for your return putt. The valuable information provided by the behaviour of the ball once it passes the hole.

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