Playing with Other People’s Money

Playing with Other People’s Money


I’ve been trying to reconcile the idea of play:

“Don’t do anything that isn’t play. ”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

with the reality of spending other people’s money:

“There’s been one underlying basic fallacy in this whole set of social security and welfare measures, and that is the fallacy – this is at the bottom of it – the fallacy that it is feasible and possible to do good with other people’s money. That view has two flaws. If I want to do good with other people’s money, I first have to take it away from them. That means that the welfare state philosphy of doing good with other people’s money, at it’s very bottom, is a philosophy of violence and coercion. It’s against freedom, because I have to use force to get the money. In the second place, very few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.”

~ Milton Friedman

By “other people’s money” I mean the money we get paid to do things on behalf of e.g. employers or clients.

I’m not sure I agree with Milton Friedman on anything, including the above quote. But it does raise an interesting question: How we feel about “spending” our clients’ or employers’ coin. And by “spending” I’m specifically talking about us, deciding when and how to spend our time – time for which they are notionally paying.

Aside: I say notionally, because by far the most prevailing mental model I see is that of a “time-and-materials” basis for the exchange of money for services.


I have throughout my career felt anxious to spend my time – and thus my client’s money – wisely. Often it has seemed like I have been much more anxious – or I might say, diligent – about this than they.

But recently, in the context of e.g. nonviolent communication, I have begun to wonder about the dynamics of this, and whether it’s truly beneficial. Either for me or the “payer”.


What does Marshall Rosenberg’s advice about play really mean? What are the implications for the workplace? Here’s my interpretation:

Play is the opposite of obligation. When kids play they’re not thinking “how can I see a decent return to my parents / teachers / kindergarten for the time and effort they’ve invested in my toys, my playroom, my food?” Neither “Am i playing well? Is the quality of my play good enough?” Nor even “How might we play better?” – at least, not consciously.

Play is an obligation-free zone. Most adults seem truly constipated when it comes to free play. I guess the weight of obligations in our lives, bearing down on us, might have something to do with that.

The Value of Play

Of course, many might regard it as preposterous to suggest that play has any value in the workplace. The notion of work is the very antitheses of play, in most people’s minds. Work is stuff we have to do, are obliged to do, isn’t it?

Aside: I see the opposite of “play” as “depression”, not work. Although, God knows, most work without play is terminally depressing.

“Whatever you’re doing, if it’s purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.”

~ Stuart Brown

Surely if we deny purpose and instead emphasise play, then the whole edifice of society will come tumbling down around our ears? (And maybe that might be a good thing). And don’t the Agile, Lean and other progressive management folks bang on about the need for (shared, common) purpose?

I can’t convince you that it would be otherwise, but the idea of obliquity affords us the opportunity to believe that instead of the world coming to an end, it might become a more joyous and wonderful place. And that through more play, and more emphasis on play, we might come to achieve our purposes more effectively?  This is what Marshall Rosenberg is getting at, I think.

“The basis of human trust is established through play signals”

~ Stuart Brown


Neoteny means: the retention of immature qualities into adulthood. Humans are the most neotenous of all creatures. This gives us as a species a leg-up in adaptability. Dare I say, in agility? Denying play, then, downgrades our neoteny, our adaptability, our agility. Not to mention the connection between neoteny and innovation.

The Lean View

“Don’t work simply to be working – if work is finished, go play.”

~ Taiichi Ohno

Ohno kind of understood. Long before in-depth research came to the same conclusion.

Except I like to think that these days he might choose to go further:

“Don’t work simply to be working – even if work isn’t finished, go play.”

Money and Responsibility

I must thank @neilkillick for a twitter conversation recently which prompted me to string these ideas together into this blog post.

He writes about his feelings of self-obligation to “provide sound professional advice and courtesy”. And, I infer, a near-continous state of self-judgement, asking “am I providing best value?”

My view: If we feel obliged to do something, we are doing violence to ourselves, albeit unwittingly in most cases. Ditto with self-judgment. And violence, even self-violence –  means less joy, and fewer “good things” – like engagement, energy, flow, cognitive function and invention. Which in turn means we are NOT providing the best service to our clients that we could be – in a more obligation-free, non-judgmental, playful environment and state of mind.

In fact, I feel we OWE it to ourselves, to our clients, to our employers, to our friends, and to our society to live by Rosenberg’s words. Never do anything that isn’t play.

That’s one notional obligation I can live with.

“Play is the purest expression of love.”

~ Stuart Brown

Would you be willing to play along with me and playfully share your perspective on this topic?

– Bob

Further Reading

Obliquity ~ John Kay
Play Is More Than Just Fun ~ Stuart Brown (TED video)
The Importance of Play for Adults ~ Margarita Tartakovsky
Play, Creativity, and Lifelong Learning ~ Gina Kemp, Melinda Smith et al
The Importance of Play for Adults ~ Julie Baumgardner
New Theory: People Need to Play More ~ LiveScience

  1. Hi Bob,
    Interesting subject this. I have made the case in previous presentations for the importance of play in software development. ( Indeed I believe that the whole lucrative IT business has been based upon the playing drive of techies. For Gods sake it was my hobby! So you could say that the business owes a debt of gratitude but that is not my major point.

    I think we need to get away from the fact that we pay for human knowledge services (indeed perhaps any human services but lets just keep focussed). The money is there to give the knowledge worker freedom to do what they think is best for their client. In fact this means possibly that you are working in a gift economy. The client gifts you the money so you have spare time to work on their issue. You then gift your effort and insight and experience etc etc back to the client.

    In this way I would like to think that you foster a far more positive working relationship, but the sceptic in me cannot see this taking hold when we have such a prevalent capitalist drive. I guess money is ME focussed. In fact work should be WE focussed (client/provider), hence the relevance about your comments about love. But this is subtle stuff and there needs to be a balance in the relationship I guess. You know it will be working well from the presence of good, living, energy. I think the ME focus tends to suck out that very energy.

    Don’t know if that helps… Maybe I am just a dreamer…

    Yours jadedly
    An Old Grump techie.

    • “The money is there to give the knowledge worker freedom to do what they think is best for their client.”
      Ooh that’s interesting. The lack of that money being the thing that would otherwise stop that “worker” from playing for the employer.

  2. I relate to what Charles wrote here about gift economy. You get a similar insight from recent ideas about intrinsic motivation, most famously by Dan Pink’s book “Drive” – the money needs to be fair, but once that’s settled, what kicks in is your alignment to the purpose, your ability to excel and aster your craft (sort of like gamers motivation, right?) and the extent of your autonomy – how much space you have to play.
    I don’t think play is opposed to purpose – games have their goals. By taking the contract we set the rules of the game. We have to consider at that time if we can really align with the purpose, otherwise we’re at the risk of doing it all out of a sense of obligation.

    “Obligation” is a tricky state of mind, often confused with “Responsibility”. I often use Christopher Avery’s model called “The Responsibility Process” in which the engaged, resourceful state of mind is Responsibility, while Obligation is a state of “have to” but not really “want to”. Recognizing that you are in a state of Obligation grants you the option to own up to your choices, confront your priorities and choose your next steps following what you really want – either disengage from this task or follow up with more clarity about what you want.

    I think there’s much to say here about Trust – if you have (or confident enough to pretend that you have) the trust of the person paying you, you can focus on doing what you feel is best spending less time and energy on self-judgement, justification and appearances.


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