A Team That Is Switched On

Indi Young
Sep 25, 2020 · 3 min read

what does non-hierarchical collaboration look like?

Here is a story that demonstrates two things. First, it is a story about organizing a project for a specific group of people, and realizing that group is more than just a demographic. Second, it is a story about successfully designed teaching — albeit dependent upon those teachers for its success.

Last weekend (May 2016) I drove to visit my parents in the next state over. They’re incredibly active people who impress the hell out of everyone with their energy at the ages of 86 and 75. Dad builds airplanes as a hobby (you might have seen his work in one of my presentations) and Mom is a weaver and fiber artist. And the two of them collect and refurbish Nickel Age cars. Every Saturday they are involved in a charity project where a group of folks are teaching kids how to build a plane. Yes, a real one, that a pilot can fly. It’s a high-wing aluminum-skinned kit plane called a Murphy Elite. The effort is called Build-a-plane, and it’s nation-wide. Everything is donated — the funds, the planes, the hangars, and the educators’ time.

We gathered at 9am in the chilly Minden-Tahoe airport parking lot, seven kids and eight adults. All the adults had some sort of engineering background. My dad and one other guy had lots of experience building planes. A few other adults were pilots. I chatted with each of the kids to find out why they joined the group, and a few of them said they wanted to be a pilot or an engineer. Several, though, were just going with the flow of what their siblings or parents were doing. One wished she was skiing instead. Their ages ranged from 12 to 16, four female and three male.

The surprising thing was the energy in that hangar. From the moment I walked in, there everyone was bustling around, industriously working on aligning spars with the skin and drilling holes in the aluminum to then hold in place with temporary cleco fasteners. Some of the kids were deburring holes and replacing clecos with actual rivets. They demonstrated to me the safe way to operate the airgun. Each kid wore eye protectors without any apparent embarrassment. There were three or four groups working on things like the flaps, the vertical stabilizer, and the attachments on the wing where the flaps would go. Adults moved from group to group as their expertise was needed. There was no top-down control. People just worked together. The adults helped the kids figure out what to do next, but there was no one person saying, “do this, do that.” In one case, the skin wasn’t fitting well over the spars, and the young woman involved herself in the discussion of what might have caused it, and made the decision to take apart the previous weekend’s work to see inside the flap and figure out what was wrong.

Looking across the hangar, the thing that struck me was how intent everyone was. They were pretty much in flow together. Sure, a few of the younger kids got bored at one point and broke off in a group to check mobile phones. But they rejoined the effort after their break, full of good attitude. It was easy to see progress. A couple of completed elevators and the rudder were hanging on the wall. There was a bit of competition between the two groups working on the flaps. Everyone was eager to reach a good stage by the end of the morning so the project could be left for a week until the next Saturday. It was such a perfect example of teamwork and progress. And learning.

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