The Virtue of Play

“For all the virtues will be present when the one virtue, practical wisdom, is present.”

In his writings about practical wisdom, Aristotle states that to take the virtuous and ethical action is to achieve the golden mean between two extremes (which he calls “vices”). For instance, acting with courage is virtuous, while having a deficiency of courage is cowardice, and having an excess of it is recklessness. For Aristotle, any virtue taken to an extreme is a vice – you can definitely have too much of a good thing. In other words, while it is clear what you should not do, the virtuous action depends on the situation. There is no single best move that can be applied to every circumstance.

Individuals and businesses alike must constantly calibrate their understanding of their environments, while organizations must develop and rely on a strategy for finding the “virtuous” act that can withstand disruption. In the face of constant change, today’s consultants should have an Aristotle-inspired answer to the question of what comes next: “Well, it depends.”

The Next Move: Play

Play is one of the most important practical virtues that businesses should be fostering. There are many ways to define “play”; for the purposes of this article, we will do so using two important characteristics. To play, one must (1) explore something new, and (2) understand the rules of the game.

In this conception, the nature of play is exploratory and constrained. Exploration is necessary for a business to constantly find new ways to stay relevant among competitors, while constraints are necessary for and by definition. If a game has no limitations or rules, people will not want to play it.

In business, one way to define “the game” is by the characterization that firms must fight for customers to buy their products or services. If people are not engaging with a company or purchasing its products and services, then the company is not winning the game. Although there are many other credible definitions we could use, these will not be explored here.

Play Analysis: The Golden Mean

If we consider the golden mean for businesses looking to incorporate play, the two vices would be (1) having too many rules, and (2) allowing too much exploration. Here, “too much” refers to an imbalance between rules and exploration – the optimal number of rules would be contingent on the level of exploration, and the ideal level of exploration would depend on the underlying structures that support it.

Deficiency of Play: Too Many Rules

Companies that are fully deficient of play are stuck following far too many rules without exploring other possibilities. These companies put their heads down and execute consistently, and many of them have great relationships with the public. However, as soon as a new idea comes along in such a company’s industry, their current business offerings become obsolete – and they have no backup plan to help them remain competitive.

The Protestant work ethic is foundational in our society, and it is typically glorified as one of the most important virtues for people and businesses to focus their efforts on. Businesses seldom stop to question how hard they should be working – or when working hard becomes an excessive vice. Though not a vice in itself, when brought to the extreme, working hard without exploring can create large blind spots for a business.

Let’s take Walt Disney as an example. In 1919, Disney was hired by The Kansas City Star newspaper as a cartoonist, but was soon fired for being too lazy and lacking imagination and creative ideas.

Excess of Play: Too Much Exploration

In business, an excess of play is typically equated with too much risk taking. This is usually seen as a worse vice than deficiency of play. Regardless, Aristotle would argue that companies should avoid both vices. While companies that explore too much without obeying the rules may be able to think of new and creative ideas, their lack of structure often prevents them from implementing their plans. Elon Musk said, “On balance, I’m a bigger fan of Edison than Tesla, because Edison brought his stuff to market and made those inventions accessible to the world, whereas Tesla didn’t really do that.” Disney learned about a lack of structure the hard way too.

Disney and his brother Roy became very successful with their Oswald the Lucky Rabbit animations, which were distributed by Univeral Studios. However, the rights to Oswald – along with most of Disney’s animators – were taken from Disney because he did not hold ownership of the character. Due to the lack of structure that Disney had set up, he was not able to retain and capitalize on his initial ideas.

The Golden Mean: The Perfect Balance of Rules and Exploration

The result of sufficient play is a business that supports the ongoing discovery and delivery of ideas and solutions. Achieving the golden mean for play will not guarantee security for any company – but the alternatives of deficient or excessive play are far riskier.

An important aspect of any strategy involving play and risk is the diversification of efforts and facilitation of multiple iterations. It is inevitable that some ideas will fail, but companies need the funding and structure to allow for long-term exploration. With this approach, a company can survive in its current state while keeping an eye on the future and testing out new ideas. In response to losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the Disney brothers and their team continued to play, and they developed Mickey Mouse, who soon became the face of Disney. Over the next several decades, Walt Disney would go on to release feature films and even open his own theme park. Disneyland has undergone a number of expansions and has a larger cumulative attendance than any other theme park in the world.

“To some people, I am kind of a Merlin who takes lots of crazy chances, but rarely makes mistakes. I’ve made some bad ones, but, fortunately, the successes have come along fast enough to cover up the mistakes. When you go to bat as many times as I do, and continually improve upon your mistakes, you’re bound to get a good average.” – Walt Disney

Future Moves: The Playbook

It is clear that companies should be striving to achieve the golden mean for play, but the larger challenge of doing so is identifying where the golden mean lies in each industry or competitive landscape. As innovations become more commonplace and growth is increasingly considered a baseline expectation, companies will need to constantly rethink their capabilities and game plans to ensure they stay in the game.

So, when designing your business’s strategy, you shouldn’t just ask where and how to play – you should also ask how much.

the author

Corey Wu

Corey Wu is an innovation analyst at Idea Couture.