chris wise engineer

Revolting against ourselves

At the Melbourne Grand Prix, Jenson Button made his own decision about tyres, and won the race….Lewis Hamilton trusted a computer, and even with the best equipment made a bad decision and lost. Good decisions matter, so last year we ran a great thought experiment into our powers of awareness and self-determination. The experiment was funded by £500,000 provided through Think Up, the educational arm of our Trust. That’s about 15% of our turnover.

The key idea was to pay all of our staff every Monday not to work, but instead to pay them to think. The experiment was lumpy but very revealing, especially about leadership and ingrained culture.

From deepest Winter, and the deepest recession, we couldn’t really imagine that the old engineering world would still exist when we came out. So we tried to think about thinking, about what we do, how we do it, all that good stuff. Improvisation to the tune of “Why?”. I ran things at the beginning with my partner Ed McCann and the eminent theatre designer Timothy O’Brien. We began with a musical metaphor about mastery, using Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore. We watched him play guitar at the peak of his powers. Cue baffled silence. Cue the sound of £500,000 trickling away.

Then we looked at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs through Jennifer Baichwal’s film “Manufactured Landscapes”. Its opening shows 23,000 Chinese workers assembling electric irons in row after row after human row. Not a very subtle analogy to us. We reflected on our own elevated needs in fancy London – self esteem, achievement, shopping. Later, Nick Park’s plasticine ‘Creature Comforts’ about evolution found itself bracketed with Martin Kemp’s book ‘Leonardo Da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design’ which confirmed his use of analogy as thought experiment. And a radio lecture by Isaiah Berlin on enlightenment, thought and romanticism. Truly on those well-funded Mondays we were a group of engineers who’d set ourselves adrift in an open boat with bugger all idea of where we were going.

By Spring, we compared Mill’s “Homo Economicus” , driven by rational self-interest, with the RSA’s ‘Social Brain’ project which says Economic Man is false and Homo sociologicus is wonderful. Then, two of our number went with Save the Children to the world’s largest refugee camp, near the village of Dadaab, on the Kenyan-Somali border, to recast the places where children play. As the empty swings and the metal benches sizzled in the African sun, it was clear the camp’s “Child Friendly Spaces” weren’t working. What could a well-meaning engineer do with a problem that wasn’t technical but cultural?. By this stage we were like a teenage party… too much stimulation, plenty of confusion.

In early Summer, up jumped the perky idea of “Engineer Plus”. At last a concept to grasp. More than an engineer, “Engineer Plus” still suffered the fate of the “Child Friendly Space”….well-intentioned, good equipment, wrong culture, hopeless name.

By the summer holidays, our internal blog became increasingly anxious if unfailingly polite. This was the revolutionary moment: “In the past I have felt that people have been shy in coming forward with ideas for future sessions because they are unsure of the aims, or they are afraid of being shot down when they make their suggestions. So I ran today’s ThinkUp session in an effort to jump-start the programme, which seemed to be stalling.” If it were possible to revolt against ourselves….we’d sort of done it!

By the autumn, the themes became gradually more confident, and more assuredly cultural. Such things as: “Colour”; “Story-telling”; “The smell of money”. Too important for engineers to ignore any longer. At long last, the experiment grew some mould on its petri-dish: ideas for future sessions, run by self-determined people with help from outside the sanctum, heavens forbid, who might actually know what they were talking about. Yet although we offered to spend £500,000, only about a third of that was used up in the year. What did we get from it? Well the straight answer is that several decided that traditional, even high end, engineering was not their bag, and instead used their new confidence and insight to begin new entrepreneurial ventures within the Trust. I am sure to them it’s now a bit more than mould.

Theatre designer Timothy O’Brien, now 80 years old, and wise, told us of a job he once had, designing “Waiting for Godot”. When Samuel Beckett came over from Paris to personally check the set, he scrutinised the lone tree, the subject of much O’Brien love and care, and said “It’s too tall….cut it right down…”…. Then Beckett pondered the path at the centre of the stage, and said “It’s too literal….take it up…….its memory is just fine”.

For us, by risking £500,000 and spending £150,000, we gained the satisfaction of a year of thinking, and started just a little revolution.

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