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All Work and No Play

A corporate office can be a desolate place. Employees seemingly imprisoned in their cubicles with walls so high they can’t make eye contact. Yet companies crave the playful traits of innovation and teamwork in their employees. Being playful is seen as something children do. Certainly not professionals. I have one way to reintroduce play. Smuggle it in. If you cover play up in some seriousness, no one will know until it’s too late and they are having fun. Here are some ideas for a successful play raid.

One of my personal play heroes is Bernie DeKoven. His book, “The Well-Played Game” is a gem. He was also a big part of the New Games Movement, a playful crusade that grew out of ‘60s counterculture. In a chance encounter, he suggested I look at “The Leader’s Handbook”, a book based on the authors’ experiences building and promoting play communities through New Games tournaments.

The authors recommend The Four Ps for events: Purpose, Planning, Preparation and Presentation to help structure an event. I was picked to run the closing ceremonies at a regular planning event my company was hosting. The event supported a software development project by getting teams in the same room to plan work for the next quarter. There never seemed to be time set aside to allow the hundred or so of us to truly connect and have fun. I picked the Lap Game (the embedded video demonstrates it) as it was also the closing ritual for New Games tournaments, but mainly just because it seemed like it would be a load of audacious fun.

  • Purpose: I wanted an activity that allowed people to reconnect before departing. The challenge was how to make it seem serious enough. I decided to wrap the game in an analogy of software delivery. The analogy itself was irrelevant. What mattered was it was enough to get people curious enough to engage.

  • Planning: I knew I had a slot at the end of the event. The room was large enough and easy to rearrange. The game requires no props. Crucially I also enlisted some allies willing to start a play movement.

  • Preparation: I was able to get the players to move furniture around and made it part of the analogy.

  • Presentation: I explained how everyone needed to stand in a circle and how we all needed to sit together, working that into the story as an analogy for cooperation. I demonstrated and made sure everyone was comfortable to try.

Then the magic happened. Someone instinctively took over making sure the circle was round and that everyone was close enough. A playful sensibility replaced the serious. After a count of three, everyone simultaneously sat down on the lap of the person behind them. They waved their hands and laughed with the silliness of it all.

Last week I tried the same approach in a training class but with an improv game. Improv games are great in that they are a skeleton that gains some skin from the suggestions of Loyal Fans. The players build out the muscle of a story. Improv games seldom require props and don’t have the safety issues of The Lap Game. I could skip the two P's of planning and preparation.

Purpose I wanted to review material about a practice used in developing software based loosely on telling stories, explaining how users of the software need the software to work. The game of Simon was the perfect analogy. In the game of Simon, two players tell a story a line at a time with a big action. The first player starts with a line and an action. The second player responds with the same first line and action. They extend the story with their own line and action. They repeat, building a story until a player fails to recall the entire sequence. The cognitive overload is the same problem facing software product managers when explaining all that needs to go on with software to developers. Smaller chunks with fast feedback allow the software to evolve with an understanding of what has been built so far.


  • Round 1 - I started by letting pairs of participants build a story based on a suggestion, but with no other instructions. Predictably they told stories about themselves in paragraphs. They failed quickly.

  • Round 2 - I suggested shorter lines. They lasted a bit longer.

  • Round 3 - I suggested the add characters mimicking a similar practice in the corresponding software process called personas. Their stories became more compelling.

  • Round 4 - I suggested they add a big action to each line to simulate giving more context. The stories became the most memorable.

What normally would be an hour of slides became twenty minutes of play and a whole bunch of learning.

Improv games lend themselves to being repurposed. They act like a body where the teaching subject becomes the skin. Participants become players building the muscle of understanding while immersed in a state of flow. The backbone of learning is play. Just as it always has been.

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