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Portia Tung on Using Play to Make Good Teams Great


InfoQ had the opportunity to chat with Portia Tung, consultant, storyteller and games maker about how she combines business strategies with play to bring about positive organizational change. She’s the author of The Dream Team Nightmare, the first ever Agile novel where your decisions determine the outcome of the story. Along with Luke Hohmann, she’s keynoting Playcamp London on 24 March (Playcamp is also in Paris on 21 March). Playcamp is a community-driven conference for exploring how serious games and collaborative play are being used in the business world.

InfoQ: The title of your talk you’ll give at Playcamp is the “Power of Play--Making Good Teams Great.” Why is play an essential part of developing and maintaining effective teams?

Cast your mind back. When did you learn and grow most in your life so far? For most people, it's our early years, most likely at play school when we had the chance to learn by experimenting and play. It was such fun. We'd play and learn all day, every day! And it was such fun, we just kept going! Then we grow up, get "serious", find a job and stop playing. As a coach, I've observed that the teams that keep growing and going are the playful ones.

InfoQ: How did you begin incorporating playmaking into your work?

With baby steps! To paraphrase Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see." As a play sceptic, I had to first re-acquaint myself with the power of play. I began playing "professionally" back in 2003 by playing The XP Game run by the game's playful creators Pascal Van Cauwenberghe and Vera Peeters at XP Day London. The experience was so inspiring, I spent the next few years looking for legitimate ways to play during work hours. I finally got the chance a few years later when I designed and delivered my first introductory Agile course which incorporated The XP Game, of course! After that, I continued my play research by creating and experimenting with curious concepts such as Agile FairytalesPlaymaking and Enterprise Gardening to help me develop new skills as a cultural change agent!

InfoQ: How do you deal with skeptics? People who aren’t convinced or are uninterested in using collaborative play at work?

It's not play when you're forced to play; it's punishment! As part of the Playmaker's Play manifesto I re-define play as optional and voluntary, among other vital attributes of effective play. I invite people to play and if someone doesn't want to take part, we still save them a place so they can choose to join in when they feel like it. Play is inherently attractive, so people will want to play if what we do looks fun enough!

InfoQ: You consider yourself an agile coach, storyteller and playmaker. Can you tell us about the relationship between storytelling and play? 

Storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of play. Storytelling develops our ability to problem solve, connect with others and cope with uncertainty and not knowing. It continues to be one of the most important ways we learn from and with each other. It enables us to share experiences and even be vulnerable with one another. The best storytelling is often an act of courage!

InfoQ: You work as an internal consultant, helping teams and individuals. Can you tell us about some of the situations where you’ve used playmaking or serious games, on either the team or individual level?

Ice Breakers are an effective and efficient way to introduce play into daily work. Other examples include Innovation Games® such as Speed Boat , which I use for retrospectives. The key for games to be effective is to experiment playing them in different contexts and see what you get. A metaphor that resonates with people can produce remarkable results!

InfoQ: Collaboration -- and the need for improved collaboration in our increasingly distributed world -- seems to be at the root of using games or being collaborative at work. Why?

According to Dr Brené Brown, a Shame and Vulnerability researcher, human beings crave for connection and that's my experience, too. We thrive when we connect with others and re-connect with ourselves. Collaboration, especially distributed collaboration, is a test of how well we connect with others. Play is a familiar and accessible means to do this and the result is a relationship of mutual trust and respect.

InfoQ: Can you tell us a bit about the Playcamp initiative and how people can get involved?

I’m on the organizing committee for the London Playcamp, which is March 24. Playcamps are one-day, locally organized conferences meant to bring people together to share how they are using collaborative play and serious games at work. We’ve tried to incorporate the best bits from traditional conferences and open space events—roughly half of the sessions will be organized through open space, and we’ll have keynotes from myself and Luke, and we’ve invited people we admire who are involved in agile games, gamestorming, Lego Serious Play and related techniques. It should be a lot of fun!

When was the last time you played at work?


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