The Gift of Play with Portia Tung

Portia Tung is an Executive & Personal Coach, an Executive Agile Coach, a Play Researcher, and a Keynote Speaker. I had the pleasure to have her on Le Podcast for an amazing episode on the gift of play.

Leadership is helping others to be the best of themselves.

Portia Tung

In this episode with Portia, you will learn:

Listen to the episode here:

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I had the pleasure to join Portia for the Spring event of the Four Seasons of Play, and I would like to encourage you to try to join the Sun event!

Here is the transcript of the episode

Alexis:

Hey Portia. How are you? And can you tell us a bit more about you and your background?

Portia Tung:

Salut, Alexis. Delighted to be here today. I at work as an executive coach and executive agile coach, as well as a play researcher. And I’m doing very well under the circumstances that we’re all under at the moment.

Alexis:

I’m doing very well under the circumstances, you need to tell me a little bit more about that. What changed in your work with working with people and teams?

Portia Tung:

I presume we’re referring to the pandemic and how my work has changed. And I think what’s been fascinating is with everyone going online, that we’ve actually changed the way we interact with each other, but more fundamentally the way we perceive and treat each other. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that certainly in the people I interact with, there’s a lot less shaming of not knowing how to do technical stuff online, but much more supportive and nurturing ways of interacting with one another. And I think in many ways that’s been a gift from COVID, Alexis.

Alexis:

Wow. It’s an interesting thing to notice. Before the pandemic, would you say that majority of your time was working face to face with people and teams or you were already working online?

Portia Tung:

I would say it was a mix because of the different organizations work in and they range in terms of trust. I would do some of my work online, so remotely, but also face-to-face, but I would say it was predominantly face-to-face.

Alexis:

I need to switch nearly all of the sudden to full online, or are you back to do some face-to-face now?

Portia Tung:

Oh, still all online. And Alexis, like I said, it’s been a gift. And what I mean is it’s been a real challenge of how to share my passion and energy and knowledge and experience through this online medium, which people have been so critical and possibly weary or afraid of. And in my experience, when you are able to bring your true, authentic self to work and to your family and to those around you, the medium isn’t so important.

Alexis:

We need to go deeper into that. But speaking of gifts, you offered me a gift a few years back, you don’t know that. The gift was a book. You wrote a book, The Dream Team Nightmare. And for me, it was already a fantastic book. I think I tried to ride all the different options that you have in the book, because it’s an interesting story. And there’s one thing that I still have with me all the time. It’s the way that the heroin is meeting with people one-on-one and your way of doing one-on-ones to discover someone else, it’s something that I, since then, I’m sharing that with a lot of people around me. I’m doing it and I’m showing it and I love it. So it’s really gift and that’s that gift of how to create a relationship. Can you tell us a little bit how it works, how the idea come to you and how it really works?

Portia Tung:

Sure. So it works as both an icebreaker between people who’ve never met before, but also as a warmup exercise for people who already know a bit about each other, but maybe not as well as they assume. So it’s a game of table tennis is the way I call it, but without the table and without the ball. And the idea is you come in a pair and each person gets to ask one another three questions.

Portia Tung:

So in a pair and each person gets to ask the other person three questions and they take turns, right? So they swap around. So the first person will ask one question, and then the second person will ask their first question. And so it goes. So, a bit like ping pong, table tennis. That’s the way I explain it. And there is only one rule to this game that I suggest, which is we each reserve the right to ask for a different question.

Portia Tung:

And then, so we start and I invite them to say, well, who would like to start? And they might say, oh, you go first. Or they might choose to go first. And it’s a lot of fun of what gets revealed about the relationship and about each other as we play with this introduction.

Alexis:

I was always surprised with the questions people are asking. The easy thing is if I ask you the question, what would be your dream job that you will do or your dream activity if you were not doing what you are doing right now?

Portia Tung:

That’s what I’m doing now, Alexis.

Alexis:

This is a beautiful answer.

