What happens when, in the middle of a horrible recession, a group of engineers devotes a year’s worth of Mondays to thinking instead of working?
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 big 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 our staff to spend every Monday thinking rather than working. The experiment was lumpy but revealing, especially about leadership and ingrained culture.
When it started, we were in deep winter and deep 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 theatre designer Timothy O’Brien. We began with a musical metaphor about mastery, using
Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore. We watched some footage of him playing guitar at the peak of his powers. Baffled silence broken by the sound of £500,000 trickling away.
Then we looked at Abraham 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 animated film 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 themselves adrift in an open boat with bugger all idea of where they were going.
By spring, we were comparing Mill’s homo economicus, driven by rational self-interest, with the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’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 on the Kenyan-Somali border, to recast the places where children play. As the empty swings 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 fumbling, all confusion.
On those well-funded Mondays we were a group of engineers who’d set themselves adrift in an open boat with bugger all idea of where they were going
In early summer, up jumped the perky idea of “engineer plus”. At last: a concept to grasp. More than an engineer, “engineer plus” suffered the fate of the child friendly space – well-intentioned, with good equipment in the wrong culture. And with a hopeless name.
By the summer holidays, our internal blog became increasingly anxious, albeit unfailingly polite. But 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 Think Up 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”. At long last, the experiment grew some mould in its petri dish: we had ideas for future sessions, run by self-determined people with help from those outside the sanctum who might actually know what they were talking about.
We spent only about a third of that £500,000. What did we get from it? 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 entrepreneurial ventures within the trust. I am sure to them it’s now a lot more than mould.
O’Brien, 80 years old, and wise, told us of a job he had, designing Waiting for Godot. Samuel Beckett came over from Paris to check the set. He scrutinised the tree, the subject of much O’Brien love and care, and said: “It’s too tall … cut it right down …” Then he pondered the path at the centre of the stage, and said: “It’s too literal … take it up … leave its memory. That’s just fine.” Our £500,000 bought us the memory of a year of thinking, and a little revolution. That’s just fine.
Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering