Search Results for: fun

The Importance of Deep Fun


For some time now, organizations have fallen in love with the idea of maximizing engagement at work. This has led to a proliferation of fun: foosball, Nerf, ping-pong, and pinball games — and, along the way, perhaps contributed to the frat-house vibe that marks dysfunctional bro culture. Here’s a great article from Jacob Morgan that unearths a simple truth: there are two types of engagement. The first type is shallow fun: when employees play games. The second type is deep fun — when employees take ownership of their experience inside the group.  

Organizations are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on employee engagement programs, yet their scores on engagement surveys remain abysmally low. How is that possible? Because most initiatives amount to an adrenaline shot. A perk is introduced to boost scores, but over time the effect wears off and scores go back down. Another perk is introduced, and scores go back up — and then they fall again. The more this cycle repeats itself, the more it feels like manipulation.

How do you create deep engagement? Carve out space to let employees improve the fundamental systems of the group. For example: allow employees to design and build conference rooms, hold a brainstorming session to rebuild the HR function, or invest in real-time feedback systems that help people know how they are doing. Morgan calls this investing in employee experience. According to his research, companies that invested in experience did well. Really well. 

Compared with other companies, the [experience-investment] organizations had more than four times the average profit and more than two times the average revenue. They were also almost 25% smaller, which suggests higher levels of productivity and innovation.

In other words, deep fun wins every time.

How to Design Engagement (and Avoid the Problem of Empty-Calorie Fun)

Do the Academy Awards give an Oscar for Most Inspiring 40-Second Video? Because I’d like to nominate the above video, from coach Trevor Ragan of Championship Basketball School. Suggested title: “Super-Psyched Little Dude.”

This kid is not merely excited. He is super duper excited, in a way that is both focused and contagious. A psychologist would say that he is deeply engaged. As Trevor writes, this engagement fuels a subsequent rocket-launch of learning and improvement. As it usually does.

Engagement is perhaps the most important, yet least-understood element of the talent-development process. Where does it come from? Why does it happen in some learners and not in others?  How do you sustain it?

The biggest problem, I think, lies in the way we think about engagement. Because real engagement is easily confused with its far-less-productive twin: mere fun. That confusion — which is like confusing lightning with a lightning bug — lies at the core of some of our barriers to effective learning.

We’re all familiar with classrooms, sports teams, and offices that are absolutely brilliant at engineering fun, yet far less brilliant at producing real improvement. The late coach Tom Martinez called them “ice-cream camps” — places where the focus was not truly on skills, but rather on the sweet, entertaining buffet of activities that filled the day.

So the real question is: how do you spark engagement and avoid the empty calories of mere fun? Here are a few ideas:

  • 1) Spend time designing a game that is built around the specific skills you want to teach.   Aim to place learners in their sweet spot: tasks that are not too difficult, and not too easy.
  • 2) Talk less. Real engagement doesn’t happen when a teacher or coach is talking (a recent MIT study showed that student physiological arousal essentially flatlines during lectures). Engagement doesn’t come from words, but from actions and involvement.
  • 3) Aim for swift feedback. The most engaging games are transparent: you don’t need a coach or teacher to inform you how you’re doing, because the game tells you.
  • 4) Keep it social. Engagement operates like a virus. As the video shows, small groups are a good way to increase the odds of those viruses being transmitted.
  • 5) Do the minimum: The leader’s role is to do nothing except to keep things moving. Set the stage, then back off and let it happen. A good leader’s job is sort of like cloud-seeding. You can’t make the lightning strike happen. But you can design the conditions where the chances increase.

That’s not to say that fun isn’t a vital ingredient — it is. But the key is to understand that fun should be the seasoning, not the main dish.

The Power of Fun

“Let’s make it fun.”

You hear those words a lot these days from parents, teachers, and coaches — along with words like “passion” and “engagement.”  We all know that “fun” is a key element of the learning process. We think of it as the the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. That’s part of what fuels the modern urge to provide trophies, ribbons, and ice cream to every participant in every activity — after all, it should be fun, shouldn’t it?

