thunderbirds are go

Stewart: ‘We were going to decorate the room ourselves but we couldn’t be bothered.’

7th February

The room is almost square. White. With an alcove for filing drawers and two stacking boxes that don’t stack. They stand lopsided, empty.

Two tables are pushed together to make one and stand against the wall where the window is. The window goes from floor to ceiling, with a white blind pulled half way down. On the opposite wall is a large white screen showing the contents of Stewart’s laptop screen.

In the far corner is a white spiral staircase going heavenward. Coats hang from the staircase. To begin with the team can retreat in ones and twos up the staircase
to a another meeting room but, later, this is reappropriated by the agency.

There is just about room to walk round the tables when people are sitting down without asking them to pull their chairs in. On the tables are six laptops (occasionally more), later on most with a separate mouse and full-size keyboard in front of them and, later on still, most propped up on silver laptop stands. A tangle of cables and leads run over the tables and down through round holes to socket extension on the floor. Morning and evening consist of the ritual plugging and unplugging of these leads and accessories and some scrambling on the floor.

Each team member has a separate locking drawer in which they can leave their valuables and (if necessary) their laptop. Later this system fails when Ludwig locks his drawer without realising that Tom’s laptop is in it and leaves for a long weekend in Berlin. It fails again when Steven loses his key and has to force the drawer. Some unhappiness ensues on each occasion.

At the same end of the room as the door the webcam offers a soundless, always-on vision of the room and its contents. On my computer at home, where I check the webcam periodically to see if a fight or other act of unexpected intimacy has erupted, the picture updates approximately twice a second with the result that the team members move with the same supermarionated rhythm as the cast of

By mid-February the room has assumed a
slightly different configuration and will more or less stay this way until the end. The tables are now pushed into the centre of the room, so people can sit on all four sides of the oblong that they create. The blind tends to be up and, as summer approaches, the window is usually open. The screen has been raised and there are now two whiteboards on the wall, which are occasionally covered in idea clouds, target dates and to-do lists. On February 26th it had a list showing everyone’s mobile phone number. Intuitively, that didn’t seem like the easiest way to communicate the information. On reflection, it probably was.

The door to the room slams shut whenever someone enters or leaves the office. The room shudders slightly and everyone is jolted. By the time of my last visit in July the team are perfecting a device invented by Joanna. It involves folding a piece of cardboard and inserting it into the gap between the door frame and the hinged side of the door, which serves to slow down the speed with which the door closes and reduce the slam to a gentle pffftt.

Wall decorations are almost non-existent. One or two pieces of fruit and a packet of biscuits occasionally decorate the centre of the table. There is no other concession to homeliness.

The drone of central London traffic (average daytime traffic speed 6.1 mph/9.76 kph), punctuated by the wail of regular post-war-on-terror-and-current-war-on-gun-crime sirens, intrudes, as does the squeal and hiss of air brakes. Otherwise the outside world is largely excluded.


As Richard Ogle and Suw Charman-Anderson, in particular, have observed, this kind of insulation isn’t obviously the best way to foster innovation:

If you don’t experience the problem you are solving, you are unlikely to
solve it in an innovative way. Locking six people up in a room for six months
with £100,000 isn’t giving them much of an opportunity to experience problems.
And again:
…cognitive scientists, researchers in artificial intelligence, psychologists,
and philosophers have begun to talk about how the mind extends out into the
world. This revolutionary expansion of the traditional concept of mind directly
challenges our belief in the individual mind’s internal self-sufficiency.

We are coming to understand that in making sense of the world, acting
intelligently, and solving problems creatively, we do not rely solely on our
mind’s internal resources. Instead, we constantly have recourse to a vast array
of culturally and socially embodied idea-spaces that populate the extended mind.
These spaces – manifested in forms as various as myths, business models,
scientific paradigms, social conventions, practices, institutions, and even
computer chips – are rich with embedded intelligence that we have progressively
offloaded into our physical, social, and cultural environment for the sake of
simplifying the burden on our own minds of rendering the world intelligible.
Sometimes the space of ideas thinks for us. We live in a smart world.

