Innovation and Engagement Begin with Play

Excerpt from “FUTURE STRONG: How to Work Unleashed, Lead Boldly, and Live Life Your Way” by Bill Jensen.

Benay Dara-Abrams is chief technology officer at BrainJolt, applying collaborative technologies to e-learning, digital health, and wellness.

“What makes you, you?” I asked, when it is her turn. Benay is one of 25 tech pioneers participating in a Future of Work salon in San Francisco as part of the research for this book.

She hesitates at first. This is a story she rarely shared.

She spent her childhood in the 1950s in Princeton, NJ. One of her best memories is walking down the street, cutting through her grandparents’ yard and knocking on Uncle Al’s door.

He’d welcome her with a big smile and pull out puzzles that they’d work on together. (Benay clarifies: They weren’t related. “I was taught to address adults who were family friends as ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt’—acknowledging their closeness, while still being respectful.”)

“While I enjoyed the puzzles,” she shares, “what made my experiences so special was the atmosphere Uncle Al created. He encouraged experimentation and wasn’t critical of wrong turns. In fact, he didn’t consider any of the paths we tried to be wrong. That was a major difference between my experiences with Uncle Al and many other adults. There were no right or wrong answers, there were just experiments, with curiosity leading the way, and that was the way I learned how to learn.”

Sometime later, after her friend had died, and she learned more about him, she ran to her father: “Dad, why didn’t you tell me that Uncle Al was Albert Einstein?!”

Everyone’s face in the room lit up with the same shocked expression, as if to say, “Albert Einstein was your friend?!”

Benay continues, “My dad responded that Einstein wouldn’t have wanted me to act any differently based on knowing who he was. I was appropriately respectful to a nice man, but didn’t bow down or change who I was. Later I found a quote of his: ‘Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized.’ That definitely applied to the way he expected to be treated and the way he treated others.

“In addition to his encouragement and acceptance, Einstein created a light, playful atmosphere, fueling my engagement and resulting in what I would later come to recognize as a state of flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I experienced a particular kind of focus, that came about naturally, and that I could sustain for a long time.”

Benay concludes, “I now help others create this state of flow. These high-performing organizational cultures encourage experimentation, collaboration, and creativity in an open, accepting environment. Learning and play are completely integrated. This leads to an increase in innovation and engagement, both of which are desperately needed to solve the challenging and pressing problems organizations face today.” (The quotes here are a combination of our interview with Dara-Abrams and her own blog post about our Future of Work salon, which appeared on Huffington Post.)

Benay’s experience is a great example of joyous and blissful crucible moments. A family friend helped her find her state of flow and she now helps others do the same.

Jumpstarting flow within organizations is a two-part responsibility.

As an individual, you, like Benay, are responsible for tapping into that one intense moment—maybe it was in school or among a group of volunteers—where you first realized the joy and power of being in the zone. Calling upon that moment again and again will help you create flow state habits, making it easier to jumpstart flow on demand.

And, as a leader, you are Albert Einstein! You are responsible for creating the conditions where people can quickly and naturally jump into their zone. That includes, but is not limited to, people feeling they have personal control over an outcome, activities that are intrinsically rewarding. Providing immediate feedback, and creating the space and time for people to be intensely focused on the task at hand.

For decades, we have known that every organization needs to be a learning organization, and yet we are still left wanting for leaders who focus more on creating energized learning environments than on do, do, do, dammit!

Excerpt from “FUTURE STRONG: How to Work Unleashed, Lead Boldly, and Live Life Your Way” by Bill Jensen. For more information, visit Future Strong.

Bill Jensen is CEO of the Jensen Group, a New Jersey-based change consulting firm focused on the future of work. His latest book is “FUTURE STRONG: How to Work Unleashed, Lead Boldly, and Live Life Your Way.” Contact him via e-mail at

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