Portia Tung:

And I think it’s really interesting, the importance of setting intention. But my latest intention, I’ll circle back to the question is to live my dream. I think for dreams to come true, you have to live them. And so by living them, they become real. And you know what the secret to it is, you have to remember to be present because you can’t live your dream if you’re not in the present and that’s why it can not become real.

Alexis:

Oh, whoa. There’s a lot to unpack with that.

Portia Tung:

And Alexis, I love, I just love French cinema and I’m sure there’s some kind of film in that, but I will answer your question, which is what would I be doing if I could do my dream job as it were. And it is what I’m doing now, spending time meeting remarkable, playful leaders who are trying to make the workplace and indeed the world a better place through their passion and through nurturing people. And that’s what I do in organizations working mostly with senior leadership now, and those teams there, but also on occasion with agile teams as well, working on delivery.

Alexis:

Excellent. And with the way of doing it in the ping pong way, I always assumed at the beginning that when I start by asking you a question, the person in front of me will just return the same question and in reality it nearly never happened that way. They always have a different question, which I found is so enriching and so surprising though that I already love that fact. What would be your question?

Portia Tung:

To you?

Alexis:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Portia Tung:

What is your favorite place to be on this planet?

Alexis:

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I never thought of it this way. There’s a lot of places that are so beautiful. There’s a lot of places that I would like to visit, but I feel that I’m very well where I am now. I think it’s more the people I am with. I have to admit, I would love to meet more people and to travel a little bit. That’s probably being in the same place for more than one year now. I think I love where I am now.

Portia Tung:

You love where you are now. That’s an incredible answer, Alexis.

Alexis:

It’s funny. I never thought of it this way.

Portia Tung:

If understand correctly, then that means you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Alexis:

Yeah. And at the same time when I say that, I’m thinking, there’s so many options and probably I should explore, I should ask myself the question. I had that idea of at some point wanted to live in a farm to do permaculture on to eat what the farm will produce and so on. But it’s, first of all, I know nothing about all that. Of course, I cannot do it, I need learn it first. So there’s a few obstacles in the way, but it’s always something that is for the future.

Alexis:

It’s not something for now. So I think that’s a good question to ask yourself, regularly: “am I at the right place right now?” It’s interesting. So I guess with those two questions and our answers, the people that are listing can understand how powerful it can be to just try to answer openly to a question that you don’t know in advance. And I think that’s the power of that ping pong interview that you propose. And I think it’s really a gift.

Portia Tung:

And Alexis, I think a key reason why you seem to enjoy the exercise so much and the people you play it with seem to find it so enriching is because you help create a safe environment, right? That magic rule of we each reserve the right to ask for a different question, really frees people up from the questioners point of view, but also from the person answering’s point of view. And I think that really helps create that so-called psychological safety and trust between two possible strangers.

Alexis:

It’s true. And the simple fact that you’re seeing it, that you can pass or you ask a different question, it’s a better way of phrasing it, it nearly never happens. Usually you are ready to answer any questions. There was probably once there was a question where I was really just … I felt uncomfortable to share something about that, but it happened once and I did it a lot of time and I realized that I was about to say no, ask me something else. And I finally answer anyway.

Portia Tung:

Oh, that’s lovely. And what did you discover? Did you discover something useful as a result of answering?

Alexis:

It was how people would perceive me. That was something that I did not realize that I would send that message to some people, they will see me in a certain way. I was a little bit surprised but I guess that was connected with the circumstances and the particular place we were and so on. So, that was interesting.

Portia Tung:

And, Alexis I’d like to add as well, the power and this ever so seemingly simple ice breaker slash warmup exercises that it takes real courage to actually offer it in the first place. And that’s the way I work ever since kind of really deepening my play research because true play is safe play, fair play and being a good sport. And with play, you need to show up as yourself. There’s no pretending because if you put a mask on and you’re in a different kind of Alexis or a different kind of Portia when you’re at work and it’s not really you, people won’t play.

