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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Agile Fun

A colleague of mine just sent out a link to an exquisite Schumpeter blog in the Economist entitled "Down With Fun."  You must read this blog!  It skewers the concept of enforced workplace giddiness for strategic gain.  In my view, the blogger is unnecessarily grumpy that today's workplace has eliminated the kind of fun they have on "Mad Men," which includes smoking, drinking, and vigorous workplace fornication, but that's just me.

From The Economist, 9/16/2010

What about fun, though?  Should we simply give up on workplace fun?  Is my employer, ThoughtWorks, wrong to make "fun" one of its core values?  The Economist warns that "...as soon as fun becomes part of a corporate strategy it ceases to be fun and becomes its opposite—at best an empty shell and at worst a tiresome imposition."  And indeed sometimes I feel a twinge of irritation as I leap away from a fast-moving oncoming scooter on the carpeting, duck from the path of an incoming beach ball, or put headphones on to avoid the guitar playing ("Kumbay-THIS, you long-haired jerk!" I think to myself, cranking the Mahler). 

The Economist blogger states, "if it's fun, it needn't be compulsory."  I would argue something much stronger than this:  if it is compulsory, it is no longer fun.

In 1905, Freud wrote an extremely long and tedious book entitled Der Witz which can completely spoil jokes for you for the rest of your life, if you read it.  So I hesitate to delve too deeply into the true nature of fun, but this is for a good cause.  There's a super cool web site called Visual Thesaurus which actually visualizes synonyms for you in a little map.  Here's what VT does with "fun:"


On the map, you can see that fun has a dotted line but somewhat distant relationship to "activity," which might include management-purchased oversized My Little Pony plushies in the corporate greeting area and management sponsored conga-line dancing and hat wearing.  VT shows fun much closer to "play" and "playfulness" in common usage.  And as Wikipedia, that font of information correct and incorrect says quite clearly, "Play refers to a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities that are normally associated with pleasure and enjoyment."[1]

The key words here are "voluntary" and "intrinsically motivated."  And they take us right back to the basis of Lean manufacturing and Agile software development:  harnessing the intrinsic knowledge, good will, and power of the people closest to the work for greatest progress and gain. 

I once participated in a Rally training exercise which has stuck with me ever since, whereby we divided into pairs, the "boss" and the "staff person," and the boss had to direct the staff person through a maze.  We timed it, and it turned out when the boss had to provide turn-by-turn instructions to the staff person, it took 2-3 times as long as when the person was empowered to maneuver on her own to an agreed-upon destination.

And indeed my observation is that when you get a group of knowledgeable people in a room, get command-and-control management out of the way, and let the group progress organically towards a well-understood goal, even an evolving one, that is a very fun thing.  If the freedom to take charge of a goal allows people to bring remote-activated tanks, harmonicas, and even handballs into the workplace as well, so be it.  But the gadgets and the behaviors are only symptoms, and you have to be doing the work in the environment to know whether it's fun or just window dressing.