“Other kids’ games are such a bore!

They gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!

Calvinball is better by far!

It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!

You never need a team or a referee!

You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!”

-Calvin and Hobbes

What is Calvinball doing on a company blog? What does it have to do with operating a business? Quite a bit, actually.

I spent countless hours in the 90s paging through Calvin & Hobbes comics. I still have every individual volume from 1987’s Calvin and Hobbes to 1996’s It’s a Magical World. Instead of climbing on a soap box and waxing poetic on how something better might never exist, I’ll reminisce about one of my favorite things to come from the comics: Calvinball.

What is Calvinball?

Calvinball is a game created by Calvin and his stuffed-tiger-turned-imaginary-best-friend Hobbes. There are no permanent rules save one: the game can’t be played the same way twice. That’s it. Additional rules are made up by participants as the game progresses.

For example, in one game Calvin and Hobbes try to steal flags from each other’s secret bases. This particular panel has one of the most memorable quotes from the comic: “The score is still Q to 12!” In another, they play a croquet-badminton-volleyball hybrid that involves spontaneously switching teams and hitting shuttlecocks against trees.

87978-calvinball

The game is chaotic, nonsensical, and wildly entertaining. It also gives us a great lens to look at building an adaptive and anti-fragile organization.

The parallels between Calvinball and organizational resiliency

The business landscape changes in often unpredictable ways. This dynamism is opportunity.

A lot of what happens in business is outside of one’s control. Market corrections, external economic shocks, and other uncertainties can spell the end of an organization if it isn’t built to last. Larger businesses may have the flexibility to dip into strategic reserves during tough times. Smaller organizations may not have this option. They are, by nature, nimbler and more adaptable, and must use this to their advantage to continue to deliver value to their customers despite unpredictable change.

Trite as it is to say that change is the new normal, the challenge of continuing to execute in the face of constant and massive change is at the heart of why we at Ondema are embarking on this venture. We use “Calvinball” as a shorthand for the new reality where rules change constantly and in unpredictable ways, if they are known at all. Continuous improvement is our secret weapon.

Reminding ourselves that sometimes we play Calvinball helps us incrementally build greater agility within the organization. We’re adamant about identifying sunk costs, and less precious about letting them go. We’re better at talking about elephants in the room, be they risk or opportunity.

We apply agile frameworks whenever possible, leveraging the wisdom of agile software development, DevOps, and the lessons captured in Team of Teams (side note: if you are unfamiliar with General McChrystal et al.’s book I highly recommend reading it). Building shared consciousness and practicing empowered execution drive all that we do. Those two mechanisms help us establish trust and common purpose within the organization while remaining adaptable in a changing world.

Change is hard. Unplanned change is even harder. As the author Hunter S. Thompson so eloquently stated: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” If you embrace playing Calvinball every once in a while, chances are you’ll be better prepared when the score is Q to 12.

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