Over the weekend, I came to the conclusion that we humans are masters of disaster, and – at the same time – masters of improvisation. We have the tendency to fix things by putting up signs, by coming up with work-arounds, and often these work-arounds make things better for some people, or worse for other people. Let’s explore this idea, and I hope you have found one instance of this or the other.

On Sunday I went to the gym. I visit that gym for a couple of years now. Right now, Since I joined that gym, the owner changed once. The new owner is investing some money. That comes with annual closing periods of one or two weeks where something gets renewed.

Recently, I saw some notes hang out in the lockers room. They asked us to put the weights back to their place where we picked them after exercising with them. Over the years, I have been to three to four gyms. Maintaining a regular place for the weights has always been an issue. So has the issue of people putting the weights back to their place. In most gyms that I have been to over the years, this always has been a mess, unless there was someone paying attention all day – and few gyms invest that money.

What’s the disaster here, and what’s the improvisation?

The disaster is the mess of weights that people tend to leave behind. In my current gym there are several weights ranging from 12kg to 32kg. There are two benches to put them. Every now and then I spend some time to sort them by weight.

Unfortunately the weights don’t all fit on the available spaces. I surely can understand that putting back the weights after doing some heavy-lifting does not end in the most clever thoughts. So, people put back the weights wherever they feel they would be appropriate. The next guy picks the weight up, and puts them somewhere else. With too few space left for all weights, usually at least one weight ends up on the ground – and this is where it all begins.

Soon, there is another guy that puts two weights on the ground rather than the dedicated benches. Soon enough, there are three, four, five weights on the ground, at times lying over each other. The mess is complete.

Now, what’s the improvisation? Hanging out signs that ask people to put the weights back in their places. The root cause lies in the too short bench. So, rather than getting a bench where all weights may be put on, or removing one pair of weights, or, or, or, people improvise with the immediate solution to put up a sign. Unfortunately this does not result in a change of behavior, so nothing improves, and over time folks become upset because “people should have read the sign”.

That reminded about a video that I saw a while ago.

This is broken

A couple of years ago, Seth Godin delivered an awesome TED talk on all the things that are broken in our daily life.. He collected pictures of everyday situations, and explains that these are broken. He identifies seven kinds of brokenness that he found over the years:

  • Not my job
  • Selfish jerks
  • The world changed
  • I didn’t know
  • I’m not a fish
  • Contradictions
  • Broken on purpose

Godin identifies putting up a sign to fix a broken situation, is an instance of “not my job”. The sign in my gym “is not the solution to the problem”. The problem starts with the bench with too few spaces for the available weights.

With that situation in mind, I noticed that we humans have a tendency to take the easiest way to solve something for. Another instance from the gym is this: I attend a course. As part of that course, we go through some stations. We have 1 minute of exercise, and 30 seconds of rest to change the station. There is a colored light indicating when to go, and when to exercise in green and red light. There are dials to influence the lighting durations.

As I faced today the situation that the change station light was set up too short, I was thinking to put up a sign there that indicates how to tune the dials so that the right amount of time would be available for all course participants all the time, and people could play around with the timings when there wasn’t a course.

But that would also be an instance of “not my job”. Humans have the tendency to trick the system, when we start to understand it. There are many speculation on why the dials are turned. Some trainers are lazy, and put the exercise period up longer so they won’t need to do much stuff in between. Some folks don’t need longer periods of rest, etc. I noticed that I had the tendency to put up a sign to fix the situation. But the fix would also be possible by getting rid of the dials, or working closer together with the trainers to stop tricking the system, and teaching them on which settings the dials should be before starting the course. The note with the correct settings would be an improvisation.

The Fun Theory

The weights, and the dials reminded me about some videos that I saw a while ago. The videos dealt with what is called the Fun Theory. The theory is this: something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. There are some pretty good examples on the website about how people achieved that. For example, watch the bottle bank arcade machine or the world’s deepest bin. These experiments lead to a better environment around the devices that were set up simply by making it fun to use them.

When it comes to the weights in the gym, I think rather than putting up a sign, we could also make it fun again to sort them back on their bench. I don’t have an idea on how to do that – that overwhelms my creative power – but I think that this solution could have worked better than the sign.

The broken window, and the boy scouts

Now, think back about your work place. Do you notice the disasters that you create for others? Do you notice the disasters that others create for you? Do you notice the improvisations that you bring in that make it an disaster for others?

Now think about it. How can you apply the fun theory to make solving these kinds of disasters in the future more fun for all of you? For example, continuous integration systems where you win some experience points if you pay down some of the static code analysis remarks. Or if you increase the test coverage level, you receive the unit testing badge.

I think we can still learn lots of things from the gamification domain for our workplaces. Let’s try to re-introduce fun into our tedious daily duties. Maybe we will have fewer broken windows, and leaving the campground a little better than we found it.

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