The false fight between fun and business David 05 Sep 2006

32 comments Latest by Frank Connolly

You don’t have to work hard to work well. You don’t need sinister eyebrows or only 4-hour sleeps or a booked calendar to be serious. But somehow that image sticks so bad that we tend to view fun as the opposite of Serious Business Stuff(TM).

It’s a false choice, not a real fight. And you accept its premise at your own peril. Fun is all about creativity, innovation, play, experimentation, progress, and seeing real things come to life. If you make fun an enemy of business, you’re judging all these desirable concepts by association.

Having fake fun outlets won’t help either. Goofy Friday outfits or a monthly karaoke night are not a suitable substitutes for letting fun be a part of every day work.

So enough with the bashing of fun in business. Instead, go out of your way to introduce and nourish fun and its friends passion and motivation. That crew is the true silver bullet in the new world order.

32 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Jamie 05 Sep 06

So what are the easter eggs in Basecamp? :P

Phil 05 Sep 06

In theory, the fight is false. Sure I can program the next eBay in my underwear while drunk and listening to Biggie Smalls as well as the team of suits clocking in at 8am every morning at Big Corporate, Inc.

But in practice, people over the age of say 30-40 don’t appreciate this. You will not win the Big Mutual Fund Company’s contract if you show up in a hawaiian shirt. If people spending millions of dollars on your company don’t get THEIR impression of “Serious Business Stuff”, you’re not getting the contract.

So sure, for you folks that sell a web product and never have to see anyone face to face, work at a small company where lawsuits and HR are not an issue, that’s easy to say. But unfortunately it doesn’t work as well in the real world.

Not all employees are mature or responsible enough to handle play, experimentation and work either.

Mark 05 Sep 06

I can boil Phil’s comment down to one word: Employees.

When you’re managing people, that you’ve had to bring in to meet demands, a fun atmosphere doesn’t always keep everyone motivated.

Anonymous Coward 05 Sep 06

I don’t believe 37signals is suggesting being drunk on the job or wearing a hawaiian when it’s not appropriate. Let’s not dumb down the discussion by playing on the extremes.

Keeran 05 Sep 06

I would have thought fun, passion & motivation would be the added extra in an environment that gets things right from the beginning.

I can’t walk into my office and try to cheer up people who are under pressure of deadlines, worrying about cash flow or trying to control a client who’s head is in the clouds. Not much is going to fix that until the current nightmare situation is resolved.

If the correct working practices are already in place, the projects managed properly and the clients on board with a fresh way of working and thinking - all of the attractive side effects you have mentioned *should*, in theory, come naturally.

The problem is trying to move an operation from the former way of working to the latter.

Anonymous Coward 05 Sep 06

“New World Order”? Did I miss something while out having fun?

well... 05 Sep 06

“You will not win the Big Mutual Fund Company�s contract if you show up in a hawaiian shirt.”

what does a hawaiian shirt have to do with having fun while working? i have to agree with david on this one, fun is about innovation, creativity, and play. there’s nothing innovative about wearing a hawaiian shirt. there’s nothing fun about wearing a hawaiian shirt.

showing up at Big Mutual Fund, Inc. with something that works for them that you had fun creating? yeah.

i can usually tell when something has been created by people who enjoyed the process of creation. if your product doesn’t make people feel like that then you’ve got a big problem, and it may not have very much to do with the product itself.

DHH 05 Sep 06

Phil, you choose which world you want to live in. No one is forcing you to work for a company where being drunk or wearing a hawaii shirt seems to be the only extreme ways to inject fun. And I’d certainly advice against having that vision as a monopoly for the so-called “real world”.

NWO, the one where a great, motivated programmer can be 5-10x more productive than a average, under-motivated programmer.

well... again... 05 Sep 06

dh- i think that 5-10x is a vast understatement.

Paul 05 Sep 06

I guess there’s a time for everything… Sure if your company’s culture is informal, hey… working in pajamas is fine too. If you are asking for a couple of millions from your neighbourhood VCs, coming in suits seems like a good idea too. At least, they won’t get the idea that you are most likely to spend it on boozes and boos.

At the end of the day, work is still work… business is different. Having a little due dillgence does help sometimes.

k8 05 Sep 06

Who said anything about Hawaiian shirts? That’s certainly not how my mind translates fun at work. The point is to try and enjoy what you do, whether you’re doing it in your underwear or in the most high-powered of power suits.

