On Tuesday I’m I working with a group of Geography teachers from Brighton and Hove to think about ‘Taking Geography Forward’. One of the things that we will be looking at is how schools in Brighton and Hove might look at implementing proposed new key stage three curriculum for Geography. One of the techniques we will used to tease this out is the Engine Room methodology.
The Engine Room methodology has been developed by East Lothian Council, Department of Education and Children's Services. You can find out more information on Engine Rooms on the original exc-el site. I have also duplicated the article below and slotted in a few pictures. Engine Rooms have a been a key feature used to establish actions and priorities within the exc-el / edubuzz project.
WHY ENGINE ROOMS?
In order to build upon the shared ownership derived from the interviewing of representatives of the organization targeted for the change process it is necessary to further involve them in the problem solving phase. The purpose of problem solving is to come up with small ACTIONS which can be taken discretely, immediately and which will collectively have a significant and measurable impact upon practice.
The key element of the problem solving phase is the use of ENGINE ROOMS. The engine room methodology for collective problem solving is derived from the SKUNKWORKS approach.
A skunkworks is a group of people who, in order to achieve unusual results, work on a project in a way that is outside the usual rules. A skunkworks is often a small team that assumes or is given responsibility for developing something in a short time with minimal management constraints. Typically, a skunkworks has a small number of members in order to reduce communications overhead. A skunkworks is sometimes used to spearhead a product design that thereafter will be developed according to the usual process. A skunkworks project may be secret.
The name is taken from the moonshine factory in Al Capp's cartoon, "Lil' Abner."
Skunkworks were first used by Lockheed Martin to develop the Blackbird Jet. Obviously in such a context the notion of secrecy was paramount for commercial reasons. Within an educational context the need for secrecy is not a factor, nor is the need for it to be limited to a small number of people.
For this reason we have developed the Engine Room approach as an alternative which has all the benefits of a skunkworks, i.e.:
- It can produce unusual results;
- It operates outwith the normal rules or any organization;
- It can come up within something in short time with minimal management constraints;
- It can spearhead the change process;
- Traditional support and management structures can build upon the solutions generated by the engine room process;
- It can build change in a progressive and incremental manner depending on the order and frequency of the engine rooms;
- Membership of engine rooms can vary depending upon the problem being tackled;
- Engine rooms need not be geographically limited and can take place wherever interested people can come together;
- Engine rooms escape for the tyranny of “diary matching” –it can go ahead with or without you;
- It sees practitioners as having a key role in their own professional destiny.
There is a scene in the film Apollo 13 (see below) where the carbon dioxide filters are damaged and the crew will die of asphyxiation in a short time unless a replacement can be installed. There is no replacement on the craft and it appears they are destined to die.
The team at Houston adopt a skunkworks approach, in that a group of technicians, scientists, medicos and others gather in a room. The leader tips out a sack of all of the loose materials which the craft contains, such as spacesuits, radios, writing pads, duct tape, tubes, etc, etc. The task of the group is to take all of these disparate materials and create a carbon dioxide filter.
The task is highly focussed, time limited and restricted by the resources available (there is no way any additional materials can be used which are not already present on the craft.
The team succeed and the crew members are able to replicate the filter on the space craft using the same materials.
The lesson for us is that it is possible to create something new in a very short timescale by simply using the materials we already have around us in a different and creative manner, as opposed to always looking for ideas to take a long time to come to fruition and for additional resources to be present.
ENGINE ROOM METHODOLOGY
The engine room methodology combines the best of skunkworks protocols and the concept of the Apollo 13 phenomenon.
An Engine Room builds upon the creative solutions or opinions of the individual, combines, refines and ratifies these ideas or solutions in pairs, then fours, then eights and eventually sixteen’s
Engine rooms can be used to:
- Solve problems;
- generate action ideas;
- select from a range of options;
- Team building;
- Over-coming stalemate; and
- Identifying problems.
