Fun and Play: Organization Essentials

As I was outlining the characteristics of the TAP organization culture, I failed to mention that it was a fun place to work. For the most part TAP employees smile to one another, laugh together, tell stories that bring amusement, and champion each other’s successes. Our best team building session involve some form of play that brings laughter, interpersonal bonding, as well as learnings.

I wonder why I had not mentioned this aspect of the TAP culture in my book, Navigating the Nonprofit Rapids: Strategies and Tactics for Running a Nonprofit Company. I am positive that revealing how much fun it has been working at TAP might have sent a message that we were less than serious about our mission and feed the misperception that those of us who utilize government funds to pursue our mission are wasteful of the taxpayer’s generosity. Sometimes to avoid criticism we represent ourselves as dour as Grant Wood’s painting, “American Gothic,” the picture of the turn of the century farmer pitchfork in hand and a woman, his wife or daughter, whose tight lipped faces and frowns betray and unhappy and stoic existence. The Protestant Ethic in this case demands performance with little reward other than the satisfaction of duty.

In the 1980’s the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle was in serious financial trouble. It was endanger of going out of business. The owner retained a consultant who met with the entire company. He asked them to define their goal in a way that had some passion to it. One employee said that their goal should be to become world famous. With that in mind they looked at what becoming world famous might entail. Thus, was born the Pike Fish Market Culture.

The owner and employees decided to engage their customers so that whether they bought fish or not it was an unforgettable experience. To do that they created a fun environment by throwing fish and crabs back and forth, pretending the fish were talking, running after customers with the rubbery arms of an octopus trailing menacing above their heads. To ensure that they could create the entertainment day after day, all employees recognized that they had to choose to have a positive attitude when they showed up for work. They had to be fully present during the day with each other and with their customers. They had to treat their customers as people not simply potential buyers and make and impact that would be remembered.

The results: A steady increase in profits of 400% since 1980 with ten million visitors annually, an expansion of on line buying and shipping all over the United States which now is 20% of sales. And they are world famous! Their culture philosophy has been adopted by businesses, schools, and families around the world.

It is instructive that the third of the Zappos core values is “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness,” is key to the culture of an organization that has become the biggest online shoe company in the world, a two billion dollar business. The alternative to a workplace where fun thrives is what the writers of Fish describe as “the toxic energy dump” best described by the adjectives “unresponsive, entitlement, zombie, unpleasant, slow, wasteland, negative”. No play, negativity, no smiles, no passion, no fun. Just work or look like you’re working and go home to gear up for battle the next day. A life lived with the grim goal of survival and retirement. My friend, psychologist Harold Greenwald use to say the serious business like look designed to give the impression of work is in fact depression.

My wife, Liz, went to Duke Medical Center for foot operations. There were signs on the wall about the recognitions that the hospital had received from national health organizations. What was most impressive was how friendly everyone was from the receptionists to the medical staff including the doctors. Even more impressive was the banter back and forth between the medical staff, nurses and doctors, and orderlies, the laughter, the smiles, the good feelings. Of course, they were rigorous in going through all the checks, many times over, to avoid mistaking one patient for another, to ensure the correct treatments, to do all manner of responsible risk management for the safety of the patient. However, it was all done in a fun loving atmosphere that lifted the spirits of the patients as well as the staff.

When I enter an organization I can always tell the type of work environment that I am in by whether people have genuine smiles, the human quality of their interactions and whether there is any mark of fun and play in the organization. Generally, what I see will also be reflected in the passion of the organization to make a difference and the size of the impact what they are attempting to make. Becoming world famous is a good target to aim at. It will require a culture of genuine fun as well as hard work.

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