But is this the right way to think about it? Is “fun” really something you can add to the process?  Or is it something more?

I think we get some insights from this video. It’s about the Cochran family, which has produced ten national-level downhill skiers on their small hill behind their house in Vermont. It’s a wonderful video for a bunch of reasons, but especially for the way the four Cochran kids, now grown, describe the experience:

“It was like having a party at your house… We’d come home, rush to do our homework, and at six o’clock the lights would go on, and this magical place appeared.” 

“I don’t ever feel that my father wanted us to be World Cup racers or ever had any idea that we’d be national level racers; all I remember that it was incredibly fun. We just loved going out there.” 

I think this shows a truth that’s easy to overlook:

Fun isn’t something you add to the process — fun is the process.

Fun isn’t the sugar that gets sprinkled on top of the work — it’s baked into the work itself.

Fun isn’t really about parents or teachers or coaches at all. It’s about creating a space where learners can experience the deep fun of discovery and improvement.

(And judging by those smiles, it never goes away.)

Funny Business: How The Onion is like Toyota

onion_logo072309-thumb-200x200toyota_logo_2005Strange question of the day:  What does The Onion — the world’s best fake newspaper — have in common with Toyota, the car company?

At first the comparison seems ludicrous. In our comedy, we desire creativity and surprise; in our cars we desire reliability and non-surprise. In addition, comedy attract  profoundly different sorts of people than do automotive manufacturers. They occupy different universes.

But this article from yesterday’s NY Times points toward a surprising connection: both The Onion and Toyota are mechanisms for transforming something rough and unfinished (a pile of metal and rubber in Toyota’s case; a pile of loose ideas in the The Onion‘s case) into a smooth, well-functioning final product. They have built organizational circuitry (which is really neural circuitry) to churn huge quantities of  indeterminate stuff into finished product. They are both, in short, improvement machines.

Here is how Onion editors describe their machine:

“It’s a very specific, regimented format,” said Dan Guterman, the head writer. “You sort of learn the Onion language by rote. We spend hundreds of hours in the room deconstructing the jokes. I don’t think there’s anything comparable to the amount of material we generate and reject just to come up with the week’s headlines.”

Toyota operates on the philosophy of kaizen, or incremental improvement. At Toyota, each person learns the company’s cultural langage by rote. Each participates in the improvement process, pointing out errors and recommending solutions, then triangulating toward a better system, step by step. For example: at the company’s Georgetown, KY, plant, the convertible top to the Camry formerly took 30 minutes to install; after a kaizen process — making perhaps a hundred tiny fixes and improvements — it takes only eight minutes. And it’s not just about efficiency — kaizen frequently results in new, creative solutions. Each assembly line makes thousands of such changes a year; they add up to create something beautiful.

Both Toyota and The Onion succeed because they have become very skilled at one fundamental act: Locating weakness in existing structures and improving them. Whether that results in a smoothly running joke, or a smoothly running car — well, that depends on what kind of factory you want to have.

Decoding Funtwo (Guitar Superhero)

Here’s Funtwo (real name Jeong-Hyun Lim), the 25-year-old South Korean guitar virtuoso whose version of Pachelbel’s Canon has been viewed 58 million times on YouTube.

I love this video for two reasons: 1) it rocks; 2)  the mindset behind it. You would assume that Funtwo – whose playing has been compared to Hendrix and Django Reinhardt—would possess a little bravado. But it’s the opposite.

In fact, as Funtwo makes clear in this NY Times article by Virginia Heffernan, the very reason he posted it was to get suggestions on the mistakes he was making (that’s also one of the reasons he didn’t show his face). “I think play is more significant than appearance,” he said. “Therefore I want the others to focus on my fingering and sound.”

He’s still that way. “I am always thinking that I’m not that good,” Funtwo said “…Some said my vibrato was quite sloppy. And I agree that so these days I’m doing my  best to improve my vibrato skill.”

The conventional way to interpret Funtwo’s mindset would be to draw a moral lesson: to point out that Funtwo is a humble, virtuous guy. But in this case the lesson isn’t just moral—it’s neural. Funtwo’s mindset – attuned to errors, ever-reaching—is precisely the mindset that grows and hones skill circuits.

