I was musing about a project today while eating my lunch. It was very surreal. Here I was, working day to day with a bunch of faceless people that I have little in common with, on a project for a bunch of bureaucrats, technocrats and other seemingly important people, going about their business, doing whatever it is they do, being busy shuffling around in a sort of hive-like mentality.
I was instantly transported back to a course I took in my first year of the Masters of Architecture program.
The school I attended had a multidisciplinary faculty, made up of the Architecture program, Industrial Design, Planning and Environmental Studies. There was a mandatory philosophy course that we all had to take. Maybe philosophy is the wrong term. The course was really about interdisciplinary studies with a philosophical and ethical bent. Needless to say, it was a course that we all had to take, together.
About half way through the first term we were subjected to a round of psychological testing – basically a Meyers Briggs type testing. The point being we were learning about our own personal character traits. It was actually quite interesting as you learn an awful lot about yourself and how you interact and navigate your world. It was after the testing that things got interesting.
We were split up into groups of eight and assigned a project to complete in 2 weeks. Each group had two students from each of the four disciplines (Architecture, Industrial Design, Planning and Environmental Science). Each group was also made up of people with scores on the Meyers Briggs that were complete polar opposites in every respect. We were assigned a design project – an intervention in one of the various areas of the local zoo. Our task, as a group, was to design a kids play structure for the African Exhibit. Our first thoughts – “ No problem – great – we have two weeks – piece of cake!” – and off we went.
Now you have to picture this. We had eight people from four different disciplines, and each person with a completely different temperament. The Architects tended to look to a visionary utopian approach, bent in modernist ideals; the Industrial Designers, many of which likely ended up working in the oil patch or high tech, were more Engineering focused – they like gadgets; the Planners were very much process oriented. Planners make great bureaucrats; and the Environmental Studies students were very focused on environmental issues, some of which I might add, were rabid activists. So I am sure you can see where this is going…………..DISASTER! We could not agree on anything!
A week into the two week project, we were all gathered together in a lecture hall, and the bomb was dropped. What we thought was a quaint little project on human dynamics, a concept we all got and were muddling our way through to get the credit, was now a real project, with a real client, and we were to present to that client the following Friday. Not only that, the media had picked up on it as a general interest story. We were doomed! Our only solace was that every other team had exactly the same stunned look of shock on their faces.
Now the pressure was ratcheted up significantly. We had one week to get consensus, and design a real project that had some kind of relationship to the African Savannah…. And what does our team decide to design? A termite mound climbing structure. It was at this point that I wanted to stick a gun in my mouth or jump off a bridge. A friggan termite mound – I could not believe what I was hearing, but since the clock was ticking who was I to object. I sucked it up and went along with teh group.
So we got through the next week, without killing each other, and all the teams presented their little projects to the Zoo Officials and our Professors. The Profs had their fun, they got to see us all squirm presenting our projects. The Zoo officials politely thanked us for our efforts – they played along perfectly. We learned exactly what was intended of the course, which is to understand and respect other conceptual frameworks and find any means possible to work together in a team environment, even if we have absolutely nothing in common, to reach a specific goal.
After it was done, we all licked our wounds, tipped back our beers in the pub, had a good laugh at our individual project designs and agreed to never, ever work together on a project.
A few years later, I took my then three year old daughter to the zoo. I had completely forgotten the experience from school, until I rounded a corner near the lion pen and there it was – a 15 foot high concrete structure, charcoal grey in colour, with a little ramp up through the centre, holes all up the sides inside and out, with a gaggle of kids hanging off, laughing away. I was stunned as I watched my daughter run up the ramp.
Then I laughed and thought to myself, “Now that, is one hell of a termite mound!”
And I chuckled to myself today, realizing my life hasn’t changed much. Twenty plus years later, I am still designing termite mounds!