Tricky to get the balance right, though — you can’t have the fun at the expense of the professionalism or productivity. Comes down to good management, I think — equally hard to find.

Meanwhile, thanks for turning your nose up at the fake fun outlets. Those are regularly staged at my office and no one wants or appreciates them — they just make things worse, really.

mesattack 05 Sep 06

I think it’s all about balance. I routinely lay on the floor and talk with people in the office. We play ping pong, talk openly, and I even ring a huge bell when good stuff happens. We are having fun.

That said, you have to be serious about results and make sure everyone knows the boundaries. Having fun can be tough to manage in younger or immature people because they can start to imagine everything is a big game. In all, this is a better approach than acting like everything is life or death…

Tim 05 Sep 06

“Serious Business Stuff (TM)”

Why is DHH quoting Joel Spolsky.

Will he PLEASE stop flaming Joel for his 1 sentence statement regarding Ruby.

I’m tired of it by now!

Joel was stating nothing but the truth about Ruby and some how the Rails community has made it out to be like some type of holy war.

Come on people.

Phil 05 Sep 06

Sorry, I did not mean to take it “to the extreme”, your original post did not mention developers specifically or productivity so I interpreted it as yet another broad condemnation of the “Serious World”. I agree that being able to develop what you want and be creative is fun, and helps with motivation and productivity.

My point was more in regard to the general workforce, and each person’s own interpretation of what is fun. The reason big businesses come off as not fun is because little by little rules had to be made for the people that thought having fun is being drunk and wearing hawaiian shirts.

I definitely live by the philosophy that if I am not having fun (ie: not dreading coming to work) I would find something else to do. Unfortunately there are very few fun environments out there, and even less for a majority of the population’s skill sets.

Lara 05 Sep 06

I think the Fun vs. Business concept has blossomed out of the more specific Play vs. Productivity relationship. The time I spend “playing” on the internet makes a very tangible difference in the quality of my web applications, not to mention my efficiency in building them.

“Play” is the best way to sharpen the axe.

well... 05 Sep 06

“Having fun can be tough to manage in younger or immature people because they can start to imagine everything is a big game.”

so “everything” is… not a big game? it’s more fun when it’s a game. you get better products when it’s a game. you solve problems faster when it’s a game. play is absolutely invaluable.

you can have fun at the expense of productivity. you should. good procrastination is important. checking things off of a list isn’t important if it’s the list that’s broken.

Jough Dempsey 05 Sep 06

Joel’s post didn’t say anything about not having fun at work - he was using the Serious Business Stuff comment to suggest that using RoR for a mission-critical project is probably not a good business decision unless you’re 37Signals.

The Rails community is growing fast, and I expect that in a few years it will have matured to the point where it’s just as fast and scalable as PHP, but it’s not there yet. There aren’t as many examples or code snippets or developers out there in the wild as there are for Java, PHP, ASP, and other languages that have been around longer and have a larger installed base.

I’m not sure how:

…there just isn’t a lot of experience in the world building big mission critical web systems in Ruby on Rails…

came to equal “you [Joel] make fun an enemy of business.”

From what I’ve read of, Fog Creek sounds like it would be a fun place to work (even if I’m not sure I’d want to necessarily do the communal shared lunch every day).

Joe Ruby 05 Sep 06

Completely agree. You get the best out of people with they’re having fun and not mired in misery.

Al 05 Sep 06

Talk about timing! I work for an applications group in a Fortune 100 company, tomorrow is Hilarious Hat Day as part of worker appreciation week. I kid you not!

I actually can’t go to the HHD festivities cause I am busy with these dang TPS reports. (Don’t worry I got the memo about the cover sheets)

Todd 05 Sep 06

I love it when people play the “real world” card. Translation: “37signals is not a real company.” Nice.

Most of my very favorite things in this world were created by drunk guys in their underwear and/or Hawaiian shirts.

Lance Shields 05 Sep 06

I believe from experience that even the most serious and formal organizations can be made fun. Matter of fact it’s of part of our jobs as innovators, no?