Portia Tung:

They’ll say, oh no, that’s not for me. Let’s just move on to why we’re having this meeting. But the fact that when you offer it and people receive it, is a clear sign of your presence and your courage and of course your playfulness and that’s ever such a great superpower to have.

Alexis:

Absolutely. So you mentioned that you are working with team and leaders. You said it in a way that you want to help them achieve their goals in a way. And how do you work with them? Tell us more with how it works when you engage with teams.

Portia Tung:

For me, I think play is a mindset and it’s a set of behaviors and I don’t think they’re really opposites, but it might be because of bad marketing or misconception of what it is. And this dates back right back to the middle ages, right? At best play was perceived as a distraction back in the middle ages, and at worst it was considered something evil brought on by the devil, right?

Portia Tung:

And children would be smacked for playing when they should have been sweeping chimneys or doing other things throughout the history of humanity. So I think play has had a lot of bad press and misconception for a long time until we really looked at child development and really human development and the necessity of play. So play leads to creativity and innovation, as we can see in the creative companies amongst us like Apple and Google, but work isn’t the opposite of play.

Portia Tung:

Work is what gives us a sense of purpose and it allows us to improve our competence. And these are observations made by Dr. Stuart Brown, who was a play expert and wrote a book on play called Play. And I think that’s really important to recognize that actually play and work are not opposites, but they’re very complimentary. And without one you couldn’t really be a whole person, you need to do both together. The kind of like yin and yang.

Alexis:

So a sense of purpose and a way to be together that will unleash the creativity to serve that purpose. That’s a little bit the way you want to frame it?

Portia Tung:

Yeah. So when I work with teams and leaders, most of them will have looked me up. So they’ll know that play is my bag. So people who come to me like yourself have already, in some ways accepted an invitation and openness to be playful. So it’s not that difficult. People who might not know my play reputation and they might never know, simply perceive me probably as someone who’s quite resourceful, respectful, responsible, resilient, and real.

Portia Tung:

And those are the five Rs, I call them Alexis, the five Rs of playful people. And I actually stumbled across them because when I started playing more in organizations and taking riskier decisions in terms of how far can we go with this transformation, what I noticed is that the people around me, the true change agents and they didn’t need to be people with titles or leader in their title, they would be people who would be very responsible, very resourceful, respectful, resilient, and then they’d be real as well.

Portia Tung:

So when I discovered these five Rs, I call them, these key characteristics of playful leaders, if you like, that enables me to then go into my toolkit or treasure box, I call it my treasure trove of tools and techniques to then offer them much like the icebreaker exercise. And it’s finding the right fit with the person that you’re meeting and playing with.

Alexis:

So I guess in teams, even if someone hire you because of your playfulness in teams, some people will not see that play is part of what needs to be done. They will want to be serious. They will want to be to the point, how it works with them?

Portia Tung:

Yes. So I rarely offer play upfront. So I will say something like, well, you’ve invited me to give you some agile training, so we’ll be doing a simulation. I don’t use the word game because it might scare some people. So it’s not that I’m trying to hide it. It’s just, it’s a simulation. We have some clear goals and acceptance criteria for why we’re doing the simulation.

Portia Tung:

We’ll be able to use the simulation. My favorite one is the XP game invented by Pascal Van Cauwenberghe and Vera Peeters. And that’s a fantastic way of seeing how a team will behave and perform during an actual sprint or iteration, right? So when I offer something, I rarely call it a game. I don’t necessarily have to mention play. And it’s so funny, Alexis, I think if we talked 10 years ago, I’d be much more flamboyant and say, oh, let’s do play, get out your bags and Lego and have lots of colorful things in the room and do that right upfront in the first instance when I meet a new group. And I think it can be quite intimidating.

