Web Reliability

17. A drive to have fun as motivation

Mitchell Kimbrough
Written July 24, 2019 by
Mitchell Kimbrough
Founder & CEO

Fun grows naturally out of playfulness. When we are open to being playful, we invite learning, exploring, and experimenting into our space. We mischievously push on definitions and boundaries. We act without being directed. We adapt to the surprise outcomes of our experiments and enjoy the feeling of creating something unexpected by taking a risk. We look at what happened and smile and try something else. Play fuels growth and evolution, and builds confidence along the way. It’s what we all innately do as children as soon as we’re able to act independently if nothing stops us. But then we grow up and have jobs and responsibilities, and we think we are supposed to stop ourselves from playing. Terrible idea. We create huge limitations on ourselves when we take play out of the mix.

When it’s not just one person at work, but a whole team of people embracing playfulness in the workplace, the team develops its own type of gravitational pull. When team members slip back into a too-serious state of mind or lose motivation, interactions with the rest of the team pull them back into the spirit of fun and reconnect them with their own flow. Fun becomes the source of ongoing motivation. It becomes the impetus for experimenting, enjoying, and the experience of discovery. In Web Reliability terms, fun removes resistance and generates flow for the team towards successful outcomes.

Our team once worked on a very challenging technical build for our longtime client IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered approach to problem-solving. ‘The Future of Automobility’ was a speculative project that needed to be properly represented on the web. The project embodied important thought leadership work done by an IDEO division about the future of the automotive industry. What they needed our help with was building a multimedia interactive website experience that would embrace and convey their ideas and proposed solutions. We were asked to develop the experience using relatively new tools and ideas that were emerging on the web. The challenge was a substantial one, and significant to both IDEO and our company. But once we started work, we discovered that above all else, it was fun; really, really fun.

We began the job like any other. We assembled a Solspace team and kicked off the project. After jumping in and enthusiastically pushing the boundaries up to a point we suddenly found ourselves blocked; stuck in the mud. After taking some time to step back and evaluate where we were, we had to admit that the fidelity and reliability of the deliverables were just not up to IDEO standards. It was sobering to admit we’d fallen short, and so we recommitted to delivering the world-class product we knew the client needed, and we knew we could produce.

Getting it wrong was humbling, but because we love solving problems, and we knew the right solution was possible, the team threw themselves back into it. Because the work itself was so challenging and engaging, the process remained fun. The development team trusted themselves and each other. It was good sport pushing ourselves to a higher standard, sharing what we learned with each other, and brainstorming solutions. The harder we worked, the better we got. Ultimately, I did very little to motivate the team. As it turned out, all the motivation we needed was in the work itself. The challenge and the learning made it fun, and the fun created the motivation to keep pushing towards success.

We ultimately had a successful launch of the IDEO Automobility site, and the client was truly happy with the results. To make the success even sweeter, the project won several Webby awards.

It’s important to note what “fun” really means here. It’s not frivolous fun, or escapist fun, or silly fun (except sometimes.) The fun we had with this project was engaging our best and smartest selves; pure and virtuous fun. And as with all virtuous things, the straight and narrow path towards the goal is the only way to reach it. Fun can sometimes distract and misdirect, but when the individual or the team stays engaged with achieving the mission, serving the client, fun can sustain the effort in the best possible way.

What happens when you ignore red flags in pursuit of fun? We worked for a large regional newspaper holding company once. They approached us to take over the maintenance of a dauntingly huge portfolio of websites. The work would have brought an enormous amount of money into the company over time; a river of revenue. The logistical challenge of managing the scale of the work sounded fun to us, as we knew we were capable of excelling at it. Our team discussed the inherent risk in this undertaking, but the fun of the challenge seemed to offset the risk. What we did not realize at the time was that the client came to us with a different type of fun in mind, based on their competitive and genuinely nasty company culture.

After diving into the work, we soon learned that this company intentionally tormented outside vendors as a standard practice. They disrespected, insulted, argued with, and bullied us, and seemed to enjoy it. The whole thing was a setup. They hired vendors who quickly became dependent on the flow of money coming from this large engagement and then found themselves trapped when the client began pushing on them. Their leverage had been bought out. They had lost the ability to say no. Fun had dissolved. The big newspaper company would make outrageous demands, always dangling the threat of taking the business away to make the vendor do their bidding. Ultimately some of the vendors, like us, would be turned into little more than cat toys, little objects to be batted around until boredom set in. And of course, boredom happened for them when the vendor had lost the will to fight back. Then complete destruction was imminent. Fortunately, our company was in a stable financial position and we were able to fire this client and walk away, but not everyone is so lucky.

When you make a point of setting up your work so there’s real fun in it, and that fun is anchored benevolently in an authentic desire to learn, grow and serve, the outcomes can be magnificent. But there’s risk involved. The path of fun in pursuit of growth - no matter how virtuous - is narrow and precarious. Staying honest with yourself and your team is fundamental. Ask yourself the simple question: is this still fun? Listen quietly to the inner answer. This simple, humble question and an honest answer will often keep you on track for steady, reliable flow even when the work is incredibly challenging.