Let’s take an example. I go to do marketing work or app design for a straight-laced Japanese B2B technology company that makes ABC Sprog. They’re in an environment where they’re not encouraged to take risks, brainstorm, prototype. Competence is the law. In come in the new idea guy (“wasp hive beater” is another word) to have meetings with these guys and try and come up with the hoped for change or answer. In the beginning a certain amount of formality is needed to pass the competence test. But as you get to know these guys and kick it into gear, the level of serious seems to fall away and you invite odd ideas and even funny scenarios - all for the purpose of keeping their minds wide open. They appreciate the fresh point of view and invite you back for more. Actually I consider this “serious fun” and wouldn’t go anywhere without it.

Luis 05 Sep 06

Fun + Drink = Camaraderie/Don’t-Wanna-Let-Your-Workmates-Down

Shane Henderson 05 Sep 06

I totally agree. Especially the part about the fake fun outlets. Every time I go to one of those events it feels like everyone is dancing around for all of the gray hairs…and reminds me that I need to get a “real” fun job.

Blake P. 05 Sep 06

I think that success is fun. For the times that aren’t along the way and during…..they serve as reminders of what fun is. You can’t have rainbows without rain.

Ryan Allen 05 Sep 06

AI: “Worker Appreciation Week?”, so as to say, there are people there that are not working that are employee’s, and that these people don’t appreciate them? I would find that rather patronising to be honest! :(

Daniel Higginbotham 06 Sep 06

“You will not win the Big Mutual Fund Company�s contract if you show up in a hawaiian shirt.”

Unless you live in Hawaii, like I do, and you’ll look like an uptight mainlander if you show up in a suit :)

This post reminds me of Jim Collins’s “Genius of AND” observations in Built to Last(great book):

The “Tyranny of the OR” pushes people to believe that things must be either A OR B, but not both. It makes such proclamations as:

  • You can have change OR stability
  • You can be conservative OR bold
  • You can be idealistic (values-driven) OR pragmatic (profit-driven

…Highly visionary companies liberate themselves with the “Genius of AND” — the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions t the same time.

@well… again…, it’s been documented that excellent programmers are up to 14x more productive than average programmers.

Great post!

Henrik 06 Sep 06

It’s the same basic premise for all knowledge workers with “heavy” subjects. If you are excited about what you do you are 10 times better at dealing with the information involved be it a phd in biochemistry or a computer program.

Michael 07 Sep 06

I’m right with you on the importance of fun in organizations… and how that’s DEFINITELY not the Friday karaoke session.

I created this short video on that basis - The Eight Irresistible Prinicples of Fun which you might enjoy:

(Disclaimer: The video does, at the end, invite you to sign up for my newsletter Outside the Lines.. but you can just ignore that if you’d rather not).

Rian 07 Sep 06

I think “fun” is mostly in your own head. I have worked for a financial company where fun was certainly not exactly part of the corporate culture, let alone hawaiian shirts. But we had fun, and when I look back it was probably just because of one collegue who was always happy and just made the sun shine in our small quadrant of the floor it telegraphed through to most of us. A bit like watching Steve Irwin on TV. He had fun, it was his state of mind. He spread it to most people.

I also worked for a creative agency, where fun was organized around karaoke and other HR department driven initiatives. It was just like plastic flowers: artificial and cheap.

My two cents: some people will never have fun in whatever they do even in the best of fun-companies, some will have it come naturally and those like me make sure they are around the latter as often as they can to get some of their sunshine.

Al 07 Sep 06

Ryan Allen: AI: �Worker Appreciation Week?�, so as to say, there are people there that are not working that are employee�s, and that these people don�t appreciate them? I would find that rather patronising to be honest! :(

Oh man it is so much worse than that. Not only do they not appreciate the non-employees. They had an optional (but highly encouraged by management to go) class on “loving your job”. The best part is the class listed all the reasons you should leave a company. The company I work for scored high on every item on the list. The whole thing has backfired. People are more demoralized than ever. Brilliant!

Frank Connolly 09 Sep 06

This is a fascinating topic. It is almost as if we intuitively know that workplaces that enjoy themselves perform very well. The Victorian Public Service Continuous Improvement Network (VPSCIN) has been exploring the issue of fun in the workplace and the link to improved HRM and productivity.

To date we’ve run a couple of seminars on Organisational Health and Humour and also workshops in Laughter Yoga.
Judging from the response to date there is fantastic potential here if we can only keep the cynics and black hat thinkers at bay.