Disrupt The Mundane With A Little Play

Imagine you’re at a crosswalk in your city. There are people all around you, hustling and bustling through their day. The signal indicated that it’s time to cross, but in the middle of your traverse two people bump into each other and start ballroom dancing. It happens not once, but several times. All sorts of people are high-stepping their way from one side to the next.

Crazy, right? What was the point of that?

For Charlie Todd and the other members of Improv Everywhere, the point was simple: it was a fun idea and they wanted to share it with fellow pedestrians. For 15 years, the organization has engaged acting out movies in real life, riding the subway without pants on, and orchestrating synchronized events dictated via MP3 that started at the same time.

Anything you can think of, and more, is attempted from this diverse group of free-thinkers. In Todd’s TED talk, he points to a simple reason for the group’s existence.

“The point of play is that there is no point,” says Todd. “As long as it’s fun…it’s enough for us.”

Play is something we were all once encouraged do, but for some reason the point is diminished as we advance in age (and — I’m guessing —  levels of maturity). “As kids, we’re taught to play and we’re never given a reason why we should play,” according to Todd. “It’s just acceptable that play is a good thing.”

Much of the criticism the New York native receives about improv is related to acceptable ways adults should be spending their time. “I’m told ‘these people have too much time on their hands,'” he says. “That’s always bothered me because the participants of Improv Everywhere have just as much free time as anyone else. They just choose to spend it in different ways.”

That struck me, because many believe what Todd’s group does is force us to think differently. To creatively use space and technology to make the world a little more fun to live in. As leaders, we often find ourselves in similar situations with teams.

A problem exists, and a solution is not quickly presenting itself. Work could be moving just fine, but at a slower pace due. Often, we could just be several sprints into a long project and are unable to see the finish line. Improv Everywhere would encourage us to play our way through it, and I’m all for it.

If you find yourself in this position, here’s a few examples of ways I’ve incorporated more play into the work day.

Inject play into existing exercises.

Team members started rolling into the office before stand up, only to find a table filled with masks, noisemakers, and candy. It was right next to our Scrum board with a sign that said “FOR STANDUP” right next to it. I told them nothing more about it until a couple minutes before, when I walked up and donned my gear.

Unsure of what to do, they slowly walked up and grabbed some candy. A few brave souls put on a mask and the extroverts quickly ran for the loudest noisemakers. “What does this have to do with our standup,” I was asked.

Didn’t matter, I told them. Just have fun with it. I ended up recording our time and shared it with the company.

Was there a reason why we needed to speak through kazoos, wearing masks, riding a sugar high? Absolutely not, but the team had been in a rut lately due to a difficult ordering system integration and I wanted to change how we started our day.

Was the work any less difficult? Absolutely not, but we sure enjoyed the day together and forgot about the rigors of our goals for a few minutes. YouTube videos and jokes permeated the space the rest of the day.

Look your boring events in the face and play for a little bit. You just might have a little fun during your next refinement session.

Create events devoted to play.

Shipping work is amazing, but you’re drained when you cross the finish line every time. Frankly, I’d be worried if teams didn’t give it our all, even if we worked at a sustainable pace. The hardest thing we do in software is landing the plane, so exhaustion rains.

You know how we celebrated once? Shoot at each other for a few hours.

The project was hard. Our effort was only supposed to last four months, but it stretched on for ten. Challenges with third-party integrations and dependencies caused our effort to continue on at a seemingly endless pace. The code freeze period lasted more than a month by itself. Frankly, our patience was exhausted and we were a little tired of looking at each other.

So I filled them with Mexican food and then we played paintball for an entire afternoon.

This was not a group of butch outdoor men and women. We were all various levels of nerdy and many didn’t believe in gun ownership. None of that mattered, however, when we set foot inside the gaming area wearing protective gear. I can still remember the sound some of them made after being shot.

God, was it fun.

We left arm-in-arm. The president of the company called it the greatest team outing ever.

It’s one thing to make existing team events playful, but sometimes you just need something special outside of the office. Find opportunities to create moments your teams will remember forever.

Look for small spaces in between.

I think this is why YouTube was invented, even though it’s used for many other things.

Frankly, you may not have the budget for a big team outing. While I dislike it when organizations take that approach, there’s little you can do about it sometimes. You also may be in between events as well, or you’ve used every trick in the book to spice things up.

Just go to YouTube.

The play started once when a QA lead shared a recent music video with the team in our team chat channel. It led to other similar experiences being shared, and before we knew it we all had our headphones on and laughing maniacally.

That was just the start. Have you ever watched clips from The Carbonaro Effect? Do yourself a favor and go there now. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is another oldie but goldie. Movie trailers also work if comedy isn’t your team’s bag. Doesn’t matter what the clip is. There’s something awesome being shared on the Interwebs this second, and it’s ripe for the picking.

This is but one example of ways to interject play in the spaces in between larger events. Ping pong, video games, and corn hole are just a few.

Moral of the story is simple: disrupt the mundane with something pointless to create a magical experience for teams.


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