The Point of Play

Lap Pic

On our big crazy learning adventure of a government software project, we had returned so soon to plan a new release. Once again anointed to do a Fist of Five commitment exercise at the end, I had challenged myself to make it more playful than the last. After the flat out fun I was asked a pointed question: “What was the point of that exercise?”. Essentially, what was the point of play? The short answer may mean this is the last time I’m invited to invite others to play. There was no point.

We had gathered for the two days of our SAFe releasing planning event. The way things work on this project is there is a big batch feature elaboration with the goal of getting approval prior to planning. It siphons off the non-starter features and yes it is the target of an improvement to get to single piece flow. That win is for a future day. We had switched up the format to have teams focus on planning for one day without the client then work with the client on risks and issues for the second day. I had offered ways to split the work to minimize dependencies after reading and facepalming to a Ron Jeffries’ blog on SAFe planning. We added in some practice reviews like story slicing which was appreciated.

Allowing the teams the space to work their way through complexity on their own was a definite win. The stickies began to fly. This crafting day enabled teams to get into a flow but offered little need to collaborate. I was reminded the one reason I like these sessions has nothing to do with the SAFe script but all to do with the chance to connect with folks. So I was concerned that so little time was spent by the teams connecting with each other. It was all so mechanical. An efficient process that maybe was not effective in meeting my needs of spending time to getting to know folks. Moreover, the rush and pressure left us short of time on the first day so no Fist of Five.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”- attributed to Plato

Day 2: some of the clients joined us in person and some by phone. Teams went through the ceremony of presenting their plans, risks and challenges they needed help with. I sat through in a mental infinite loop on whether it was a good idea to do the play I had rolling around in my head. I was trapped between wanting to play but not having a point, a lesson, a learning moment in hand and Fist of Five time was fast approaching.

Play is bounded often by time or place, it has a start and eventually ends. I needed something to announce play. I needed a signal for others to join and where the play was to unfold. I didn’t want a game though.The idea that there must be a point or a goal is a difference between a game and play. There are so many wonderful games to help folks learn and change. Having that self imposed end of a goal is what seems to have made games more palatable in a corporate environment. They serve a purpose in supporting a narrative of directed change. That’s is just not the full potential of play I was after.

“Enforced exercise does no harm to the body, but enforced learning will not stay in the mind. So avoid compulsion, and let your children’s lessons take the form of play.” ~ Plato: The Republic

Play for the sake of playing, to have fun just for fun seems outside the bounds of the corporate experience. It garners the label of being silly with the associated judgmental view of being bad. Games are good but play is frivolous. What then might be a way to wrap play in a way that it can slip in without out the baggage of goals?

The unit of intelligibility of most of our brains is the story ~ Dr Stuart Brown

On that day the best I could come up with seemed to be enough. Wrap play in a story. A story allowed enough of a distraction for folks to overcome the awkwardness to start of playing with no purpose.

The exercise I chose was Laps as described by the inspiring Bernie DeKoven. I fashioned a story about how Release planning is all about teams taking off when the difficult part is having all those teams land their work on the tight tarmac of a production deployment. I explained the Laps exercise in terms of an analogy. First I asked that only our team form the circle. I didn’t have the tables or chairs cleared. I used them as an example of the impediments and difficulties that must be removed during the development for a release. Then the magic started happening.

I had excluded the client at first as a safety measure. I wanted the request for them to play with us to be refusable, making it safe for them to play or not play as their individual nature or their culture led them. But one of their leaders had ignored me and was already in the circle, playing the part of of a chair and table impediment remover, helping the circle form. All I needed to do was make sure the knees of the adjacent players was about the same.The guidance about matching knee height is critical. This fun works for tall and short and all other dimensions, provided the sitter is not significantly taller than the sitee. Otherwise the sitter squats unable to find the sitee’s knees with a domino effect of falling likely.

In that act the client signaled to her tribe that it was safe to play and more importantly showed they had a part to play in the release story as well as the fermenting fun. It was clear that the story had served its purpose and now melted away to be replaced by play. We did a test sit or two followed by the real thing and the smiles reigned supreme followed by laughter. Titles and organizational hierarchies melted away. For one brief moment on a long journey we were one in fun, in  communitas.

Play trumps control. One lady was intent on sitting and simultaneously snapping circle selfies. She paid so little attention to where her target knees were I was afraid of a domino disaster and I asked her to put the phone down. Thank heavens she ignored me. The circle demanded I join. I replaced another in the circle giving my phone to them so they could photograph the fun. In the excitement that other flubbed the photographing. I had to apologize to the lady who snapped and sat after the fun was finished. It drove home to me the importance of trusting in players. People will find their limits and work to find their fun. If the game is well played, others will change to make play work. Here that meant nothing more than shuffling their feet.

We finished our Fist of Five afterwards but it seemed so much less than the chance to revel in the awkwardness of proximity. We didn’t need a purpose because our individual needs were being met. If not there was no compulsion to remain in the circle. But nobody in the room chose to do anything but be in the circle. We may not have not had a point but play helped us become closer. To look at each other with soft eyes. The story served a purpose to signal play and that it was safe to play. It seemed to be unexpectedly right in that it gave a passage to that liminoid bubble that was inside the place of work but was in no way work. I’m going to try it again for the next crazy group fun I initiate because regardless of what software we release I will be planning to play.

“…we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study…” ~ Plato: The Republic

Special thanks to Eric Boyle for alerting me to Plato’s play-full quotes.


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
This entry was posted in Communitas, Play and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Point of Play

  1. Bernie DeKoven says:

    I really don’t know how I could’ve missed this post. A wonderful telling of some of the truly profound implications of letting adults play and think together. Thank you for this. I hope your message is heard as widely as possible.

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