A friend sent me this story the other day, from her Facebook feed. 

There was once a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year he won the award for the best grown corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discover that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbours. 

“How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbours when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” asked the reporter. 

“Why sir,” said the farmer. “ Don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbours grow inferior corn, cross pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbours to grown good corn.” 

The friend who shared this is having extensive building work done to her home. When we met she told me how impressed she was by the teamwork displayed one afternoon. Four forty feet long steel girders were delivered to the house. The delivery driver was alone but there were two of the building team and a plumber still on site despite it being late in the afternoon. They all came forward  to help move the girders to the back of the plot. 

The delivery man instructed his team at the outset. “You do exactly as I say. When I say “hands on” you put your hands on. When I say “hands off,” you take your hands off. When I say “Stop!” You stop.” This was a team that had never worked together before, on this or any other job. It was an arbitrary team that happened to find itself needing to work together to achieve a goal. Safely. For their own safety, for the job they were paid to do and for the immediate environment, respecting the other houses around. 

My friend described how, with verbal precision and minimal communication the workers, Viking-like, transferring the lengthy steel girders around the plot using medieval rollers, coordination, mutual trust and respect. I was as impressed by her tale as she was by the team. With backgrounds in healthcare and education, and some expertise in leadership theory and practice, we both marvelled at the simplicity of their efficacy, and wondered why it can’t always be like that. 

Of course much of what we and our colleagues have to deal with is far more complex and nuanced with far less autonomy and ownership than the story of the girders. But the simple premise of mutual benefit is one we would do well to hold uppermost in our minds in our daily work. Just as the farmer with the prize winning corn recognised that there is no benefit for one if there is no benefit for many, so too did the four people involved in the girder moving. 

The building industry is an interesting one and I often wonder why we don’t look to it more often than the aviation industry for our human factors inspiration. As is often pointed out, an aeroplane disaster usually kills the pilot too, whereas clinicians rarely lose their lives directly from their own errors. Building industry professionals are rarely there inside the building if it falls down, although like medics they might suffer a great deal afterwards. 

Atul Gawande recognised the learning we can do by working with the construction industry. I read his book The Checklist Manifesto on publication in 2010 and one passage has stayed with me since then. Walking to work he observed the construction of a new building and went on to speak to an engineer with a lifetime’s experience in construction. Gawande reflected on how safe the building industry is, their error rate much smaller than that of his own profession, medicine. But there are similarities. They too have multi agency, inter professional working with 16 different trades to coordinate in the building of one sky scraper.  Gawande asked the engineer to show him around a skyscraper building site and realised that the industry used not one checklist but two. The first was for the jobs that needed to be done, with allocated  times, personnel, and so on. The second was a communication checklist, factoring in time and space for the 16 trades to meet and speak and work out any unforeseen problems. Together. Synchronously. A kind of sharing of seeds, rather than a divide and rule competition between trades. Because let’s face it, if the electrics don’t work, the whole project is held up. If the concrete doesn’t set, nobody else can carry out their role.  Just like the spontaneous team at my friend’s house, only on a much larger scale, there was inbuilt recognition of mutual benefit. 

How far do we work like that in health and education? 

A recent project asked me to provide expertise in my field, along with two other professionals who each had different skills. The project hit a huge rock when we realised there was no time or resourcing built in for the interface between our respective areas of knowledge. If we each provided what we can each provide we would have three sets of partial product that did not coalesce into anything useful, a kind of twilight, half baked collection of nonsense.  In order to make a final product that was of use to the profession it served, we needed to have time to review one another’s work, to consult, to discuss, to problem solve and refine. Thankfully, like Gawande’s building team, we were given the extra time and finance to do what we needed. Just as bricks need cement between them to stand up to the elements and ravages of time, so do experts need time and contact opportunities to cement their various capabilities together. 

 When, said my friend,  she asked the construction manager why they needed such large and heavy girders, he said they didn’t; that the house would stand up with smaller girders. But that the regulations in this country were such that girders that would hold up a cinema full of elephants were required, to keep everyone “on the safe side.” That additional  margin reflects the communication spaces of the sky scraper construction team, allowing for extra, just in case. 

The farmer was not willing to dilute his quality seeds, and we should not be willing to dilute our expertise. Whether it is a larger girder, time to communicate, or the sharing of seeds, it’s the overlap that keeps us able to produce the best quality product. Trim that down and you’re asking for trouble. 

The building industry knows that. 

There isn’t space here to fully investigate the benefits of looking more closely at the building trades, but what both the seed story and the story of the girders illustrated for me was that mutuality can lead to excellence, despite being the antithesis of the competition culture we so erroneously believe will drive up standards. That planning for overlap, factoring in the cement in the wall, is essential if you want to succeed. 

I once worked at a Further Education College. The parking spaces were marked out by one of the Youth Opportunity classes. They carefully measured the width of the vehicles, then marked out the white lines on the tarmac. But it was impossible to park there. They had forgotten that in order to get out of your car, you need space to open the door. There was no space. We could park a lot of cars in that car park, but nobody could get out of them and go to work. 

Mutual benefit and room for manoeuvre – they are  philosophies we can get behind.