Why You Should Consider Using a Meeting Cheat-Sheet


Most meetings are bad. This is because not because people are bad or dumb — it’s because meetings bias us toward status management. Here’s the only stat you need to know: in a typical eight-person meeting, three people will do 80 percent of the talking. 

But lately I’ve seen a couple of simple hacks that successful groups use to make meetings better.  Here is the simplest: a meeting cheat-sheet. It’s a sheet of paper with two sentences on it: 1) TALK LESS; and 2) HELP OTHERS TALK MORE. 

Here’s another: have the leader of the group call on the least-powerful person to share first. This will send a signal of connection, and defuse status management. (It’s also best if the leader gives that person some advance notice, so they can prepare). 

I know, these kinds of tiny nudges seem almost too simple. But they work, because they help fight the inescapable behavioral drift that happens in life; they sweep away distraction and reconnect you to the real goals. My favorite example of this technique involves New England quarterback Tom Brady, who carries a small card in his wallet with a list of fundamentals written on it. The words aren’t complex — Keep your fingers on top of the ball, Feel like you’re throwing down a hallway, that kind of stuff. But they have an impact, because they reconnect him to the truly important things.


How to Think About Culture


You already know that culture is the single most powerful force driving your group’s performance. The real question is, how does it work? How do you make your group’s culture better?  How do you fix one that needs strengthening?

The answer, as with so many other big questions, lies in the mental models we use.

The traditional mental model is that culture is “the soft stuff” — a special, nuanced set of traits and character that groups possess. If you diagrammed this model on a whiteboard, you would create something like this:


This approach feels logical, but it brings a problem: There’s no how. It’s essentially a bunch of fuzzy, warm concepts mixed together in a fuzzy, warm cloud. This model is the reason why we find culture-building so mysterious and frustrating. When faced with a culture problem, this model offers no solutions, no plans, and no process.

There’s a better way. It’s called a behavioral model of culture, and it’s what my new book is about. Here’s how it works, in three steps. 

Step 1: click this video:


These starlings represent the ultimate in group performance: cohesive, cooperative, agile.  They do not possess “soft skills” of any kind; after all, their brains are the size of a grain of rice. But they can perform like this because they are good at one thing: paying continuous attention to small signals of connection, space, and direction.

Step 2: Stop thinking in terms of “values” and “mission” and “accountability,” and all those other warm, fuzzy terms. Instead, start thinking like a starling. Think about your group’s culture as a continuous set of three fundamental signals:

1) we are safely connected

2) we share accurate information 

3) we know which way to move

Seen through this lens, culture is not about soft stuff — it’s about signaling. Because human brains are incredibly good at perceiving signals that we are safe (or not); whether we are being vulnerable by sharing accurate information (or not), and whether we are moving in the same direction (or not). In other words, culture is not a set of traits — it’s a signaling contest. Improve your signals, improve your culture.

Step 3: Replace your old model with this:

The three signals work together: safety and shared vulnerability reinforce each other, combining to create ever deeper connection; story provides the direction, the purpose. More important, this model provides the how — a way to solve problems.  

Having problems with belonging/engagement? You should focus on flooding the zone with signals of safety and connection. Have a problem with giving good feedback and sharing the truth? Focus on signaling vulnerability and openness. Have a problem of choosing between competing priorities? Focus on filling your peoples’ windshield with signals of the group’s story and purpose. Your group’s culture doesn’t depend on who you are; it depends on what you do.

Culture isn’t magic. It’s about tuning into a series of small moments that send powerful signals: You are safe. We share risk here. We are headed this direction.

Four Parenting Tips I Learned Hanging Out with the World’s Best Leaders


In researching the new book (which launches Tuesday), I experienced the treat of spending time with people like Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, R.C. Buford, GM of the San Antonio Spurs, and Dave Cooper, a SEALs Team Six commander. Yesterday, a friend asked me a question that caught me by surprise: has this experience changed how I parent? (My wife Jen and I have four kids; 22, 19, 17, and 16).  The answer is, yes, absolutely.  Four ways:

1) Learning to truly stop. Connection happens when you totally, utterly cease what you are doing and give someone your full attention. This sounds incredibly obvious, but I didn’t fully appreciate its power until I felt it in action, and saw how it creates the foundation for all conversation.

