“How can my people get so excited about guys hitting a ball with a wooden club and not care half as much about the phenomenal parts they are building for interplanetary rockets?” A senior officer of an aerospace company asked me that question during a World Series.
The fact is that most working people can be highly enthusiastic about all sorts of things in their lives yet go to work with no sense of enthusiasm or fun. People love to play, but work for the most part isn’t much fun. Sixty-nine percent of the heads of households in the U.S. play computer and video games. And 97% of young people — your emerging talent pool — play them. A working population that derives its excitement from video and computer games and communicates via texts and tweets is not going to function well in the majority of our workplaces, which are too often hangovers from an earlier era.
The Humdrum Organization Life
No manager ever says, “Let’s make our company a humdrum place to work.” Nevertheless most do a superb job of achieving that result. For example:
- Endless sameness. People come to work and, without climactic events, do essentially the same thing every day forever — like a mountain climber who never sees a peak ahead.
- Little sense of personal achievement. Most people lack sharply measured goals. They can work diligently every day but never have a significant success — or failure.
- No celebrations. Individuals throughout the organization may contribute to some very crucial project. But when the project succeeds — and there is a new jet engine or a new drug — very few of those people will enjoy the exhilaration of a personal win.
- Long time spans. In their personal lives people enjoy activities with shorter and shorter time spans — sports events, computer games, texting and so on — whereas at work they must live through glacial planning cycles.
It is easy for organizations to evolve into these patterns and remain frozen in them forever. Few senior executives even consider the possibilities of redesigning work to make it more fun and more productive.
Crises Provide a Hint
Consider, however: When there are sudden customer orders that must get shipped, or power outages, or fires and other emergencies, most employees come to life and get things done with spirit and enthusiasm.
When 33 miners were trapped in a cave-in in Chile in 2010, the experts estimated that, with luck, they might possibly be rescued in four months. The rescue crews in fact got them all to the surface in two months. When Apollo 13 was aborted, programmers re-wrote some software in three days instead of the usual three months.
These must-do situations all have some common elements that evoke the remarkable performance:
- A sharply focused, urgent goal
- A very tight deadline
- Autonomous team encouraged to experiment
- Results clearly noticed and celebrated
Our experience shows that by designing jobs with these game-like characteristics and infusing a spirit of fun it is possible to enliven work and produce the kind of high-level, zesty behavior provoked by crises.
Spice the Culture
Here’s how it can work with virtually any job: No matter how long-term a goal may be, carve off some sub-goals that have to be accomplished in a short time — 10 or 15 weeks not 6 months or a year. For each goal a team should be asked to plan an approach and carry it out. The whole effort should encourage some fun and creativity along the way. People should be encouraged to experiment. Success at the end should be celebrated.
Georgia Pacific launched a number of experiments to discover how to improve mill productivity. For example, the operators in one paper mill decided to test a process change: Typically each operator would, when required, have to change the large rollers on the paper-making machine for which he was responsible. It was a tough, slow job. The operators were certain that the job could be sped up by calling a fellow operator to come and help. Because the person at the very next machine might not be available, there would have to be considerable flexibility on who was called to help. They proved easily that they could deal with taking this kind of initiative. After a few demonstrated successes, dozens and then hundreds of such projects cumulated into the company-wide mill improvement process that yielded hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the same way, before installing a large new system, a team can test the idea. At VIA Rail, Canada’s passenger rail system, the design of a new inventory control system (for food service cars) was going painfully slowly. Even though the system had been only partially installed, the chief of passenger service told his commissary people to stop waiting for the new system to solve the problem. He asked them to use the best data they had in hand and to estimate what the system, if completed, would dictate they do. And with that, they were actually to reduce the inventory levels by a significant amount in a matter of weeks. The team was not only able to achieve the result, but it discovered a number of ways to strengthen the new system that was being installed.
Avery Dennison used the approach to accelerate growth. Several divisions each selected a few new-product projects that were lumbering along multi-year tracks. The game was to have teams achieve a sale or submitted proposal within 100 days on each of these long-term projects. Every one of 13 such experiments delivered tangible results. And the team members were proud and enthusiastic about their achievements.
Other such projects have focused on less-then-100-day improvements in quality in an iron ore processing plant, speeding the order-to-payment cycle in a manufacturing company, and reducing the time and cost of doing processing assessments for tax purposes. In companies that have tried out such “games,” non-involved employees often actually request to be included.
A zesty high-achieving work life does not need to be the monopoly of astronauts, entrepreneurs, movie actors, and NFL quarterbacks. Almost every humdrum job can be redesigned to include these game-like qualities.
About the author:
Robert H. Schaffer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Schaffer Consulting in Stamford, Connecticut. He is also a coauthor of Rapid Results! How 100-Day Projects Build the Capacity for Large-Scale Change (Jossey-Bass, 2005).