Thursday, January 21, 2010

Walk the line?

A client has this sign prominently displayed in his staff meeting room:

This is in a public organisation. Every time I talk with him, I know he means business in dealing with childish behaviour in his organisation, helping people to grow up and mature. He is passionate about the capabilities of his operations team.

His goal in managing his staff is apparent: if his team is able to 'live into' operating 'above the line' then the work of managing becomes less about firefighting and more about identifying brilliance and creativity and persistence and finding ways of setting them free.

I'd like to think my current workplace has a pretty strong 'above the line' culture. There's pretty limited tolerance for B.S., a healthy respecting of opinions, and the ability for fresh ideas to rise above rank.

Of course, patches of 'below the line' behaviour occur. But if you've lived long enough in an 'above the line' culture you know how miserable a place it is to let your organisation live for too long in the choking, 'victimised' environment that is 'below the line'.

Perhaps you've been in organisations that have moved from 'laying blame' and 'justifying' to 'taking responsibility' and 'exercising accountability'. If so, enlighten us: what were the tipping points? And what did you notice about the organisation's output before and after?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The detritus of design

The art of sculpting is about removing just enough material to 'reveal' the finished form. Any act of taking a 'blank' and chipping something new out of it leaves behind traces of what once was - and the deeper the artisan carves, the less the original piece looks like the original piece: unless he is simply creating a miniature version of the original!

In one of my first posts on this blog, I spoke about my dad's buckets of bibs-and-bobs, buckets of leftover pieces that rest patiently waiting for the glorious moment when they will be revealed as the successful ingredients of a solution.

The pieces in these buckets all began life as raw materials before being fashioned into something humanly useful, before being consigned to life as 'odds-and-ends', waiting to become useful again, but probably not in the same vein as their original application.

There are some materials, however, that end up on altogether different trajectory, moving from being humanly 'useless' as raw materials straight through to becoming landfill.

If you've ever undertaken any form of construction (be it a house or a bookshelf or a quilt or a sock puppet), you know that trimmings and leftovers are par for the course.

I guess their usefulness, if any, is in serving the construction of something new.

One of my birthday presents as a young kid was a plastic model of a fighter jet. Opening the rather plain cardboard box, I was greeted with several 'slabs' of parts moulded out of plastic, waiting to be snapped out of their frame and glued into place. I took special pleasure in getting to work snapping all the pieces out of the frames - and it was quite a few pieces.

Only at assembly time, and under my father's watch, did I learn that these pieces of framing plastic formed a reference point for construction, now made all the more interesting without their presence. Though they were always destined to be left out of the final product, they were nevertheless included by the manufacturers, and were to aid the construction process.

Following the completion of the job, they were designed to be discarded. These are the sorts of pieces that would never have found a place in my dad's buckets, unless he had a hunch there was something potentially useful about them.

One of our clients is is the process of building a rigorously eco-friendly home. He tells me that when he was in the building game, most new house projects finished up with 16-24m3 of waste.

His ecohome, nearing completion, has no more than 2m3 of waste. That's because all those pieces of timber and tile and gyprock which are so readily discarded on building sites, he kept. And sorted. And stacked. So when the builders needed a short piece of timber for some framing, instead of chopping into a new length of lumber, they would go to to the offcuts stack, and usually find what they were after (and often with a lot less trouble than sawing into a full new length).

Where timber or brick or gyprock became too small to be useful, it was chipped and used as aggregate or backfill etc. In the end, very little has been wasted.

It seems to me that every construction, indeed, every conversation, has its share of detritus that remains at the end -- or is it the end? Perhaps the germ of a thought that did not pass muster to move us forward this time will be just the piece we need for next time.

Perhaps not. Perhaps it will pass beyond memory or text or photo and be lost. Perhaps it will serve as 'framing' now and 'structure' later, or 'structure' now, and 'framing' later. Or 'structure' now and aggregate later!

Perhaps what we have created is, in some sense, truly something new. Or perhaps that pile of shavings on the ground around us is the trimming down of 'yesterday's big (old) idea' making way for 'yesterday's big (old) idea, trimmed for fat and rebadged as today's idea and downsized, but still yesterday's model nonetheless - with a little tweaking'.

There is a place for all this. I just find myself pondering occasionally what became of all those shavings or biscuit crumbs scattered along the way of our 'creating'.

Sometimes when I look at what I have made today, I find myself staring into a likeness of an image of yesteryear's conjuring. And sometimes it makes me weep. And occasionally, it makes me smile. Debris has found a new home, and is no longer debris. Its place in the odds-and-ends bucket may (or may not) now be occupied by yesterday's now-disassembled structure.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Strung out on good value, man

Well, hello.

Anyone here?

My brain attempts to move into gear ... squeak, squeak, crrrunchh!

Things are a little dusty around here, I must say. This is what happens when you leave the house locked up over a long break.

The grass grows, the spiders move in, windows gets stuck, the electricity gets disconnected ...

So maybe, just for tonight, I will sleep on the blog porch. Perhaps tomorrow, the blog lounge.

But hey. I did get a cool guitar for Christmas. Sorry, we got a cool guitar for Christmas.

The boys have been showing some interest in music lately. They have a little toy guitar, and in recent weeks Elisha has fallen very much in love with this tiny red, four-stringed monstrosity.

Whenever I have been dragging out my guitar to play some songs with the kids, or with the church family bunch, 'Sha goes for 'Old Red', and joins in the action, strumming and singing along (if mantra-like repetition of the word 'La' counts as singing).

I think he must have been watching some videos of live performances of The Who because he takes to the instrument quite physically, swinging it about. He also seems to like 'kissing' other guitars with it. And these are not gentle kisses either. He will sneak up on you while you're playing and smack 'Old Red' into your vintage Maton.

Which he has been doing. I finally decided enough was enough. It was time to grab another guitar that (a) could get a little beat around without anyone caring too much and (b) would be small enough for the boys to learn on, if that's how they are inclined.

After cramming several decades' worth of reading time on various fora into a few short weeks, I came up with the instrument of choice: the Art & Lutherie Ami. This is what they call a 'parlour guitar', and it's the sort of thing that's right at home with a rocking chair, a shotgun, a wife named Bobby Jean, some missing teeth, and a porch in Mississippi. It's a rockin' little blues acoustic guitar.

Dang sweet lil thing too. When it arrived from America, I was itching to get into it - boy, was I excited! What I saw blew me away. Hand made in French Canada, solid Western red cedar top, cherry sides and back, silver leaf maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, lifetime warranty. Sweeeeet. And extra sweet when it was only $350 delivered to the door.

Maton is enjoying some recovery time in his case behind the lounge. Ami is a friend (pun intended) who happily tags along wherever the ride is headed, and whoever the company is (even if it's our own little Pete Townshend with his red terror).

I guess maybe one day the boys will get to play this guitar. It was, after all, bought for them. But I'd like just ten more minutes alone with Ami. Just ten. I promise. On the porch.