Executives go out to play

Observations on management

A couple of weeks ago, while journalists were thumbing gloomily through the CBI's quarterly survey of industrial trends, the real action was taking place elsewhere. In the discreet luxury of a West End PR agency, I was with management consultants, journalists and business executives assembling multicoloured bricks into recognisable shapes. Our brief was to develop business strategies, to invent scenarios for the future and to "think outside the box".

For executives in need of inspiration, Lego is this season's must-have. "Lego Serious Play," according to the consultancy behind it, "aims to turn boardrooms into constructive playgrounds." Despite the fees that Lego charges - the bricks alone cost £2,000 - the response from the business community has been overwhelming. More than 50 major European companies - and more from North America - have hired Lego's consultants. Some companies have set aside special Lego rooms.

After warm-up exercises, each of us at our session set to work building something to represent issues facing us in the workplace. The squat, cherubic journalist from the Sunday Times built what looked like a forklift truck being driven by a dwarf - symbol, the group decided, for missed deadlines, fatigue and flagging morale. My mute assemblage was deemed to be a metaphor for the problems of reconciling individual endeavour with organisational coherence. But the truth was that it looked like nothing at all.

Lego's successful entry into the boardroom tells us a great deal about morale in the business world. Management has exhausted the potential for restoring corporate profitability through cost-cutting and endlessly trimming workforces. So businesses have lurched, with some signs of desperation, towards creative play, convincing themselves that toys are capable of unlocking treasures hidden within the corporate imagination. We are at our most creative as children, they think, and by going back to toys we can rediscover that creativity.

Management consultants and toy manufacturers are only too happy to help. Corporate toys already account for around 1 per cent of all toy sales in the US, and analysts estimate that they could grow to 10 per cent.

The innocence of childhood play may indeed be enchanting; the trouble is that a child's view of the world is limited to its immediate environment and lacks any discipline. The creative urge that drives work is qualitatively different from that which allows children to build sandcastles. Just like any other grown-up activity, hard work and the art of management depend on a stubborn seriousness of purpose. They are unlikely to be aided by a game of Lego.

In her recent book Fun is Out, Judith Mair, chief executive of a Cologne advertising agency, goes further. She argues that corporate fun and games are eroding distinctions between work and personal life - so much so that they are responsible for the perilous state of the German economy. She proposes resuscitating the German work ethic through a ban on laughing and the introduction of prim, stewardess-style uniforms. This looks suspiciously like just another gimmick - and Mair, in any case, seems to confuse the symptoms of a managerial impasse with its cause.

The truth is that real workplace creativity requires innovation and patient investment in both products and people. Playing around in the office looks like a nervy displacement activity.

The problem with Serious Play, however, is not just its infantile approach to the business of management. It is also an unsatisfying kind of play. A game of Lego whose purpose is to impress one's colleagues and turn around the business is not only destined to fail, it is also likely to put anyone off the game for life.

When management consultants tout their wares as "intelligence toys" that can unlock creativity and problem-solving skills, they turn around the simple act of playing into an arcane ritual and a highly competitive sport. Which takes the fun out of it.