That said, there’s the small question of those six eyes on the world provided by the team’s propped-up laptops. We tend to forget, even though we chant the truism as a mantra, that the Internet has changed the way we see the world. Six people checking the blogs of some of the cleverest minds on the planet, inviting the bright ideas of many more, reading and researching as they go, saving and sharing their discoveries via Delicious and, eventually and inevitably, having lunch with their would-be clients and users are less insulated in many ways than any human beings at any time in history.

Incidentally, they also had the fine minds of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (who had lent them their office) along the corridor. In February the team had watched the new
BBC2 idents (designed by the agency and launched that month) and Steven had told me that there were plenty of people in the agency who could be very useful to them. Though they used Clare Hutchinson, one of the agency’s account planners, to facilitate an early brainstorming session, they didn’t otherwise draw on this resource.

The World Wide Web is an idea-space par excellence, though it’s perhaps less effective as a mind-space. Most of the team members felt they thought more widely and creatively when they were out of the office and an ideas session in Regent’s Park was often quoted as a particular instantiation of that. Mike said in March, ‘We need to do something that gets people into a different place. I mean out of the office; where we can be creative.’ At the same time Steven said ‘Yes, everyone agrees that this room is pretty dingy. We’re going to try and get out into the park more once the weather’s better.’ But, once the weather got better, there was never really time. So they didn’t.

Moving around does seem like a good idea. And/or working in a balmier climate, where you can be outside more. There’s even some science behind this now. Nicholas Humphrey
asserts that, ‘sensations are not things that happen to us, they are things we do’. So sensation ‘is on the production side of the brain rather than the reception side’. Clearly, having good ideas also occurs on the ‘production side’. If this means anything, and it may not, it means that our thinking is more likely to be closely involved with what we are sensing than one might at first imagine. In which case, we perhaps need to be aware of environmental changes that lead to us sensing differently – or ‘doing’ different sensations – so that we can encourage ourselves to do different thoughts.

Worried by their feeling stuck, partly because they were constantly together in the same room, Javier (who observes that, ‘when stuck, teams go into intellectualising mode’) had invited two of them to go away and come up with ideas for how the team should work for the next four months – practical ideas about where to work, how and when. ‘Can I suggest you actually propose a solution, not just present ideas to talk about?’, Javier had said. So Tom and Ludwig had
come back with a:

‘Fresh Air Straw Man’:

- we need to put some air into the team so we won’t kill each other at some point
- our work will become more modular after we have taken a decision which idea to implement
- we can work in smaller teams and don’t need to be in one room all the time
- we need only two days a week during which we all have to be in the office (decision days)
- we can use webcams and voice to stay in contact
- we need a tool and a process to allow for efficient planning

- create a planning system which allows the team to work efficiently without having to be in the same room
- in other words: make sure that team “explodes” when it doesn’t need to be together

- have no more than 4 people in the office, except on “decision days”
- don’t work from own home all three non-decision days
- try to work in other team members’ home spaces
- try not to be offline for more than half an hour
- try to work in more inspirational places

- clear this with group
- purchase head sets and web cams for all of us
- identify spaces to work in (Starbucks, museums, homes, parks with wifi coverage, etc…)
- find a good online planning tool
- get smaller desks and re-arrange the room
- organise trip to Berlin

They’d discussed it. But hadn’t reached any agreement. Their internal blog said just that: ‘We disagreed on how to work.’


Stay in or go out?

Stay together or move apart?

Prioritise intellect or prioritise context/ecology?

Zoom in or zoom out?

If the answer is always ‘both’, how do you decide when to do which?


Webcam stills: Midas Oracle

BBC2 Ident: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Red Bee Media, hosted on tvradiobits.


1 comment:

Stew said...


I have never lost a key. I dropped one in a drain outside my house as a child but I've never lost one in the classic sense. Steven lost his key.