Saturday, April 08, 2006

Of canoes, organisations, and plywood... 

Once upon a time, when I were no’but a wee lad, I was in the Boy’s Brigade – a youth organisation with even less street cred than the Boy Scouts, due in no small part to the ridiculous pill-box hats that formed the most obvious part of the uniform. I always wanted to be in the Scouts; they did much more interesting things (even though, so legend has it, they greeted each other with phrases such as dib-dib-dib) but since our church supported a BB company, it was to the latter that I went.

Perhaps mindful of the limited appeal of basket weaving to young teenage lads (I kid you not, we really did weave baskets – youngsters must have been much more obedient to authority figures in those days) and conscious of those exciting things our wilder, anarchic Scouting cousins got up to, our leaders decided it would be a Good Thing for us to build a canoe (although the obvious limitations of a single canoe amongst twenty or so lads didn’t seem to worry them). That would be just the thing to engage young minds in constructive endeavour; we could have a Grand Launching Ceremony too, probably even to the accompaniment of the bugle band.

I don’t think any of the leaders had actually built (or paddled) a canoe before, but that didn’t quell their enthusiasm for the project. So the enterprise was launched upon us lads as a Great Task, one that would take us to new heights of excitement, pleasure and achievement.

And in truth, it did seem quite exciting at first. At any rate, the idea did, and with the arrival of plywood sheets, timber and brightly-coloured plasticised cloth, we began to share the vision of our leaders.

The practice however turned out a little different. Remember, this was nearly forty years ago, and the design was traditional even by the standards of the day. Essentially, it was a timber skeleton covered in cloth. Formers cut from plywood sat laterally; these were joined longitudinally by timber spars and over the whole was stretched a covering of plasticised cloth (which, if we’d thought much about it, was likely to tear at the first encounter with anything more substantial than a floating twig). The first task was to cut out the plywood formers, and it was at this point that the whole enterprise all but foundered. Working from paper templates, the shapes were duly marked out on plywood sheets, but for some reason our leaders decided that, rather than cut directly along the lines with a power jigsaw, we’d cut the shapes roughly leaving a border of three-eighths of an inch or so and file the rest away by hand, using a surform. Let’s see, that’s a linear edge to the former of perhaps three feet, inside and out – that works out to about 27 square inches of five-eighths ply to be filed away by hand, per former. No easy task.

So, on the one hand we were told about the excitement of building and paddling our canoe; on the other hand we faced the reality of endless evenings filing, and filing, and filing… and getting nowhere. Now, to rebellious teenage lads, it’s uncool (although that term hadn’t been invented then) to obey authority, so even otherwise pleasant tasks become a chore when carried out under the direction of an adult, and so it wasn’t long before this “exciting project” turned, in our eyes, into yet another boring activity dreamed up by the grown-ups as a way of keeping us out of trouble for one evening a week. One evening, after I’d been particularly morose about the tasks at hand, one of the leaders took me aside for an earnest conversation; he just couldn’t fathom why we were all so unenthusiastic, and I suppose as I was in general more cooperative and enthusiastic than most, if I was so glum about it all then there must have been something seriously wrong somewhere. I hadn’t the clarity of thought though to explain that our activities were a million miles removed from the vision in his mind of our craft afloat on some idyllic expedition paddling down a river somewhere; all I could say was “It’s boring”, which was after all the plain truth. File, file, file; rasp, rasp, rasp; noise, aching muscles and nil progress.

We’ve been going through a major reorganisation at work, for the best part of a year now, and it has some uncomfortable parallels with that canoe building exercise, although since we’re all grown-ups the dynamics appear, on the face of it, a little different to those of the rebellious youths and their leaders. Launched with a Grand Vision, in spite of much activity the realisation of that vision seems as far away as ever. Those charged with implementing the changes give all the appearance of driving that change forward; there’s much noise and activity, a fair amount of struggle, some genuinely hard work and long hours put in by some, but is what’s been achieved taking us any closer to our goal?

Just as the vision of the canoe carried real promise, so too did the vision of the changes intended at work. But somewhere along the line, the implementation hasn’t matched up to the intent, and all the efforts seem to have something in common with filing those canoe formers – grind, grind, grind; activity, struggle, noise, but it’s not clear whether it’s taking us any closer to that goal.

I can’t help thinking that there must be an easier way. There was with that canoe.
But I don’t think anyone here has ever built a canoe before, or even knows what one looks like.

And for anyone who is interested, I believe the leaders eventually finished the canoe themselves and gave it a token maiden voyage, after which it gathered dust amongst the rafters of the hut. It wouldn’t be the first time a leadership initiative went that way either.

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