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The Misguided Nerf Ball

February 14, 2000
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article
It sounded like an easy way to loosen everyone up: Have two sets of Nerf balls at the retreat, green ones and red ones. Participants would throw green balls to signal the need for more ideas. Red ones would be a call for consensus. Anyone could throw any of the balls at any time.

The facilitator had a few other tricks up her sleeve in the full knowledge that this promised to be the meeting from hell. For the first time ever, employees from three widely separate divisions were coming together to find common ground on several key customer issues. They had grown accustomed to internal competition -- and now they were being expected to collaborate. Each person had received an "invitation" from the CEO, but the fact was, most would have preferred a night’s lodging in a rat-infested dungeon.

On top of all this, the company was heavily starched with formality. It was everywhere -- from the way people addressed each other (Mr., Mrs., Ms.) to how they dressed (skirts and ties even at the retreat) to how they communicated (lots of formal memos) to how they made decisions (strictly chain of command).

An hour into the retreat, tension filled every square inch of the meeting room. That’s when it happened. Desperate to try something, anything, to pop the tension bubble, the facilitator quietly picked up one of the green Nerf balls and launched it across the room. The ball climbed gracefully, sailing over the twenty retreat participants, their eyes following its trajectory.

Time began to slow. Then the eyes got bigger, jaws began to drop, and -- BOINK! The ball bounced off the perfectly coifed pate of an especially formal division director.

All eyes froze on the director as she slowly stood up, walked to where the Nerf ball had landed, and picked it up. Silence. More silence. Endless silence. Then she whirled around and fired the ball back at the facilitator. A laugh filled the room -- the director’s laugh. Then the facilitator’s heart restarted, and she laughed too.

I’m not suggesting you can bring about change by hurling a Nerf ball at a colleague’s head. You’ll need to throw it four or five times before you see any results.

Pretty soon everyone was laughing, first in relief, then in true enjoyment of the moment. The atmosphere instantly changed, and throughout the rest of the retreat, Nerf balls and ideas were flying everywhere.

Okay, okay, I’m not suggesting you can bring about positive change in your workplace by hurling a Nerf ball at a colleague’s head. Perhaps you’ll need to throw it four or five times before you see any results. Or maybe you’ll want to upgrade to, say, a whiffle ball.

Seriously, excessive formality can be a big deal. It can bog down work processes, hamper communication, perpetuate hierarchy, and create a stifling environment. This story is one of many in my files that show how those small touches of informality can really make a difference. Sometimes it takes a fling of the figurative Nerf ball -- doing something new, different, light -- to start bringing out the people behind the titles.

This is a long-term proposition indeed. Fortunately, there are plenty of down-to-earth things you can do starting now:

  • Exert your creativity and apply some intestinal fortitude…which the facilitator did in fine style. Do something, anything, as a way of taking a stand for informality. Even a few informal decorations added to your work space might be a step in the right direction. Or try a simple check-in to start meetings, to get everyone talking. Oh, and if you want to try the Nerf thing, go for it. There are so many possibilities.
  • Get together with your colleagues and start a conversation about formality and how it affects your work. Identify five or so examples of big-time formality in your workplace, then talk about how these help or hurt employees and customers. In other words, try to uncover the degree to which they’re affecting your mission. If formality is getting in the way, focus the dialogue on what you and others can do about it.
  • Formality has a way of creeping into our memos, reports, and letters. Keep your eyes carefully trained on your organization’s written communications -- especially your own. Write in a crisp, conversational way. Whenever possible, skip the written stuff and communicate with people in person.
  • In many cases, written policies inflict excessive formality onto our workplace systems. Common culprits include dress codes, instructions on how to format memos or other written documents, and "guidelines" for following the chain of command to "report" concerns and problems. If you’re in a position to take on the formality beast in its biggest form, this might be where you’ll find it.

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