Play is a necessary part of work and creativity, but don't forget the funny

Great pranks can make work merry, but pick your victim carefully

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Image credit: Netflix

I am a fan of workplace jokes. Some of my fondest workplace memories are of teams pulling together to pull off an elaborate prank. I have forgotten many of the projects I've worked on and some of the people I've worked with. But I remember all of the pranks.

In fact, I think the ability to play is what leads to inspiration. Look to the beginning of information technology in the body of Claude Shannon and you will see this played out: Because Shannon had a mind that played – with people, ideas, toys – he solved big puzzles that led to you having a job in IT, that led to there being such a thing as IT. And even if play isn’t essential to creativity, it makes it fun to go to work. And, if you are there to have fun anyway, you might as well get some stuff done.

Play is good. But can you go too far? I’ve been wondering this all day as I plan some elaborate pranks.

The best workplace joke I was ever part of was instigated by my then-boss Steve. And some might argue that he went too far. He sent out an email to the entire staff requiring that everyone put in some time wrapping fake packages, writing bizarre return addresses on them, and dropping them in the cube of an employee who was foolish enough to be returning from vacation on April 1. When that employee, Michael, showed up for work, his cube was so full of packages he couldn’t get to his desk. He was unwrapping (because some of the packages were real, delivered and carefully mixed in by the mail room ) for weeks.

Fortunately, he had a sense of humor. That may have pushed the limits of “prank.” But it was funny. And ultimately, Michael was touched that we’d gone to so much trouble. So it was a success.

But I think if police cruisers, the Chief of Police, and a police drone show up – and no one is laughing – you prank has gone too far. Add to that the arrest of an innocent bystander, and you have crossed the line from prankster to jerk. Witness this prank:

Netflix has played some good pranks on customers that hover right on the line, making you wonder if this is real or a prank.

Today there is a Netflix original film described as “In the tradition of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ....’ I’ll save you 73 minutes and tell you that it's a chicken on a rotisserie roasting in reverse. And one year, the company added hilarious categories -- to people’s viewing recommendations. Funny! And scary because it demonstrated that the company is watching you while you watch TV.

And I still can’t decide if this announcement – offering dog-delivered packages as an answer to Amazon’s drones -- from Moo.com is a joke, which makes it an excellent one. Or if it's not a joke, even better.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to know where the line is. Because -- I think -- it isn’t so much a line as it is an understanding of your victim. One year, in that same workplace with the hapless package opener, my entire team decided to tell that same boss we were quitting. Too obvious, I know. But groups often don’t think well. One by one, we marched, seriously, into his office with our reasons: Other opportunities, death in the family, fake pregnancies, you get the idea. He was onto us after the first one. But he listened patiently, tried to talk us out of it. And then confessed – and made each of us promise not to tell the others – that our announcement made his own admission of a better job offer, which he had already accepted, easier.

We, of course, fell for his prank. He was a great boss and we all lived in fear that he would leave. So I think rather than offering rules or trying to solve where the line is when planning a prank, I have only these two pieces of advice to offer: Pick a victim with a sense of humor. And don’t play a player.

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