Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Working in teams

Given the amount of attention it gets on my course, I sometimes muse on the many and varied teams I have been part of. Three in particular came strongly to mind: the first was relatively early in my working career, when I was put forward for a European-funded project to introduce technology to blind and partially sighted young people in Northern Ireland. The other two were much more recent: a team formed to improve access to an important software product used in social services, and another which put on and managed a number of international conferences in the UK.

Our conference team became expert and well-organised, and produced splendid and enjoyable results. My role for most of the events we held was to elicit papers and sift out the ones for presentation, and then look after the speakers, and sometimes the technicians as well on the day. The real highlight for me was the year that we scheduled a 'debate' between various eminent persons on the topic of whether, thanks to technology, people with sight problems are better off than they were a generation ago, and managed to get Jeremy Paxman to agree to chair the session.

It was brilliant, he signed my conference programme (giving the impression that he thought it was one of the strangest requests he'd ever had), and then I went back into conference organiser mode, collecting one of the speakers and accompanying him to lunch. He was an educator, so I spotted one of the educators from my own organisation and asked my speaker if he'd like to join him for lunch. As we reached the table, I realised that the great Paxman was with the chap from my own organisation, so I was going to be lunching with him. I think that's my only celebrity encounter, but it was a good 'un.

In contrast, the Consortium that we formed in order to improve accessibility to a major piece of software used in UK social services departments was an eye opener, and could have been a case study for my current course. All the theoretical aspects of a serious partnership had to be covered - what exactly are we trying to achieve, who leads, what roles do team members have, how are meetings managed, who pays, and a whole lot more. The lessons I learned were that it's largely the individual characters, motivations and skills of the people on the team who determine whether the project succeeds or not. I think we were lucky, but I wonder whether that software is now accessible or not.

In university, all the options are laid out in a Powerpoint presentation: what makes a good team, why teams often fail, as if you could say to yourself "This piece of work needs a team, let me work out who can be involved and how we should manage the thing." In fact, we just came up with an idea, found someone else who was willing and able to help and even had some money, and then we just muddled through.

The fondest memories of teamwork came from that first European-funded project I was involved with. It came along when I was relatively young and inexperienced, based in Liverpool, and my remit extended over all of the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. At the time Northern Ireland was a battle-scarred place of deprivation that attracted all sorts of funding, and a project was devised that was intended to help blind and partially sighted young people to become computer-literate, and therefore more employable. I think about 12 people needed to be recruited, and I was put in charge of the technology. Except that there wasn't any.

I didn't really understand how this project was being run, who was in charge or what resources there were. It gradually became clear that the first stage required an assessment of what types of technology each of the participants would need in order to use a computer. We were going to gather in some Northern Ireland location, get to know the group, and I needed to do my assessments, except that I still didn't have any computers, nor any budget. I phoned a few people, and managed to cobble together two full systems by cannibalising old machines that didn't work any more.

In terms of social contact and work-related entertainment, that project left us all with stories aplenty. I remember finding out that all the speech synthesiser hardware I'd bought (this was before computers could do sound output) had 3.5 mm audio sockets, but all the headphones had 6.3 mm plugs, and I ended up on the streets of Belfast buying a soldering iron and 3.5 mm plugs and re-soldering the lot in the office.

On another visit, I was over in Belfast with a number of colleagues, one of whom was gay. For an evening's entertainment, one of the staff took him out drinking on the Falls Road (or it could have been the Shankill Road, I really didn't know much about Irish politics in those days). He was warned what he could and couldn't drink - asking for a port and lemon was distinctly discouraged in those tough working class bars. I have never seen a man so grey as my colleague the next day, who had survived the evening's drinking but had to make a number of swift exits from the office during the following morning. I have just looked him up - he's now an eminent politician in Scotland.

Yet another time during the course of this project, we went off for a weekend to a hotel near the Giant's Causeway in the very north of Ireland - I can't exactly remember the reason, but there used to be European Commission money to spend on this type of trip. There's another tourist attraction very nearby, Carrick-a-Rede, consisting of a rope bridge to a rocky island. One of the totally blind participants in the scheme was also partially paralysed down one side, but was insistent that he wanted to cross the rope bridge. With one member of staff behind him and one walking backwards ahead of him, he made it, but we were all anticipating the headlines in the papers should we have lost him.

That project was one of the highlights of my working life, for the feeling that we were doing something worthwhile as well as the social aspect. We have all gone our separate ways now, and I'm not in touch with anyone from that project any more, but I'm sure we all have fond memories of that particular project.


aims said...

I remember another rafting company taking eight blind people white water rafting.

Having been ferried across the river and left so that I could take photos - I was waiting for our guides to come down what is called 'The Double Ledge'.

Instead of our company coming through - this group of blind people came through instead. Being unable to see what they were going through and with a guide who wasn't trained well enough to manage this and the double ledge - the raft tipped over.

What sticks in my mind with a tinge of horror still is seeing a gentleman getting caught in the recirculating water at the bottom of the ledges. His face was turned towards the sky and he had a look of pure terror with his mouth open in a cry. That cry was cut off as the water sucked him under again.

He eventually came up again and was kicked out of the hole and drifted down the river. I was without a life jacket or a throw rope or anything that I could safe this man with. The others had been towed to safety a long while before this man came out of the hole. I was relieved to see him make it but was also horrified by the whole event and the lack of control by someone capable.

It is an image that has stayed with me now for 20 years. I'm sure I will never forget it.

Anonymous said...

I guess the university tutors have little option but to attempt to teach what comes naturally to those with the benefit of experience of working/real life. They are training a mixed group of mature students and kids still wet behind the ears. I don't envy the tutor who has to teach such dry stuff- but what else can they do?