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How To Have Fun At Work (And Learn Something At The Same Time)

Jack Stack and Darren Dahl-1

It feels like we’re on some kind of crazy rollercoaster ride. One day we’re riding high, and then, whoosh, we’re hit with school closings and absenteeism due to Covid, shortages of parts, and, heck, even a big ice and snowstorm to contend with. You get to the point where you think you might be too tired to duck from the next punch headed your way.

When you add that we were also trying to close out our fiscal year on January 31 amidst all those challenges, it could have been enough just to wave the white flag and surrender. As anyone involved in balancing your books at year-end knows, it can be a royal pain.

The pain is only made worse when you put off things during the year because of those challenges you’re forced to deal with. For example, if you ran into a supply chain logjam, you might be forced to place an emergency order—and pay a significant premium for it—which then impacts your cost and pricing structure. Or maybe you couldn’t collect on your receivables because of paperwork errors or maybe because someone was out sick. Have you seen what shipping containers cost these days? That means you wouldn’t get the cash you expected, which is the last place you ever want to be.

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Add all that up at year-end—when you have to go in with your auditors and match up your invoices with your receipts—and you’re staring at your worst nightmare in trying to close your books. It’s also a very tough way to start the New Year.

So, we decided to do something different to change things up. We decided to make a bet.

<<Jack wants to know your thoughts! Leave a comment at the bottom of this page, and Jack Stack and Darren Dahl will comment back and/or answer any questions you might have. >>

Gamifying Work

As we approached the final weeks of our fiscal year, we knew we’d be staring at a lot of paperwork reconciliations to get to the bottom of where our cash position would end up at year-end. So, at a staff meeting with our executive team, who represented ten different companies, I pulled $200 out of my wallet and threw it down on the table.

“We’re going to play a little game,” I told everyone. “Whoever can guess what our cash position will be on January 28 wins the pot. If you want a shot, it’s $5 to buy-in. Winner takes all, including the $200.”

It was incredible to watch what happened next. It was the most powerful thing you’ve ever seen in your life. It was like flipping a switch. Everyone inside the room received a bolt of energy. Concerned frowns turned into smiles. Polite hellos turned into trash-talking. Rather than getting beaten over the head to clean up receipts and invoices, we just challenged everyone to work with their teams inside their respective companies to explain—as close as they possibly could—what their cash position would be at the end of the year.

After a flurry of $5 bills piled up on our conference room table, the team headed out to make phone calls and get the latest intel on our cash position throughout the company. Something ignited, and the room exploded. Everyone was excited and having fun—a feeling that soon spread throughout the entire company.

Learning Moments

It’s remarkable that when you can make a game out of a challenge you’re facing, it also opens up opportunities for learning moments.

We’re now entering a new era where money will be more expensive to borrow as interest rates climb. We’ll no longer think “cash is trash,” as one investor infamously put it. It was like we were taking a crash course in liquid assets. Playing this game became an opportunity to teach our people about the uses of cash—and start developing healthy habits around it that we can build on going forward.

For example, we had one of our associates call a customer to ask about an outstanding balance they owed us of $800,000. Imagine their surprise when the customer said, “Well, we only owe you $400,000.”

That then forced our associate, a salesperson, to show the customer in a respectful way why they owed the $800,000. That’s a tough conversation to have. But the difficulty level only increased when he pressed the customer to pay their bill now, before the end of the fiscal year. What an education for someone in sales learning how to have that kind of discussion, and not take no, in a respectful way.

A different team even sent a guy to Kansas City to collect and deposit a substantial seven-figure check from a customer before the deadline rather than wait another week. They were committed to doing whatever it took to collect the cash we were due.

Another area that served as an excellent classroom was getting on top of inventory. There is real pain when you have inventory build-ups because you’re waiting on a single part that’s only 5% of the price. That’s how you can tie up a lot of cash unnecessarily, or, worse, when we lose track of how much inventory we have.

And yet, after completing the audit of our total inventory worth $72 million, we were only off by $200 in one division. Everyone else had 100% accuracy. When you’re talking about thousands of parts, maybe even tens of thousands, that level of accuracy is simply remarkable. It’s unheard of.

Just as important, by playing this game, we helped reinforce to everyone inside the companies why being accurate, and turning inventory into cash, is so important. We helped bring what normally could be a boring ratio to life.

Again, this is all stuff that can be such a pain to try and get done that it’s easy to put it off until tomorrow. We found a way to get everyone engaged in getting it done today. That meant, unlike most years when you’re forced to spend the first month or two of the year cleaning stuff up, we got off the blocks clean in 2022.

Winning Is Fun

We started the year with $14 million in our bank accounts. Our annual plan and budget called for us to end the year at $17.4 million—up more than $ 3 million—which is a healthy increase given the amount of activity attached to our total sales of $600 million.

Well, when we finally called the game on Monday morning, January 31 at 10:00 a.m., we had a winner: Spencer Cunningham, General Manager of SRC Whole Goods, collected the pot of $560 for his astounding accurate forecast of $21.92 million.

Perhaps more importantly, by playing our little cash flow guessing game, Spencer and his colleagues made the year-end close astronomically easier for our finance and accounting team—and helped us secure an extra $7 million in cash over our budget.

You might think we’re lying, but one of our senior accountants, Daniel Williams, even wrote a poem of all things to celebrate Spencer’s victory:

A Fiscal Year Poem

Spencer Cunningham won the MiniGameTM end-of-year cash pot.

However, the Chiefs just could not.

Inventory counts with our auditors led to discrepancies near zero.

To the crews counting and sorting all hours of the day, you are a hero.

2021 is now in the books, and oh what a year.

2022 has already started, so get it in gear.

Accountants writing poems? You might want to check that hell hasn’t frozen over. If you needed any other proof that people enjoy winning—and that anyone and everyone can find ways to have fun at work—what more can you ask than that?

We encourage you to share how you’re making work fun by leaving us a comment.

Jack wants to know your thoughts! Leave a comment at the bottom of this page, and Jack Stack and Darren Dahl will comment back and/or answer any questions you might have. 

Looking for more on how to increase employee engagement? Join us for our next workshop focusing on Implementation + Strategic Planning.

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Topics: Company Culture, Employee Engagement, Sustainable Business, Jack Stack, work environment, COVID

Authors of our latest book, Change the Game: Saving the American Dream By Closing the Gap Between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Jack Stack is president and CEO of SRC Holdings Corporation. Stack, a graduate of Elmhurst College, came to SRC in 1979 as the plant manager of International Harvester (IH). In 1983, Stack and the SRC employees bought the company from IH and have turned it into what Inc. magazine has proclaimed “one of America’s most competitive small companies.” He is the author of the books, The Great Game of Business, A Stake in the Outcome, and Change the Game. Jack has been called the “smartest strategist in America” by Inc. Magazine and one of the “top 10 minds in small business” by Fortune Magazine. Darren Dahl is an experienced ghostwriter and business journalist, having written for publications like the New York Times, Inc., and Forbes, Darren has also ghostwritten multiple books, several of which have landed on multiple bestseller lists.

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About The Great Game of Business

Our approach to running a company was developed to help close one of the biggest gaps in business: the gap between managers and employees. We call our open-book approach The Great Game of Business. What lies at the heart of The Game is a very simple proposition: The best, most efficient, most profitable way to operate a business is to give everybody in the company a voice in saying how the company is run and a stake in the outcome. Let us teach you how to develop a culture of ownership, where employees think, act and feel like owners.