Thomas, chief technology officer for a large software company, stormed into the office of Paul, his director of engineering for a division functioning as an internal startup company.
“Why are your engineers all talking about playing all day?” Thomas demanded. “This is a business, not a daycare.”
Paul, having expected this conversation all week, looked up calmly. “Hey Thomas, how’re you doing today?”
Paul’s laid-back response took Thomas back a bit. As it always did, Paul had discovered.
“Uh, pretty stressed, actually. The board meeting is in an hour, and I know they’ll have heard about our engineers spending all their time playing. I need something to tell them.”
“Let’s go for a walk.”
You can help your team transform work into play
Paul led Thomas down two flights of stairs into “Coder Country,” as everyone in Paul’s division called their engineering space. They stood in the central gathering area and looked around. Clumps of people were gathered here and there, animatedly discussing topics of apparently vital importance. Others stood at their desks. Or sat. Or kneeled. Or took various other positions Thomas didn’t have a name for. All were engrossed in work.
“What do you see?” Paul asked Thomas.
“All my expensive engineers hard at work.”
“What else do you see?”
Thomas took another look. It took him a bit to realize, “Everyone seems happy!” Yes, some engineers were frowning in concentration. And others were visibly frustrated. Even those people, however, radiated a sense of joy.
This was not what Thomas was used to.
Usually, when Thomas passed through Coder Country, it felt much more, well, desultory. Even the group at the foosball table seemed to be there more because they thought someone expected them to be there than from any delight in the game.
“What did you do?”
“I told them I expected them to play. And then I helped them do that.”
You can help your team focus on what lights them up
“I think you mean something different by ‘play’ than I do,” Thomas noted.
“What does play mean to you?”
“Doing something for no reason other than my pleasure in it.”
“That definition fits perfectly.”
“I don’t get it. Everyone’s coding, and testing, and talking about coding and testing, and all the other things they always do. Why does it feel so sunny now?”
“Because everyone’s doing what lights them up.”
“Whereas before, they were doing what shuts them down?”
“Much of the time, yes.”
“Why were they doing that?”
“That’s the way we had organized. Not to shut anyone down, specifically. But, we distributed work based on who had capacity. And, to some extent, who had the necessary knowledge. So, most people were stuck doing work that didn’t align well with their experience. Let alone their interests and passions.”
“So…you changed the way you distribute work?”
“We stopped distributing work.”
You can have your people choose the work they want to do
Paul walked Thomas over to a different area. A large display covered most of one wall, filled with colored rectangles grouped into columns. Periodically, someone would wander over and move a rectangle into a different column. Or rearrange rectangles within a column. Or add a rectangle. Or remove some altogether.
“This represents all of the work for our current sprint,” Paul said. “The columns represent the current state of each piece of work, with the leftmost column holding everything we’ve yet to start, the rightmost column holding everything we’ve completed, and the remaining columns representing the various stages our work goes through.”
“I’ve been seeing these pop up in other engineering departments. Their engineers aren’t talking about playing all day, though.”
Paul nodded. “This is how we visualize our work. Which, as you say, has nothing to do with approaching that work as play. We used to assign every piece of work out to a specific team, and then each team would assign that work to a specific engineer. Now, we don’t do either.”
“So, what? Each person picks up the work they want to do?”
“That’s anarchy,” Thomas declared.
“I’d call it self-determination, but let’s not quibble about word choices.”
“So many reasons this shouldn’t work are popping up. How do you choose who wins when multiple people want the same item? What do you do with the items no one wants? How do people know what lights them up?”
“How do *I* know what lights *me* up?” Thomas wondered but didn’t say out loud.
You can help your team know what lights them up
“Let me start with your last question: how each person knows what lights them up. A series of workshops helped us explore different aspects of who we are. When we prefer structure versus spontaneity, for example. When we start with the big picture versus all the little details. When being around or interacting with other people gives us energy versus drains it. And so on. We mapped these out for ourselves, each team, and our entire department.” Paul nodded towards another wall filled with big boxes, each containing a horizontal line with captions on each end, covered in annotations of various colors. “Those are our all-up charts.”
Thomas went over to inspect the charts up close. Then, after studying the details, he moved back to the middle of the space to get the big picture. “On some of these, you’re fairly evenly distributed. On others, you’re quite clumpy.”
“Are you going to fix that?”
“I don’t know whether you’re asking about the even distributions or the clumps. But, it doesn’t matter. Neither is something we necessarily need to fix. Now that we know our distributions, we can fill the gaps. Or at least mitigate them.”
“I get how this is useful. And you’re using this to distribute your work?”
“We are.” He led Thomas over to the sprint planning board. “We tag each work item with the top 3 most relevant attributes.” He picked out an item at random and read its notations. “This one, for example, requires big-picture thinking, high interaction with others, and a lot of structure. Whereas this other one,” pointing at a different item, “requires big picture thinking, low interaction with others, and a strong focus on possibilities.”
“And, because you each know your preferences, you can choose the work that best fits those preferences.”
“Yes. We can focus on the work that lights us up.”
“What about the work no one wants to do?”
“So far, that hasn’t been a problem. We have enough people that, whatever the task, someone is happy to take it on.”
You can do this for yourself, too 😊
“Thank you, Paul, for explaining all this to me. Now I understand why your engineers say they play all day. When you get to focus on everything you love, and divest everything else to someone else, that would seem like play.” A wistful look came over his face. “I wish I could do that,” he thought.
“Are you still uncertain how to explain this to the Board?”
“I’ll ask them the same question you asked me: What does play mean to them? Then I’ll explain what you’ve done and the outcomes you’re experiencing. We’ll want to roll this out across the company.”
“We probably do. And, I’d hold off on that for now. I’m not confident we’ve found all the rough edges, nor whether we’ll be able to smooth them all out. However, I would be interested in running this experiment with a few other teams.”
“Mary over in Marketing would likely jump at doing that. Dmitry in Customer Support, too. I’ll let them know they have my blessing to work with you on this.”
“Thanks. And good luck at the board meeting.”
“Thanks yourself. Although I feel way less in need of that now than I did at the start of this conversation.” Then, to himself, “But maybe you can help me run this experiment on myself.”