How to Transform Work into a Game People Want to Play

How to set the stage for strong employee engagement.

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On the day I turned 16, I was all gussied up and the first person out the door—determined to land my dream job. I chose the place because everyone working there always looked like they were having fun.

When I arrived, I sheepishly asked the girl behind the counter if they were hiring. She said, “I think so, fill this out” and slid a blank application at me.

I turned it in a minute later, and the girl told me to hang out for a sec. She disappeared into the back. Then an energetic guy hopped up on Mountain Dew bounced around the corner. He asked me if I had time to interview. We talked for maybe 20 minutes, then he offered me the job. I was to start that night.

I was ecstatic! I had landed my dream job at the local pizza place.

The beginning was hard. I was always screwing up. In my first couple weeks I managed to spill pop on a woman, overfill every single napkin holder, and dump garbage juice all over myself. I was always covered in pizza sauce, and smelled like old oregano.

But before long I started to get it and within a handful of months I was promoted to a PIC (Person in Charge). A PIC was a shift supervisor, responsible for making sure everything ran smoothly, and for “making labor.” To make labor a PIC had to line up total hours worked against total sales on a chart that looked like a multiplication table. A PIC was considered a rock star if they could make labor by more than 10 hours. The mission was clear, make customers happy and make labor. Everyone worked hard to make that happen. People fell into specialty areas that fit their strengths. David and Dana were the oven gods. I was a saucer. Jill and Liz were best at the til.

We all got better, a lot better. Every Friday and Saturday night there was a line around the building. People waited an hour and a half for our pizza. Wide-eyed kids would watch us through the parking lot window. We were rock stars. We worked there together for years and we still keep in touch. [Cue Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days]

Looking back on my time there, I now see that success wasn’t a happy accident. It was by design. The owner had eleven pizza restaurants and had designed a system for success. Every one of his pizza places were wildly popular with customers AND great places to work. However, we hardly ever saw him.

There were two main drivers behind his success, 1) trusting employees with autonomy, and 2) clearly defining success. The crystal clear success criteria, in the form of making labor, focused everyone on a single objective, and autonomy provided the empowerment to achieve the objective. Together, they drove the success of the restaurant.

Each night was a new game, with a slightly different team configuration, captained by one of the PICs. Each team worked hard to make labor… to win.

When people are empowered, and there’s a simple way to keep score, the stage is set for strong engagement—continual improvement & magic are just byproducts.

Photo by Edu Lauton

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