Free Agency

If you haven’t seen “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix I highly recommend you watch it. I love the play on the word “Abstract” in the title. An abstract is a fairly detailed summary of a topic, which describes the show well. Abstract is something existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical existence, and design is the method for the abstract to become concrete.

While watching Episode 4 of Season 2: “Cas Holman: Design for Play”, I was intrigued by Cas Holman’s use of the word ‘agency’ when talking about toy design. In her designs she did not want to tell the person playing what they should do, who they should be or what the toy was. By defining things themselves during play, the children were able to develop a sense of agency through their self-determined actions.

Sense of Agency (SA) is a prerequisite for human moral responsibility. Self-recognition exists on two levels, an automatic level for action identification and a conscious level for the sense of agency. When SA isn’t present or is disconnected from the automatic level (as it is in schizophrenic patients) the individual does not connect their actions with their personhood.

How we play as children changes how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world. We have been taught (through the medium of nature documentaries and Disney films) that play is preparation for adulthood. The lion cub pinning his sister in a headlock is learning how to make dinner; the capering impala fawns are practicing their escape routine, right? Well, not that we can prove. It turns out that researchers cannot identify any meaningful connection between play and success at adult skills.

Play does have a measurable effect on how animals relate to one another. Rats deprived of play and/or playmates grow to be adults that lose their cool in social situations. When confronted with challenging situations, play deprived rats either succumb to rat-rage or run away in fear. Play is, in fact, the difference. If a previously play-deprived rat goofs off with other rats for just an hour a day it completely changes the rats behavior.

Whatever we are exposed to impacts our brains. When we are exposed to stress, our brain changes so that it’s subsequently less sensitive to stress hormones. The other very important thing we’ve learned from research with rats is that when they’re raised with lots of companions and interesting objects, they develop larger brains than rats that grow up in austere surroundings. These enriched rats not only have heavier cerebral cortexes with more neural connections, they learn more quickly too.

How we play matters. How we work does too.

While our brains were more pliable and grew and changed more rapidly when we were young, we still maintain significant plasticity as adults. Therefore, the environment we spend time in impacts how we respond to others and how much brain power we have and can use. If we are challenged appropriately (like in animal play scenarios) and surrounded by interesting people and things, we will continue to develop better resilience to stress and more capacity for learning and creative response.

As leaders we are responsible for creating this environment. Children derive a sense of agency (and get a brain boost) when they are free to play with toys that are not predetermined or predefined. Our team members get improved sense of agency and mental capability when they are free to use tools and the vision but are not spoon-fed the solution. Creating opportunities for individuals and teams to solve problems and create solutions from raw materials without step-by-step instruction may take a little more time at first. Once the team becomes familiar and engaged, the results of their efforts are multiplied. Additionally, this format acknowledges that as leaders we don’t have all the solutions. Many times, the solutions created by others are far better, and there is certainly going to be far more of them.

The best things in life are not the easiest. In “Abstract” Holman’s journey to create toys that give children better sense of agency was difficult and challenging. Putting a kid down in front of a TV is easy. Finding and engaging them in interesting and challenging toys is much harder. Telling everyone what to do and how to do it is easy. Creating a flexible structure where people can have self-determinacy without costing the community quality or too much efficiency is much harder. In both cases, the result of the harder path is individuals who are fulfilled and growing. Individual growth and health results in a growing and healthy community.

Kimray is a community where people are responsible for their actions and expected to contribute. It is led by leaders who are willing to challenge the norm and work hard to create a meaningful and engaging environment. Having the freedom to grow and develop is good for the individual and good for the community, and it is The Kimray Way.