Revisited: Playing the corporate game

As I’ve written before, I’ve been involved in a lot of game-playing during my corporate career. I’m not talking about the politics and back-biting that make the corporate life so much fun. I’m referring to the all-too-occasional exercises in what’s generally called “career development,” where a group of employees sit around a table (or a bush or an abandoned fire training tower) and get run through a series of humiliations and/or life-threatening workouts. If you’re lucky, you only feel stupid; otherwise, you end up “developed,” a painful condition where you exhibit a positive attitude all out of proportion to your circumstances.

Generally, these outings are designed to promote creativity and build camaraderie among the troops. You’re taken out of your normal cubicle environment and put in a setting where you are encouraged to think outside the box, dare to be great, or push the envelope of your normal comfort zone. I happen to believe that thinking outside the box is over-rated, and remind my cat of this every time he strays over the edge of his litter container.

Nevertheless, I try to be a good boy and play along. The first couple times, I genuinely tried to improve myself and my value to the company. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a lot more jaded, as you’re about to read.

One fairly common method to get group members to open up and talk freely is to mentally transport them to a different place in time. Here, they can talk about their aspirations or ramble nostalgically about the past. In one session I went through in the early ‘90s, staged for what were (wrongly as it turned out) perceived to be future leaders, we were told to draw a picture of where we saw ourselves in ten years. The only thing the 15 people had in common was that they imagined a future somewhere very far away from the company they were supposed to be leading. I remember that my picture had me sitting on a dock next to a huge satellite dish that retrieved documents from outer space that I would then proofread while my son sat next to me fishing. (I wasn’t exactly prescient about the coming rise of the Internet.) Poor artist that I am, my group’s facilitator interpreted the scene as someone working at NASA directing the first mission to Mars, with my son playing the part of a tethered robot. Close enough, I figured.

A similar exercise was done with another group a few years later: they were told to think exactly ten years into the past. Headlines of the exact day were read aloud and a hit song from the period was played to tickle everyone’s memory. We heard funny tales from high school, a story about a surprise birthday party and, from one young woman who could barely hold back her tears, a recounting of the day after her mother was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. The brainstorming was not especially inspired after that.

Another common activity is to break the group into smaller teams who are then given an assignment that requires them to work together to accomplish a goal. Once, we had to use tape, pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks to create a contraption that could cushion an egg from a six-foot fall. Another time we had to reach consensus on the best way to fold a sheet of paper into an airplane, then test our designs with a farthest-flight competition in the parking lot. My prototype was damaged when it was run over during flight testing; I wanted to ball up the remains and wrap them around a rock, which I was convinced I could throw way farther than anyone’s aircraft was going to go. Apparently, this was not the paradigm shift my trainer had in mind. Maybe I’d do better if a coloring or finger-paint session was next on the schedule.

I also had an opportunity to work on the other side of the equation when I spent a few years as an excellence trainer. (Note that I said “excellence,” not “excellent.”) During each day-long quality awareness session, we played what was called the JIT game, which was meant to demonstrate just-in-time production techniques. Each six-person team was given a collection of interlocking blocks and asked to set up a line that could produce exact replicas of a certain configuration. They were required to re-engineer their process several times – with blatant hints from the trainers – to achieve more and better widgets crafted each time with fewer and fewer people. At the end, they could do their very best work with only two people instead of six. Inevitably, some participant would learn the wrong lesson and ask what would happen to the four people who no longer had jobs. The trainers were told to make some vague hint about how maybe they could work in marketing instead.

The most enjoyable game I can recall from my quarter-century experience with this garbage was the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. What I liked best was that this was something you could do largely in the privacy of your own personal space, without having to “team-build” with your half-witted coworkers. You’d answer a battery of questions about your preferences – there were no right or wrong choices – and then you’d be put into one of 16 categories that labeled you as an extrovert, a thinker, a perceiver, an innovator, a molester, an invertebrate, etc. The only group participation required was at the end when you were given your results and told to go to a part of the room where you’d join up with others of your monstrous ilk and compare notes.

One thing I have learned from all these corporate games is how to game the system. Since no judgments are made, no answers are wrong and no ideas are too ridiculous, you can offer up the most absurd input and enjoy watching your guide squirm as they validate your responses. “Yes, Davis, your idea about twirling on our tippy-toes while talking to clients on the phone is a very innovative one,” the trainer says. “Let’s write that up on the whiteboard.” Until they wise up and put your manager behind a two-way mirror with your personnel file, your pay grade and a taser at the ready, these learning opportunities can actually be rewarding. Just not how they were intended.

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3 Responses to “Revisited: Playing the corporate game”

  1. morethananelectrician Says:

    When these things come up for me in the workplace, I just pretend something at the lunch had shellfish in it somewhere. I can even make my own face turn green at will.

  2. fakename2 Says:

    Thank God for this blog…I finally have a diagosis. I have a JIT deficiency.

  3. planetross Says:

    My brother took some test at work and the trainer/wrangler said he’d never seen that result before. Through the results there was no way for anyone to know how my brother might respond to any situation.
    My brother says people don’t bother him at work much any more.

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