Portia Tung:

And in many ways, now I look back at it, it can be disrespectful if people don’t realize that it’s an option. And I think this is the key thing, right? So true play as Dr. Stuart Brown describes it is safe play, fair play and being a good sport. So in that sense, I now make sure that I say whatever we do in the next 90 minutes during the simulation, it’s an option. It’s an invitation. You decide how much you take part in and how much you sit out. But, rest assured how much you get out determines on how much you put in. And then I leave it as that. And this ability to treat people with respect and as adults is really important in play and relationships.

Alexis:

I guess it will give a lot of ways to people to really find their way to invite others in an activity that is a little bit different from what they are proposing usually. I use the word stimulation a few times too. I remember one time I played the red bead experiment, that thing that was invented by Deming to teach people statistics a little bit, and to teach them about the bad management practices.

Alexis:

And I played that with a customer and one of the workers in the game was in fact, the CEO of the company. And that was interesting because of course that worker wanted to do great in front of her team. And of course the game is strict against her, so the worker cannot be good. That’s nearly impossible. That would be pure luck. And so I was playing the manager and the manager is ready harsh the game. And so I was ready harsh with her, and at some point I said, “We will poorly stop the simulation there,” because she told me something like, oh, you know what, I will break your face.

Alexis:

And I said, “Maybe we need to pause the game for a second,” but she’s really into it. And now we need to cool down a little bit, but that was really interesting how powerful it was. And it changed the relationship in the team and it changed the way she was reacting to some surprises in the work we were doing. So it was really powerful. So I really loved it. I was maybe a little bit more careful with the way I was introducing it in other teams.

Portia Tung:

Well, Alexis, risky play, there’s an element of play, right? Because without taking risks, why would you bother? Where would be the fun in something that’s 100% safe? That would just be boring, right? So it’s great you took a risk and that this leader when offered the chance to grow and reflect, took the opportunity, and that’s a great gift to offer. And this is the thing about play, I guess in some ways, it’s a tool that’s so powerful that you really need to take care of how you handle it and what happens, not when it backfires, but what happens when you are under-prepared yourself? Because I had a similar incident playing the XP game where I happen to have a business analyst in one of the teams, she was a real business analyst in real life.

Portia Tung:

And during one of the rounds, they hadn’t gathered the requirements at all. So when I was the product owner and I declined and said, “No, that hasn’t passed the acceptance criteria. You’re going to have to rework that.” She threw the user story back at me. And it was fascinating because she was part of a third party working for the organization that I worked in as a permanent member of staff, which made me realize, oh gosh, if people behave in this way, right, to their client, what is it like in real life?

Portia Tung:

And this is the power of play, right? When we get into play, we become ourselves. Our minds are curious. And so actually, thanks to kind of neuroscience we recognize now when you are curious, because your mind is open, because it can’t be any other way, it cannot be critical as well. And so you start flowing 100% as yourself. And if you are maybe super competitive, because that’s your thing, then that will come out. And so it’s about really creating a safe environment where people can be their true selves, learn from it and not feel judged by others.

Alexis:

And I feel it’s much more powerful. Usually the way we were organizing or of day when we had the face-to-face meetings, it’s you are in the meeting room working already or looking at presentation, engaged in discussions, really serious, and then at the end of the day, you are going to play a bowling or whatever, or game or something that is really pure distraction. And then you have dinner or the opposite.

Alexis:

It was interesting to see that people are saying, but that part of the meeting, when we are done with the meeting at the end of the day, we are going out, we are having dinner, having a drink, playing a game, that distraction part is really great to build bonds in the team. It’s really the team building part.

Alexis:

And I was trying to tell them, can we bring a little bit of that in our day because why not? Why not building those bonds? Why are you not building those relationships? Why not being ourselves in the day? Why do we have to separate both? And it’s sometimes a little bit difficult, but do you think we can do to help to foster that, to create more that space in the day?

Portia Tung:

That’s a great question, Alexis. I think it’s important to reflect on the history of humanity and where we’ve come from as well, the really bigger context of this because in Western culture, we’re so good at dividing things up, from school subjects, science and history and math, they’re all different apparently, but actually, the children know that they are more intertwined than the adults think.

