Work should be play

Last week, Mattias sent me the URL to the Gothenburg Patterns Project, which sent out six disposable cameras in the world (Gothenburg) with the instructions that the receiver should take one photo and pass it on. The initiator of the project was curious to see what kinds of pictures the photographers would take, if there were any patterns.

Anyway, I got the idea of writing a book or making a movie in which someone starts a project like this, and one of the cameras comes back with a photo of a murdered person, or something like that. Apparently, Mattias was inspired by the idea and thinks about writing a script or a book, so this weekend I came to think of a book I bought a few years ago, called Författarskolan (“Writers School”, unfortunately not available in English) by Göran Hägg. I intended to borrow it to Mattias, but I started to read it and it was better than I remembered.

This weekend, I also read Games Programmers Play, an article by Alistair Cockburn, about regarding software development as a playing a game (see here). And in reading Författarskolan, I found a passage that I felt was related to this (my translation):

Most of art is in reality cheating and making up things. Or play, if one prefers that word. [...] Science too is regarded as a “game” by its most dedicated practitioners. To be creative is in fact to play, regardless of field of work. New truths emerge when adults dare to act like children, that is to be serious about playing. But it still has to be a game. With rules and creative blunders.

A couple of weeks ago, Malte and I talked about doing design work. I mentioned that a friend and former colleague and I used to say, on very sunny days, that it was “design weather”. We used to take writing pads and pens and go out to the nearest park and sit there and draw sketches and talk about some area of the system that we should build.

Malte told a story of a sunny day when he and Kjell had gone to the beach to do design work. And I came to think of a time when we had scheduled a week’s worth for doing exploration on how to adapt the system we were building to act as peer to other installations of the systems, in a distributed fashion.

We used perhaps half the time to stand by the whiteboard and talk to each other, and the other half we goofed around with MUDs, the Web (which started to take off at the time) and other things. And the solution we came up with was excellent and I don’t think we would have done as good a job if we’d spent the entire week at the whiteboard, or only scheduled half a week and doing real work the rest of the time.

I firmly believe that when doing design work, it pays off to let the mind rest between bursts of creativity, by doing non-work things. I long for a project where the project manager or coach realizes this and encourages it. Especially for an Extreme Programming project where you do pair programming, which in essence is an on-going design discussion. Many people have reported that pair programming is an intense activity and that you need to take frequent breaks. I’d say that buying a Playstation 2 with a bunch of games for these frequent breaks would pay off by many times the money spent.

One dream I have is for Oops to become a company that develops a product, or a number of products, instead of just doing consultant work. Then I would want to try the idea of having work-free fridays. That is, you go to work, but you are free to just play around, try new technologies, read about stuff and discuss it with the others, or simply just playing videogames. Or actually doing regular work – because I think that in an environment that encourages play, the work itself becomes play.

Follow-up: Jonas Bengtsson commented on this post, mentioning two companies: a Swedish company (Tankebolaget) that actually has “work-free Fridays” and 3M which has something called the “15 percent rule”. Jonas writes that employees tend to use their free 15 percent to explore and come up with ideas for potential projects. I googled and found two Wired: When The Future is Now; and a Software Development Magazine article: What Manufacturing Can Teach Software.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on June 23, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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