2) Seek to listen like a trampoline. As a parent, you want to be the Wise Person with All the Answers; you want to help solve your kids’ problems fast. The leaders I spent time with did the opposite. They almost never tried to solve problems quickly, or interject their own ideas. Instead, they focused on absorbing what the other person was saying, and responded, usually with questions. My favorite image for this comes from work by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman: listen like a trampoline: absorb the message, and then try to add height and perspective to the conversation.  And besides, kids don’t really want answers anyway — they want to be heard.

3) Make fewer wisecracks. Confession: I’m the kind of parent who’s always looking for the joke — the pun, the call-back, the wisecrack. Spending time with top leaders showed me that this is not always a good instinct. A lot of little jokes have a message beneath them — I’m smart — that can undermine the sense of belonging that strong groups have. It’s not the joking that’s bad — it’s when you fail to balance things out with moments of real connection.

4) Lead with failure around the dinner table. You know the drill: you ask your kids how their day went, and they say “fine,” and so you dig for more, and the whole thing produces all the fun and delight of a tooth-pulling session. Here’s the solution: stop asking. Instead, tell them about something you failed at today. Some screw-up, big or small — and don’t hold back. Go into detail, show your fallibility. It sends a massive signal of belonging and openness, and it makes for dinners that are (I can testify) a lot more energetic and fun.

Want Your Group to Learn Faster? Press Pause


When you get down to it, every group on the planet is wrestling with the same problem: how can we learn better? That is, how do we build the skills to succeed in a fast-changing landscape?

When faced with this problem, our normal instinct is to press the accelerator — to do more. More professional development, more seminars, more online learning, more workshops. But one of the most effective tools in this area is also the simplest: the subtle skill of pressing pause. That is, stopping so your group can reflect on where you are, and where you want to go. 

When I visited highly successful groups for The Culture Code, I saw this all the time. It often took just a few minutes. Leaders had a habit of stopping and asking big questions: What are we doing well? What could we do better? What are we going to do differently next time?

Here are some ways I’ve seen groups do it:

1) After-Action Reviews, (AARs): This is a tool used by SEALs teams, among others: a quick huddle after an event to create awareness consensus around three questions: what went well, what didn’t, and what the group should do differently next time.

2) Pre-flight, Mid-flight, and Post-flight meetings: IDEO uses these as a way of creating team check-ins at three key moments in every project: before, during, and after. The focus is often on asking big questions around the team’s functioning: are things going the right direction? What have we learned about the project, and about each other?

3) Daily Huddles: quick, more informal gatherings to get everybody on the same page and to create awareness of shared problems. Teams at Google are particularly good at this one. When everybody shares the biggest challenge they are working on, the group gets smarter.

The deeper key is to recognize that most of us have an allergy to anything that doesn’t feel like progress. That’s why pressing pause is hard to do, and also why it’s so important. So don’t think of it as a pause. Think of it as a group version of mindfulness — a quick path to shared clarity and awareness.

The Three-Word Phrase that Helps Unlock Group Creativity

Let’s say you’re in a meeting, and you want to help your group think more creatively. Which of these phrases should you use?

1) “What if we….”

2) “Why don’t we….”

3) “How might we….”

If you guessed (3), you’re right. For why, check out this cool story on how designers at IDEO (who — you guessed it — are featured in my new book, The Culture Code) ignite team creativity.  The core insight: starting with how might we sends a signal that failure is okay.

“The beauty of the phrase ‘How might we do this’ is that it eliminates fear, stress, and anxiety by supportively implying that there may be more than one solution, and that nothing more is needed at the moment than ideas,” says Jean Greaves, an organizational psychologist and CEO of TalentSmart. “This is the language that primes our mind for having fun exploring, and pushing beyond what’s already known.”

In other words: if you want creativity, start with safety.