Portia Tung:

And likewise it is with the socializing and the working right, in humanity’s bit to optimize where we want to be and who we want to be, we kind of cut out the fun because we think that’s extra. But if you look at child development, it’s absolutely essential for physical development, cognitive development, social development and emotional development. And if we don’t really look at people and teams as a whole in this way, the result is yes, we compartmentalize everything, we will have fun between six and eight o’clock. And only in the evenings, only after we’ve had a glass of wine with our colleagues and then we can be ourselves, right?

Portia Tung:

And that always makes me giggle because it’s a bit like, you have to hold your breath throughout the day until that two glasses of wine, which is a very unreasonable ask. And I think that’s also why children find it so difficult to be amongst unplayful adults because they have to hold the breath and not be themselves. And that’s not the way for healthy living. So what I tend to do is encourage play through modeling that playful mindset and behaviors. So from the moment I meet people, we do the icebreaker exercise you’ve enjoyed. I write my emails in a playful way. I sign them off as wishing you a playful week.

Portia Tung:

And I know some people might find that offensive, but that’s not my intent. And it is a genuinely good wish. So I am really, I guess, thoughtful if you like about the way I approach people and express myself. And in that way, people are very quick to then say, oh, I’m glad you said that because I stayed up all night the other night playing chess and I had such a great time. And often I’m like, oh, they’re a chess player. And that’s why they were so tired at the standup. Now I understand.

Portia Tung:

And I think that’s really about what it is. When we are a playful leader, we bring our full selves to work. We are prepared to take risks. And the biggest risk of all is to look in the mirror and acknowledge what is in front of us.

Alexis:

Oh yes. Absolutely. That brings me to a question about leadership. I strongly believe that leadership is not about title. It could be for people that are really people manager of course, but also for individual contributors, it’s not really about titles or your role. What are your beliefs about leadership? What does being a leader mean to you?

Portia Tung:

So I would say I wouldn’t call them beliefs. I can share some stories and maybe describe as working assumptions so they can change, working assumptions about leadership. When I reflect back about my relationship with leadership, Alexis, I would say I’ve been uncomfortable with it, probably for most of my working life and so much so I would shy away from it. And I think in the first six, eight years of my working life, when I started off as a Java developer and then, moved into development management and then, agile coaching, I remember thinking this leadership stuff isn’t for me, why are people so bothered about the titles?

Portia Tung:

This is about getting the right things done and doing them right. It’s as simple as that. And because of the differences in our understanding of leadership, mine is much more aligned with yours, it really put me off and I would spend so much time reading books, from Tom Peters and all of this stuff and Warren Bennis and in the end I stopped reading them because I was like, well, hang on a minute, in the textbooks, it says to be a good leader is to eat last like Simon Sinek and all of this stuff.

Portia Tung:

And the leaders around me weren’t doing that. They were too preoccupied with what other people’s saw in the reflection in the mirror than what actually needed to be done. So for the first part of my working life, I was really put off leadership. And it’s only really until the last few years when I got more and more into the play research, I said to myself, what is it that I’m so afraid about leadership that I don’t want to associate myself with it?

Portia Tung:

And I realized it is about people who put their ego first and put themselves first rather than the greater good. So I changed the game and came up with this idea of playful leadership. And for me, that concept means being your authentic self. So when you make a mistake, you’re the first one to raise your hand. And if you haven’t had the presence of mind to spot it in time to raise your hand first, then I thank the person who points it out quickly.

Portia Tung:

I know these sound like such simple things, but they’re very difficult to do in the environments that we find ourselves in. And when I reflect back on, I’d say my golden moment as a leader, it’s when I was at school. I remember when I was 17 and the head teacher said to me, “So Portia, we’d like to make you an offer.”

