- An entire third-shift maintenance crew waxing floors and dancing to country music at one in the morning.
- After a week of grueling hours to solve a technical problem at a remote site, improvising a “rodeo” to chase the rats out of the basement with brooms in the middle of the night.
- Engineers riding bread carts full of radios down aisles — from the factory to the lab — late at night to make sure product would ship the next morning.
- Watching a teammate complete the requirements of a critical demo by keeping his hotel room an extra day and hanging a WiFi node out the window to make it work.
When I look back at my long road to where I am today, I’m struck at how unlikely these moments of elation were under the circumstances. They appeared at the most impossible times — overworked and under incredible pressure.
When you ask people about the best team they’ve ever belonged to, you might notice a distant smile creeping across their face. For some, it will have been a sport or band context. For many, it was a work project that had the magic of high challenge, high support and strong collaboration.
Fun is the sign of a healthy team.
Survey after survey shows that engaged, challenged employees create customers with the same character. Corporate America is on to this as well – check out a few of these companies that are category leaders:
- Autodesk emphasizes a great work environment in its recruiting video
- Famously, Southwest Airlines recruits for people that fit its culture of being serious about the work and having fun doing it
- Much has been written about Zappos and how they’re preserving their founding values of creativity, fun, and weirdness as they grow.
The paradox is that one cannot force fun, it has to be organic. It is the indirect result of building a culture with a particular climate — the right group of people, with resources, a grand challenge and the cohesiveness of a shared journey.
So as a leader, what can you do to facilitate fun?
The secret is a balance between high expectations and high support.
I’ve put together four key ingredients to these moments:
- Deadlines. Looking back, nearly all the fun I’ve had on these work projects came under pressure, when something was needed to clear the “paper jam” of the mind with some laughter and a brief break.
- Small team. These moments are usually in teams of tens, not hundreds. The fifty foot rule of sociology applies. The most endearing times are with those who have shared physical and emotional space together. Amazon has a two pizza rule on team size – if it takes more than two pizzas to feed the team, it’s time for a new group.
- Among peers. Fun is most comfortable showing up in groups where each person is valued and contributing value. The dynamic of producing something greater than the sum of the team lends itself to amazing results and amazingly fun times.
- Air cover. The team needs to have space to function with clear lines of accountability and leadership. Everyone needs to know their role – and feel safe in taking some time to have a few minutes of fun.