Play That Pays

A case study on the power of play in learning programs

Erica Swiatek -

Setting The Stage

As a consultant, I have the opportunity to work with organizations that are doing exciting projects or going through major changes. This time was no exception...

I was hired to assist with the merger of two large financial organizations. Everyone in the call center portion of the organization that was being acquired needed to go through a two-week training. Some of the people in the call center had been in their role for a long time and some were hired right before the transition (less than a month for some).

The acquiring organization has a four-week, robust training program for their new service representatives. During this time participants are introduced to many new concepts and have time to review content. They are tested at several points and shadow people on the floor. The program includes games, accelerated learning and hands-on use of resources. The organization also has a tier structure in place, meaning that once a service representative has mastered tier one inquiries or questions he or she will come back to training and receive the next level of training.

The organization being acquired has a shorter training program for their new hires. Their program was one to two weeks and it covered more content in that shorter time period.

I was very excited to be a part of a team that valued learning and development and understood how to do it. This is not always the case and sometimes you need to spend a lot of time showing the value of adult learning techniques and methodologies.

It is also worth noting that the acquiring company was getting two new trainers. One had been in the learning department for almost a year and the other was very new to the department (three months or less). The other trainers at the acquiring organization had their own classes going that they needed to run. For this reason, the acquiring company hired an outside company to help with material creation and to find two consultants to help with the delivery of the training. Each of us was assigned to co-facilitate with one of the other trainers. The other consultant on the project worked with the more seasoned trainer and I worked with the newer trainer. This was another exciting piece for me as I have a desire to share what I have learned about playfulness, creativity and learning and development with new trainers.

The merger training being designed was two weeks long as opposed to four weeks. This had both pros and cons. The pros were that a lot of the people had been doing the job for quite some time so they knew a lot about the industry and what they needed to learn was much more around product and systems changes. The cons were that the program focused a lot on those things, products and systems. An additional piece that was created was an excellent module on customer service. I felt this was a brilliant addition since the acquiring company was not only acquiring accounts, but lots of people.

This module also had another purpose, the existing staff were going to go through it as a refresher so that everyone was on the same page with customer service expectations. The two-week training was also impressive in the amount of activities built in. We (the trainers and consultants) had review activities to kick off the day and we had the flexibility to add our own. Then there were accelerated activities like making posters for the products, creating commercials or skits to teach back a certain feature. A mix of course types was also included some were instructor led, some computers and some search and find worksheets. There were in depth notes for the person running the materials as well. I was impressed with the materials I had been given. We (the consultants and trainers) went through a full train-the-trainer course and then we were assigned pieces to present to prove we were ready. Our trainer had been with the company a long time and was available to assist us throughout the training.

The acquiring organization provided us with an in-class subject matter expert (SME) as well. I have never been fortunate enough to have an in-class expert before but it would be my recommendation for anyone doing something like this in the future. Our SME’s were told to leave the training to us and they did other work in class but they were in the back and ready to assist us at a moment’s notice. They answered questions, bonded with the class (which helped with the change management, because the new people knew someone to ask when they hit the floor) and even got us into systems when we were stuck or didn’t have access.

Even though there was a ton of work put into the preparation as anyone who has gone through a company-wide change such as this knows there are always going to be things that will pop up. I felt this organization had done a great job preparing but there were some challenges that I as an outsider could see coming.

First, I noticed a gap in change management and helping people through the transition. As someone who has gone through Prosci’s change management course I could foresee that changing jobs, mixing teams, fear of the unknown, etc. was going to surface as the transition happened. The company had a very focused plan on the transition for the customers and making their experience smooth. There were also things in the works to provide new and existing customers benefits like updated sleek apps and online services. They were doing a fantastic job of providing lots of transparent communication to assist new and existing people through the transition. So, some of the change management was being done, however, the individual concerns and conversations that were going to come up in the class were on my radar as a potential challenge.

Another major challenge was the physical environment. A portion of the cafeteria was sectioned off to become two training rooms. Again, the other rooms were in use by the other trainers for new hire or tier two training. The two rooms were separated by a cubicle wall which did not extend to the ceiling. Both myself and the other consultant were quite concerned about the noise levels. In addition, we were presenting on opposite sides of the rooms. So, the back row in my class was going to hear the other consultant and vice versa. For the first few days of class one this was a real issue that caused frustration and anger. Later, I will talk about some of the remedies we did for this. As is always the case there were also time constraints. Everyone had to be trained and ready by the go live date. Meaning, hundreds of people needed to be trained back to back.

The Challenges

As a team, the four of us needed to train hundreds of people who had various levels of experience, uncertainty, and comfort with the change in a less than ideal environment. We had newer trainers and for myself I had never trained or worked in this industry previously.

Possible Solutions

As I began learning the content, I began thinking about some possible solutions for the challenges outlined above. My thinking revolved around three different areas:

  1. Enhancing the Environment
  2. Change Management
  3. Playfulness

Enhancing the Environment

The first challenge area, enhancing the environment, was a big one. Knowing that people coming in could be feeling anxious, angry, joyous, or appreciative, and knowing that the environment that they were coming into was not ideal for learning, gave me pause. I wasn’t sure initially what to do about this. The other consultant and I talked about combining the class if we could and following the schedule as much as possible, so our timing would be the same. This way we would constantly be teaching the same content and if someone heard the wrong facilitator they would still be hearing the right lesson.

On the first day, our concern was realized. I had one person get very angry that he couldn’t hear me, and we had several others who complained. Comments were made about how the new company didn’t care and stuck them in a cafeteria. We were able to explain that away to some degree, but I knew something needed to happen.

