Playground Rules for the World of Work

My colleague, Jennifer Dole, got me started this week with an extremely thoughtful piece on one of my lightning rod favorite topics—youth sports. (If you haven’t read Bob Bigelow’s book, Just Let the Kids Play, you really should). Because Jennifer and I are business and software research nerds, things immediately veered into dimensions of relevance to the Future of Work, and we had quite a bit of fun in the comments.

The part that’s stuck with me today is how naturally and effectively kids organize themselves to optimize their play. If you are, like me, “of a certain age”, (and didn’t grow up burdened by uniforms, playing between the lines, being whistled at by referees, and hectored by over-zealous parents), you know how it works: The game depends entirely on how many kids are on hand. If there are ten or a dozen, it can be street hockey, or even wiffleball. (All hail the “invisible man on first”). More, and you can opt for baseball, or capture the flag, or all sorts of other large-group fun. Have just a handful? How about H-O-R-S-E, or heading indoors for a mad game of Monopoly? In every scenario, nothing gets planned until the numbers and resources are known. (If you don’t have a bat, you can’t play baseball, unless you have a broom handle and a mangled tennis ball, in which case you play stickball).

Next comes organization. Again, we “of a certain age” know how it works: The two best suited for the activity, recognized by consensus, are named captains, and they pick their teams, and everybody knows the fastest flag footballer on any given team will be the wide receiver, and the tallest basketballer will be the center, and the strongest baseballer will bat cleanup, (“save my ups!!!”), and even those being picked last don’t mind so much, because it’s all about the game, and never about the status. All have roles to play, contribute as they’re able, and get applauded by their teammates for every good turn. And it’s so much fun, you can’t wait to do it all again tomorrow.

Contrast all this with how businesses do things. You know how it works: First, someone higher up picks the goal. Then the next layer down designs the project. Somewhere down the line, managers desperately scrounge around for resources. If it’s IT, there’s inevitably a shortage of what’s needed most. Finally, those responsible for the inevitable failure get promoted. (Read more about why that is necessarily so in the section on the “competence inversion” corollary to Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat. You’re welcome).

It all makes me wonder how successful projects might be able to be made to be if the first step was to examine available resources, human and otherwise? (You know, don’t try to play baseball with just four kids without gloves). Next step could be imagining the best, most productive use(s) of those resources. (10 or a dozen means street hockey, basketball, or wiffle ball, depending on the shape of your backyard and the proximity of the tree that will become an automatic homerun, or, if we’re aces at Vendor X systems, we make the most of them rather than take some salesperson’s word that we could do just as well or better with Vendor Y). Then, lastly, the laundry list of corporate objectives and priorities could be reviewed to pick the one(s) for which the team and resources are naturally poised for success. Sure, there may be strategic goals that are so important they cry out for acquiring the requisite talent and resources, but this line of thinking might suggest acquiring the talent and resources before committing to the project scope and timeline–not after, when it will inevitably be discovered that there are no experienced consultants available before the Spring of 2023.

Ask your executives: Do we want to leverage our unique strengths? Or blunder through our known weaknesses while expecting a miracle?

Yep, perhaps it’s true that all we really need to know we learned in kindergarten.

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