Portia Tung:

And I was like, “What’s the offer?” And she said, “We’d like to make you head girl,” the person who would represent the school because I was in the oldest year at my school and I said, “Oh, that’d be great.” And I was ready to snaffle it up and embrace it. She said, “It comes with some conditions.” And I said, “Oh, what’s that then?” And she said, “You have to promise us that you will not sacrifice your grades in order to take this role too seriously in doing the best for the school.” And she said, “We’ve talked about it with all the teachers and they feel that’s the biggest concern. And if you are unable to do that, you cannot have the head girl-ship.”

Portia Tung:

I was like, oh God, they know me so well. So I made sure I studied hard enough, but maybe not quite as hard as I could’ve. And I had such a great time being a head girl. And when they offered it, Alexis, it wasn’t because of the title I wanted, it was because I thought, phew, I can stop hiding all the good things I want to do and was doing for the school in my spare time, because I felt it was such an enriching thing to be part of a community and helping other people become best versions of themselves.

Portia Tung:

And I think that’s what put me off in the workplace. When I started work, I felt so cheated, Alexis. I was like, this is nothing like what school and university said that leadership would be, what am I doing here? And it’s not until I really embraced my playful self and started taking risks and say, no, actually I’m not going to be that kind of leader that people seem to model and revere.

Portia Tung:

It’s not just about the money that can not be the only measure of a human being success, that I changed the game and then I played it my way. And I think that’s really the key for me. That’s what leadership is. And where I’ve come to with the thinking now is my focus is on personal leadership, leadership coaching with individual leaders. One-to-one because that’s how we create change, right? We don’t just wheel in an agile machine that then gives off a beautiful floral scent. And then everyone goes, oh, we’re ready to do agile, and everything will be optimized. That’s not how change happens, right? Change happens with one person at a time and it’s them enabling themselves.

Alexis:

Yes, absolutely. One person at a time and they are enabling themselves. I love what you said about helping others to be the best of themselves, the best version of themselves. How do you find that energy for yourself?

Portia Tung:

Oh, you as such fun questions, Alexis? Well, I have a checklist. So I realized that when I became a mom eight years ago, my brain was unable to contain a lot of information and make good decisions in real time. So I came up with a checklist and as I observed looking at my work in progress and seeing how much I had on my plate, as a mom and a working mom as well, I realized I needed a set of criteria by which I made decisions in my life.

Portia Tung:

And I have different sets of criteria, ranging from personal values to the day-to-day. But the checklist I’d like to share with you is this, in the top of the checklist is number one, is it good for me? Whenever I make any decision, is it good for me? If it’s no good for me then it’s off the list and I’m not doing it.

Portia Tung:

The second item is, is it good for my daughter? So obviously, if it’s quite stressful as an engagement, and that means I’m going to come home a little bit more negative and grumpy than I would otherwise, is it good for my daughter? Well, if it fails that test, then that goes out the window. Then the third one is, is it good for my family? So I think about my husband, my daughter and me, so the whole family and if it fails that, then it goes out the door.

Portia Tung:

There was the fourth one, actually, since we were friends and which is, will it make the world a better place? And if it passes that test after the first three, then I’ll go, yeah, I’m definitely doing it. And I think for me, it’s become like a shopping list of criteria. When I started looking for clients and ways of creating change, that’s how I shop around for the engagements that I’m able to take part in, because I think it’s so important to have a fair exchange, right?

Portia Tung:

I want to be the best version I am when I rock up and work with my clients and teams. And that is the balance of exchange. And in return, together we maximize the return on investment for their effort and time.

Alexis:

I think it’s really a beautiful way to end that conversation for today. I would love to have more conversation with you and I hope they will make the world a better place really seriously. Thank you very much Portia up for that conversation today.

Portia Tung:

Thank you, Alexis. Mille Mercis.

Alexis:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Le Podcast. Go to alexis.monville.com for the references mentioned in the episode, and to find more help, to increase your impact on such section at work, drop a comment or an email with your feedback, or just to say hello, and until next time to find better ways of changing your team.

Photo by Ben 

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