Mavericks – giving function a soul

Shepard

I jokingly tweeted recently in response to an interview with Craig Knight (http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=25&editionID=219&ArticleID=2171) regarding the design of workplaces to be purely functional. This got me thinking about what purely functional workplaces we have seen and what the experiences of those working in them have been. The lunar modules of the Apollo space program were absolutely designed to be stripped of all but the most functional of equipment and aimed squarely at the unwavering support of a singular objective. Achieve that objective they most certainly did but what made these endeavours sing for millions of people across the world were personal touches such as Alan Shepard’s smuggling on board the Apollo 14 module of his six iron. A remote worker, when working away from their home office will most likely choose to work in a location in which they are surrounded with sights, sounds and smells with which they are comfortable, reminiscent of home and supportive of the work at hand. The growing popularity of co-working spaces and the design elements they incorporate from coffee shops and clubs are testament to this.
When it comes to the topic of the space program we see much the same evidence around personalisation that I covered in my previous post. The nascent NASA was very much a command and control structure borne out of the naval and air force traditions of the Second World War and Korea. However, the people chosen to deliver the objectives were maverick test pilots who did not conform to rigidly imposed discipline. It is a moot point whether the leadership ever achieved a comfortable equilibrium between those at the sharp end and their political, military and scientific seniors and differences of culture persisted well into the digital age. Leaving aside the official record, perhaps the best chronicler of the program was Tom Wolfe in ”The Right Stuff” (in paperback by Vintage – 2005).
External drivers, political, social and economical have influenced the degree to which the legacies of the space program and polar exploration have been carried through to the present day but there are undoubted work/place parallels to be drawn when designing for success, whether in structure, process, teams or individuals.

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