Collaboration Lessons from Hacky Sack

In my first job out of college I worked at Sun Microsystems, and I became friends with a group of people who regularly played Hacky Sack (or footbag to use its generic name) at lunch. The game is played in a circle with up to a handful of players, and you take turns at “juggling” the bag with your feet. The ostensible goal is to keep the footbag off the ground for as long as possible.

But looking back on it, I also absorbed some good lessons in how to work in teams. As a young person just starting out my career, this was a critical workplace skill to learn, as it’s not stressed enough in typical in K-12 or college education. Hacky Sack is all about exploring the balance between “I” and “We”, and mingling them together seamlessly.

Here are some of the things I learned:

It’s OK to make yourself look good, but not at the expense of others

 Hacky Sack offers an object lesson in how to manage self-expression within a group. It’s perfectly fine to show off a bit when you have the footbag, juggle it a few times between your feet, do a trick or two, and try and improve your skills through play. But after a certain point this becomes selfish. You want to stop just before you get to that point, and pass it on to another player. To translate this into work terms - you should seek to be creative and innovative, and you can have your time in the limelight, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of others being able to do the same.

Corollary: Help the rest of the group look good

By extension, you also want to set your team-mates up for success by giving them managable and interesting shots to continue with. Passing off to another player with a kick that is too difficult, or where all they can do is get one kick in to recover it into play and must immediately send it to another player, is considered rude. On the other hand, always passing off with kicks that are boringly easy means they don’t get to show off with a nice trick. In work terms, share ideas freely, creatively build on other peope’s ideas, and don’t claim sole credit for ideas.

The group rules emerge of their own accord

Each group self-defines its own boundaries about acceptable behaviors. This happens without a designated leader and without explicit rules. It is an experimental and iterative process, but it also has a touch of Darwinism. If you’re not a good team player, after a while you just stop getting the footbag, and therefore you’ll either change your behaviors or withdraw from the group. Again, rarely is anything explicitly said, but the message comes through clearly in the group’s actions.

Sacrifice when necessary

When another team-mate kicks one way off kilter, help them out by trying to recover it, maybe with a big lunge. You may fall on the ground, and you may get it back into play or not, but at least you tried for the good of the group. This builds trust within the group, the sense that you’re all in it together, and will watch out for one another.

Be flexible

There are no roles or positions in Hacky Sack, as you find in other team sports. There’s no quarterback calling the shots. Everyone plays the same role, and must pitch in equally, and adhere to the norms of the group as they emerge.

Keep the bigger plan in mind

Hacky Sack combines enjoying the individual moments and tricks, with trying to keep the footbag in play for as long as possible by not letting it touch the ground. Being clever shouldn’t come at the success of the longer term goal.

Hacky Sack is often looked down on as a game for slackers. But get past the stereotypes and it teaches some valuable collaboration skills and attitudes in a more concentrated way than you find in a lot of other sports or so-called team-building activities.

Related:

Inventing the Collaborative Workspace