Despite the occasional stuffed-shirt boss looking over my shoulder and saying “This isn’t playtime!” some of the best jobs I’ve ever had incorporate a level of playfulness, and the results have always proven to be effective.
A favorite exhortation among fast-food bosses is, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean!” But a little leaning now and then, and even a little guided playfulness, can go a lot further towards getting employees actively engaged in a corporate goal than will any angry mandate.
Where employers and employees alike go wrong is falling into the trap of believing that work isn’t supposed to be fun. Sean Murphy, CEO and founder of Lootok, a crisis management and business continuity consulting and technology company, went into this business – which is normally as dry as a Prohibition-era liquor cabinet – with the idea of actually transforming it into something people actually want to do.
“Continuity management” and “fun” are usually not uttered in the same sentence. It’s something everybody knows they need, but everybody dreads planning for.
We want the shiny things
We put off corporate projects like doing a risk assessment, or creating a continuity plan, not only because it sounds mind-numbingly boring, but because there is no immediate reward. Continuity planning only kicks in at some future undetermined time if some unforeseen disaster strikes, and the hope is that the continuity plan is created so that it will never have to be used. Getting people excited about something that provides no short-term payback is always going to be a challenge. “When do people buy flood insurance?” said Murphy, drawing an analogy. He answers, “After the flood.”
“These types of things are very hard for humans,” said Murphy. “It’s innate for humans to not think about things long-term. Humans are built for risk, but usually in enclosed space and time, when cause and effect happens rapidly, so we can see it, and that way, we can change our behavior. Why risk management is so difficult is the same question that we might ask ourselves, why do people still smoke? Why do people engage in risky behavior when you know what’s better? Why don’t people save for retirement? We have ego-centric thinking. We like the current. The present weighs heavier than the future.”
And finally, people tend to overlook continuity and risk management because of what Murphy calls “initiative atrophy.” It’s easy to recognize – it’s when everybody is asked to do more with less, while still dealing with the “program of the month” syndrome. “Some companies I’ve been involved with will actually try to stall, because they know most programs will die on the vine if they can stall for 18 months,” said Murphy. “Then they don’t have to do anything.”
A pull instead of a push
The traditional way of getting things done in business is through outright mandate – you’re the boss, so you assign tasks. And to some degree, that’s the way it has to be, but at the end of the day, better results will be had when those carrying out those tasks have bought into the concept, are excited by it, and want to participate.
That traditional model can be seen as a “push” model of management – you push tasks onto subordinates whether they like it or not – but Murphy suggests that instead of a “push,” a gentle “nudge” is more appropriate. “You’ve got to somehow engage them in a way that they want to participate, in order to create a sustainable program. What you want is for them to ‘pull.’ You want them to demand.”
Murphy likes to put all stakeholders on a continuum of demand, ranging from “unaware,” to “draftee,” to “enlisted,” “loyalist,” and finally, “evangelist.” His goal is to nudge people up that chain of demand.
Activities, not meetings
How then, do managers get buy-in across the board for tasks that may traditionally not generate much interest? How is it possible to “nudge” people up that continuum of interest, when the subject matter at hand is so inherently un-interesting?
“One of the things we do is build internal competition,” said Murphy. “For one financial company we worked with, we created ‘The Amazing Race,’ where each side had to use an online tool we created, and get a passport stamped. It was a way for them to engage and win something, based on whoever got the most stamps. While they were playing this game, it was also teaching them things about the program, local threats, and leading them to build interest in the program.”
That sort of gamification was the founding philosophy of Lootok. “When I started Lootok,” said Murphy, “I started out with the idea of playing and having fun. So we created a bunch of games, just to have fun. It wasn’t meant to do anything but make people laugh while we got down to business – but what we realized through this process was that not only could it be fun, we could actually teach people things. Then we said, not only is it fun and we can teach people, we can also collect and analyze data this way. So our Activity-Based Data Collection and Analysis Technique™ now uses a series of activities, depending on what the client is asking us to do, in a workshop setting.”
The activity-based model dramatically changes the entire project dynamic in several ways, so stakeholders are learning, becoming engaged, and actually seeking out projects that in the past would have had no volunteers. “It enhances memory, it enhances participation, and it enhances learning,” said Murphy. “And it’s a fraction of the cost than if you were to do risk services the traditional way, which is interview- or survey-based.”
Using these types of engagement methods, creating a “pull” environment where employees actively seek out what might otherwise be undesirable projects, and adding a new level of gamification to the mix has the potential to dramatically change the dynamic of any business initiative. Murphy has done exactly that in the field of risk management – and if he can make risk management fun and desirable, then there’s a good chance you can get buy-in for almost any project.