A while back I attended a course on project management. Why can I never have a 30-minute lecture telling me what I need to know about a subject? No, if it’s to do with HR in any way then it has to be a full-day course filled with breaking into small groups to brainstorm over a flipchart, and doing a godawful team exercise.
This one was a classic: we had to build a tower out of spaghetti with a marshmallow on top, and it had to remain upright for 2 minutes: tallest wins. I immediately said I thought a tepee structure would be the most stable, with a thin bundle extending out the top to support the marshmallow. We all seemed agreed and started mocking out how to put it together. Then when we were told to move from the planning stage into execution, the senior manager sitting next to me said, “I know, let’s build an Eiffel tower!” and scooped up the spaghetti and started trying to tape a square together. I kept saying things like, “I really don’t think that will be stable,” and “I don’t see what is going to keep the sides from collapsing in,” while she ignored me, and her recently-hired assistant played along to humour her.
Then halfway through the moderator swapped her with someone from another group, and after a short period of continuing her nonsensical design we abandoned it and threw together a quick tripod. It held together well and was only an inch or two shorter than the winner (which was a tepee structure exactly as I had originally suggested).
In the post-mortem afterwards, the manager said the problem was that she had missed the criterion that it had to be the tallest. That’s right: one of the 2 requirements passed her by, and this was said as if it were the moderator’s fault for not communicating more clearly that the tallest structure won. No acknowledgement that she consistently ignored the advice of a physicist that her design was never going to stand.
So in the end the exercise was a poignant metaphor for the state of the world. Expert is a dirty word these days, and the towers are collapsing all around us. But never mind: at least we have strong leadership.