How to Make Solving Problems Fun

When my friend Richard asked me to join him in training for a triathlon, I carefully considered his request. For about a second.

“No way.”

“Oh, come on. Why not?”

“Because I’ve raced triathlons before. They’re painful. It takes me a week to recover. And for what? It’s . . .”

“Wait a second,” Richard interrupted me, “Do you actually try to your hardest to win?” He laughed. “Peter, last year there were 57 people in my age group. I came in 56th. Right before the guy with one leg.” Then he looked me up and down, “You know, we’re not the kind of guys who win these races.”

“So why do you do it?” I asked

“It’s fun.”

Research published last year in the Annals of Behavior Medicine showed that the harder people exercise, the less pleasure they feel during the exercise and the less likely they will exercise routinely. As Panteleimon Ekkekak, one of the authors of the study, recently said in the Wall Street Journal, “Evidence shows that feeling worse during exercise translates to doing less exercise in the future.”

Obvious, right? We tend to do things we find pleasurable and avoid things we find painful. So why don’t we incorporate that principle into our organizations?

“Look,” a senior leader complained to me about one of her colleagues, “he’s an adult. I tell him to do something, he should do it. I don’t care whether he wants to or not. It’s his job. It’s why he’s paid.”

But that’s not how things really work.

Everything I’ve seen in organizations confirms a simple rule: people do what they choose to do. And if you want people to choose to do something, make it fun.

Marc Manza is the Chief Technology Officer of Passlogix, a client of Bregman Partners and a software development company I’ve written about previously in this blog. A few years ago, Marc had a problem. Passlogix’s software was conflicting with an older, unsupported version of Sun Microsystems software that some of their clients were still using. Marc tried to work with Sun to fix the problem but Sun wasn’t interested; they told Marc to tell his clients to upgrade to the newer version of Sun software.

So Marc had his team work on a fix. But it was complicated, and two years later, at a cost Marc estimates in the tens of thousands of dollars, the problem remained unsolved.

Then one day he had an idea. He went to a local electronics store and bought a Nintendo Wii, placed it in a central, visible place in the office. Then he made an announcement: The first person to solve this problem wins the Nintendo. And he added a rule: you have to work on the problem on your own time, not on company time.

It took two weeks.

Marc took a boring project working on a legacy system and made it fun. Cost to the company? $250.

Since then he’s given away iPods, Xbox 360s, PlayStation 3s, and a netbook. Fun competitions that solve real problems are a great way to boost morale and keep people engaged, especially in somewhat depressing times. Two rules:

  1. Focus on real work problems and opportunities. A company picnic might be fun but it doesn’t achieve the same impact. Instead, make the work itself fun.
  2. Money isn’t fun. When Marc put a $1,000 bounty on a problem, it failed. The cash could have bought four Nintendos but it was less inspiring. You can parade around the office with a box in your arms as a badge of honor but who would walk around waving a check? Getting paid for something transforms fun into work. In fact, make sure the prize you offer is worth no more than a few hundred dollars.

Special projects that require creativity to crack are the most fun to attack. Figuring out how to get the attention of a new prospect who won’t return calls. Solving a product issue that consistently annoys customers. Finding a new way for managers and employees to communicate without relying on the dreaded performance review.

But mundane tasks can be made fun too. Take the anxiety producing cold call. What if you started a running list (with a prize for the monthly winner?) of the most obnoxious responses you hear? That alone could turn angst into excitement.

Fun doesn’t require a competition. When I was waiting tables as a college student I spiced up the job by serving each table in a different accent. It took all my focus to remember which accent went with which table. Silly? For sure. Fun? Much more so than simply taking an order.

Here’s the thing though: you can’t fake fun. Which means you have to go into your work day with a sense of amusement. It’s a lens through which you view the world. We all know people who slip easily into laughter and make jokes even as they work hard at something, seemingly unburdened by the threat of failure. And when they do fail, they laugh and keep going. It’s contagious. Which is why it’s such a critical leadership quality.

Fun keeps people motivated, and that eventually translates into performance. Richard recently called me to tell me he came in 120th out of 200, a huge improvement over previous races. “And they all had two legs,” he told me laughing. “Wanna join me for the next one?”

Sounds like fun.

View original here, by Peter Bregman @ Harvard Business Publishing