We (the consultants) shared our concern but there wasn’t anything that could be done to improve the space. By the third day though I had an idea that I was hoping would help. Noise protecting mascots. I have a small squirrel finger puppet and I brought it to class. When we had the two groups together for the review session I said if the noise is too much on your side would you mind if we put the squirrel on the divider wall to signify that we can’t hear each other? The other group agreed, and the other consultant brought in a small wolf stuffed animal and her group used that. We also told the groups we would bring them together as much as possible, so we could help make this the best experience could within our environment. We reinforced that the company cared, and they did, we had several higher ups come to say hi and talk to the groups about any concerns they had.

This simple addition of two stuffed animals did wonders. People were no longer angry about the noise, because they had a playful way to tell the other side we needed less noise on our side. As the classes went on we introduced the animals day one and shared how the last classes had them chase each other, how the wolf tried to eat the squirrel, and how they even became friends.

Now this may seem very silly, and it is, but as I have studied playfulness what I have found is that adults need two things for playfulness to work – permission and purpose and this gave them both.

Change Management

Another big concern for me was the change management piece. The people coming into our classes were literally leaving their old role and co-workers as they came to training. Once trained they would be transitioned into the new company and might be sitting by new people they didn’t know, etc. So, I added in a small lesson on change management with accelerated learning activities and the Prosci model explaining to them the process that change goes through using the ADKAR model. The ADKAR model is Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement. I explained that in class and through many things they would be seeing on the company intranet that they were going to be getting the awareness. I then explained how to me desire is the hardest part of change and that if they have a desire to learn the new content, be a part of the team, etc. that the change would be much easier. In this section I put out a simple ask, one from my creative studies background which is to defer judgement and be open as they learn. I told them we would try our best to make it fun and pleasant and to help us do that we needed openness and a willingness to make mistakes and take chances while exploring the new company and content Then I explained that we would be giving them knowledge and a place to practice which would build up their abilities and provide the necessary reinforcements. In addition, we added in some team bonding exercises to help them know that they were all in it together.

Lastly, for this concern we shared the change continuum and had them decide if they were conservers (who accept the structure and prefer change that is incremental) or pragmatists (who explore the structure and like change that is functional) or originators (who challenge the structure and like change that is expansive). We had the groups stand where they felt they were, then we had them create a flip chart for their group with positive words around what they bring to the table. Then they visited the other flipcharts and added positive things that group brings to the team. After reviewing the results, the teams were asked to move where the teams at work were and where they felt the company they were joining was. This last part was very eye opening in that we heard a lot of perceptions that people had about the company. The SME’s always did these activities with us and for this one it was great, because they could tell people if their perceptions were true or not. The groups really seemed to appreciate the honest information they received in this exercise.


As someone who has studied playfulness and its connections to adult learning, creativity, personal health and happiness, and change management I was excited that the company I was consulting had an openness for me adding playfulness throughout the program. We added the stuffed animals as a way to use play to diffuse the stress of the environment. The company had great activities for review and some simple playful additions took those activities to the next level. For example, there was a trivia game so I bought some buzzers that made animal sounds for the teams. This made it easier for the trainers to know who buzzed first and made people laugh. I should also add that our mascots the wolf and the squirrel were often moved, dressed or had something funny done to them as we went through the two weeks.

Another simple way play was added was to the systems training. The class made up sounds for certain commands to make the system more like a video game. Then in one of the lessons where we were explaining the interactions between the systems I gave them names and created a story of how these two systems were flirting with third system/character and one got jealous and would only talk to her not the other system. Giving the systems names and personalities made them easier to remember and made it easier to understand the information flow.

The company did some amazing playful things as well. They served ice cream to our classes, a full sundae bar in fact, and they gave away swag. They even had the head of the service department make videos for us and he danced and dropped the mic in them (the classes loved him before they ever met him).

We took poster presentation activities and made them into commercials, complete with creating props. Some of these became pretty elaborate too. We had one group that made an ATM and a car out of boxes that our supplies had delivered. A person even hid in the ATM to make it take and spit out the money. We had so many laughs during these that at one point we started taping them for our dancing (and non-dancing) executives. The executives got such a kick out of them they would come to class to meet the stars and talk about how funny their commercials were.

And, there were songs. We asked participants to craft a song from a template we provided to make training reviews more entertaining. Some classes did the song the same, some did rap, some found background music and again people laughed and had fun.

A big learning for me was at first people thought I was crazy and there was even a little resistance from time to time, but if I gave them some extra time to warm up to the idea and create something they were proud of the activities always worked.

There's More

We incentivized the class if they finished all the content early with another class. I was amazed how well this worked. I would tell each class at the beginning that we could end up with four hours left over if we stayed on track and that I would bring them one of my favorite classes that I charge people and companies a fair amount of money for if they did finish early. People seemed to like that they were getting an extra value even if it was more training. I would bring in classes that helped them personally as the reward. For example, I brought in classes on Creative Problem Solving, I would explain an assessment tool to them and let them self-identify or teach them about generational differences.

I also used forced connection or image cards with them on the last day. I would come in with a deck of various images (pictures of nature, cars, objects, animals and people). I would put the cards on the floor in the hallway and ask them to walk around and choose a card that spoke to them. Then after they all selected I would ask how that image represented for their last two weeks. The use of metaphor here triggers creative thinking. There were many times that people had deep insights from the cards.

Play Has a Long Standing Role in Learning

This experience taught me how powerful play is. I saw it bond teams and help form new relationships, I saw play accelerate learning, diffuse anger and fear and simply make work/training time more enjoyable. I believe it had a positive effect on retention through the merger. Play is simple, powerful and often very inexpensive to add. I hope that you will use play in your everyday to get all of these great benefits!