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Thomas, chief technology officer (CTO) for a large software company, looked over the myriad lunch tables, deciding which group to join. He was halfway through the first day of a so-called “CTO Summit” and hadn’t yet met anyone of particular interest.

He spied a half-full table that was animatedly discussing something and headed over. That paused while Thomas introduced himself, which triggered a round of introductions around the table. Then, the discussion resumed.

Joan, CTO of an office supply company, said, “Play is part of our corporate mission statement. Our founder was a big believer that ‘the company that plays together makes loads of money,’ as he never stopped saying. It’s not that we spend our days having battles with foam swords and playing tag. However, one of our most important metrics is the amount of fun our employees tell us they’re having.”

“That’s such a different perspective from my company,” Alex, CTO for a medical devices company, said. “’Keeping people alive is serious business,’ our chief executive officer always says. So no joking allowed anywhere a customer might overhear, lest they think we’re flippant with their patients’ lives.”

Thomas set down his sandwich and spoke up. “I’m so glad I chose this table. I’ve been wrestling with this exact question. Some of my teams are radically changing how they assign work, focusing on what lights them up. Some of my other teams are agitating to do the same.” Including me, if I could identify what lights me up, he added silently.

“How does that tie into play?” asked Mark, CTO of a small software startup.

“They delight in going about saying they play all day. Let me tell you, that took a bit of explaining to my board of directors.”

“I bet,” said Rodney, CTO of a consumer goods company. “That’s not how we divide our work. However, my engineers often mention how much fun they have at work.”

Play can be doing what you love

“How do you distribute work?” Mark asked.

“The classic way: make a big list of everything we have to do, then spread it out evenly across teams,” replied Rodney.

“That’s exactly what my engineers are moving away from,” said Thomas. “They hated working that way. Why are your engineers so different?”

“I love your new approach of letting people choose the work that lights them up,” said Rodney. “And, in a way, I guess that’s what we do. All of my engineers love learning. It’s a key factor we hire for. Since we blindly parcel out work without respect for people’s experience or knowledge, they’re often tasked with work they know little about. Which means lots of opportunities for learning.”

Joan nodded her head. “I see why your engineers would say they’re having fun. They spend their days doing something they love. All that learning, though…doesn’t that take a lot of time?”

“It does. But since learning is one of our key principles, everyone is okay with that.”

Play can be working with people you respect

“So different from my company,” Alex said, shaking their head. “And yet, we are in the middle of revising the way we work. Expertise is critical—we can’t risk having a device fail because someone wants to try something new. At the same time, we’ve had very senior people leave because they were tired of doing the same thing over and over. So, we’re experimenting with two changes. First, letting people sign up for the work that interests them. With safeguards to ensure each project has enough experienced people signed up. Second, we’re launching an apprenticeship program. We pair engineers interested in trying something different with engineers experienced in that area.”

“Both of those sound like they’re going to slow down your delivery,” said Joan. “How did you sell it to your executive team?”

“The increased likelihood we’ll keep staff, and the decreased impact when senior people do leave.”

“Which are two sides of the same coin,” put in Mark.

“They are. And, while I may never use the word ‘play,’ I am seeing a lot more smiles around the office as we implement these changes.”

“Your apprenticeship program is a great idea,” said Rodney. “I’m going to take that back to my teams. I know a few engineers in particular who will jump at the idea of that formal mentorship.”

“Who doesn’t love a new way to have fun?” said Joan with a grin.

Play can be having the impact you want to have

“What do play and fun mean for your company, Joan?” Thomas asked.

“We have a clear definition: do you have the impact you want to have.”

“So, similar to Thomas’ phrasing of ‘what lights you up,’” Mark said.

“It’s not really the same thing,” Joan replied. “Thomas’ people all say they play because they’re doing what they love. In my case, our people say they play because they’re having the impact they want to have. That’s not the same thing.”

Alex shook their head, puzzled. “What’s the difference?”

“The impact I want to have is helping people find their way. One thing that lights me up is making the invisible visible. That doesn’t always help people find their way, however. Sometimes, it can get them even more lost. And, I’ve lost track of everything I’ve done to help people find their way that most definitely did not light me up.”

Alex nodded thoughtfully. “Okay, I think I understand now. Impact is external, whereas loving to do something is internal.”

“Ah, yes,” said Rodney. “Thank you for making that distinction clear.”

Find what play is for you

The people at the tables around them started to get up and leave. Rodney checked his watch, then said, “It’s about time for the afternoon session to start.”

“Thank you, each of you, for sharing how you allocate work and what ‘play’ means to you,” said Thomas. “A month ago, I was storming into offices angry about my engineers going around saying they play all day. Our discussion here has widened my understanding of what ‘play’ can mean and be. I wonder whether adding in the idea of impact might make my teams even more happy. And, like Rodney, I’m going to float the idea of an apprenticeship program.” Then, to himself, Most of all, I’m going to define ‘play’ for myself, and then find a way to convert my work into play.

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