What Building Paper Airplanes Taught Me About Leadership

For me the fourth quarter of the year means planning. Many of my customers are putting together training plans and deciding which leaders in the organization they are going to provide coaching services for in 2017. Planning is a pure management function that is vital to any organization's success. Planning is a very serious thing for me as I am sure it is for you. The lifeblood of my business depends upon it. When I plan, I get very detailed and focused on my work and what my work is going to look like in the coming year.

What I find during these times of intense planning is that my creativity can suffer. I can become task-oriented and my leadership life can really suffer. My focus on tasks translates into me becoming way more of a transactional leader than I like or my staff deserves.


When I get transactional with my team, I am in more of a "tell mode" than I like. I get very directive with them when the style of leadership needed is coaching or supportive. Getting transactional as a leader happens way too often to me when I have spent a lot of time having my manager hat on.

Cure for Transactional Leadership

One way I have found that really helps me put my leadership hat back on is the idea of serious play.

Serious play is a special kind of intense learning experience where I give time, energy, passion, and commitment to something I enjoy and get a great deal of satisfaction from the experience. So I am working, learning, and having fun all at the same time.

As adults, we approach work and life from such a serious perspective. I understand that our work matters to us, and for many of us our livelihood depends upon our performance in our employment. We all have mortgages to pay and the electric company expects to be paid every month, not to mention that the kids like to eat from time to time.

Our work has very serious utility to meet some of our most basic needs. Got it! Check!

However, so many times we take this work so seriously that the mere level of our focus and concentration can inhibit our creativity. We get so caught up in the details of our work that we can miss the big picture of what is going on.

My Serious Play Experience

Recently I was asked to attend a certification workshop for a leadership simulation called Paper Planes.

In the Paper Planes simulation, participants play the roles of employees in an aircraft manufacturing company — assembler, inspector, tester, and so forth. Teams have an opportunity to sell as many planes as they can make that meet specific visual and performance quality standards defined by the customer.

During the simulation, teams go through three production runs. After each one, the group meets to evaluate their efforts measured by production cost, quality, customer satisfaction, delivery time, and worker satisfaction. After evaluating the production run workers can redesign the process. Along the way, customer interventions complicate the work redesign and the production process.

While participating in the simulation I got to really work on some leadership items that are part of my development plan from a recent 360 feedback I received. It was really great to take my development and have a playground of sorts to implement and experiment with some changes I wanted to make. The environment was safe for learning and growing. Most of all it was fun and I felt really refreshed!

My Learning from the Experience

As I talked with some of the folks I went through the simulation with there really was a lot of learning that was captured. I think the three highlights of the day for me were:

  • Seeing how important collaboration is for organizational success and how really bad most of us are at it.
  • Gaining first-hand knowledge of working across functional boundaries and how I can get caught up in my own silo and my own importance over that of the organization.
  • How to break down barriers to organizational success and team-based change while reinforcing the power of teamwork and communication.
  • Creates a learning horizon that is difficult to duplicate in the actual work environment. Too often in work, we can’t see the learning because we are immersed in it.
  • Gives an opportunity for role reversal. The CEO can become a line worker and a high potential leader gets an opportunity to lead a team in a safe environment.

A simulation like this was a great way for me to experience learning and help me get unstuck from some of the mundane planning I had been doing. The idea of serious play is not a new concept for me but really was a great reminder of what a valuable tool this can be for organizations going through change or building teams.

Serious Play For Your Team

Why might your team want to do a simulated learning experience like the Paper Airplanes Simulation that I did? Here are some things that your team could work on from an Organizational Effectiveness or a Leadership perspective:

  • Organizational Effectiveness
  • Teamwork
  • Collaboration/Engagement
  • Goal Setting/Planning/Execution
  • Innovation
  • Customer Focus
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Self-Awareness
  • Decision Making
  • Risk Taking
  • Tolerance for Change

My bottom line for this type of learning is that I was able to see one thing that my organization needs to do differently to be more effective and one place where I can improve as a leader. Not a bad take away for spending a day working on my business and not in my business.


When is the last time you or your team were involved in serious play? Would it be good for you to take a day and engage in an activity where play had some purpose? If you want to learn more about using simulations for serious play, or even using Paper Planes, send me an email! I would love to chat with you about it.