The Ten features of the Engine Room Process
A successful engine room should adopt an ACTION FOCUS by harnessing the CREATIVITY of the individual and combining it with the strength of COOPERATIVE teams. It’s SOLUTION FOCUSSED approach adopts a REALISTIC yet POSITIVE perspective to problems within a fast moving and CHALLENGING context, where PACE and momentum are maintained within a carefully MANAGED yet FLEXIBLE situation.
ENGINE ROOM RULES
(so you want to run an Engine Room)
Where the engine room approach is selected as the preferred methodology a general invitation should go out to all the members of community likely to be involved in the taking forwards the action derived from the exercise.
- Participants should be well briefed prior to the engine room and given the key questions which are to be considered at the event. They should be asked not to discuss the questions with any colleagues prior to the engine room.
- An engine room should not last any longer that 90 minutes - if it has to last longer than 90 minutes then the methodology either doesn't suit the problem or the questions lack sufficient focus
- It should be made clear that the purpose of the meeting is to generate ideas which will generate action and that participants should be prepared to sign up to the ideas which are generated in the course of the engine room.
- Depending on the purpose of the engine room the format of the questions used in the process will range to simple questions requiring original thought to the selection from a list predetermined alternatives.
- An engine room will typically commence with an introduction from the Engine Room driver who will present the context and background to the event with a particular focus upon the intended outcome.
- Regardless of the size of an engine room the layout should enable people to sit in chairs which can be moved easily around the room.
- After the introduction the engine driver asks each person to consider the questions for 10 minutes (if the questions have been sent out prior to the event then it may be possible to skip this stage).
- After that time people are asked to link up in pairs. It is important that the pairs have not previously discussed the questions and it is preferable if they are not close working associates.
- Depending on the questions asked the pairs are requested to select the best solutions.
- Selecting best solutions is dependent at this stage on negotiation "I'll accept your answer to that question, if you accept my answer for this question"); tossing a coin; or reasoned argument.
- Where a person feels they have a good idea but it is not selected to go forwards they have the option to place the idea on a "Recycling Board".
- The engine driver should have set out a timescale for this stage of the engine Room but should observe carefully to determine whether or not extra time is required. Remember that the outcome of the engine room should not be compromised by a slavish adherence to the rules.
- Nevertheless, the engine driver should attempt to generate pace within the room by making constant mention of the time left. This places the participants under some pressure to agree a solution - and maintains the momentum of the event ( a key feature of a successful engine room).
- From pairs we move to groups of four. Exactly the same process is gone through as for the pairs. On this occasion the final selection of ideas can go to a vote. Simple majority rules apply but lost ideas can be sent to the 'recycling board' (using post its).
- Participants are asked to listen carefully to others; value other contributions; and try to convince by evidence, examples and reasoned argument. People should be comfortable to express how they feel about any issue being discussed.
- The next stage is exactly the same as for four but in group of eight.
- If the group is no larger than sixteen it is then possible to move to the CONVENTION stage.
- All participants should stand up during the convention stage. This gives it an impetus and changes the dynamic of the event (something akin to the 'bearpit' of a stock exchange)
- Just like a political party convention the representative of each group is asked to speak to the engine room about their selected ideas. In such a scenario the negotiation stage takes place in public between the two individuals. Each person carries the number of votes from their previous group.
- Where there are more than 16 people present it is possible to move to the convention stage in multiples of sixteen with up to seven groups being represented on the stage.
- Where there are more than this number it is possible to run parallel engine rooms and combine their findings.
- Alternatively, different engine rooms can have different governing criteria.
- Where a wide range of solutions are generated fomr different engine rooms it is possible to convene a further engine room where the task will be to simply select from the list presented.
- Engine rooms should be allowed to "cool down" and no action should be taken for an agreed period of time after the conclusion of the event - typically 24 hours.
- Recycled ideas should be referred to at the convention stage and preferably posted on a website, with the opportunity for additional suggestions to be posted to pick up latent ideas, again within an agreed timeframe.
- Should you have sufficient people it may be possible to have an engine room to only take forwards recycled ideas.
- If it is obvious that agreement has been reached at the end of the engine room people should be sought to take forward particular action ideas. It should work on the principle of "do it tonight!".
POSSIBLE WEAKNESSES OF THE ENGINE ROOM APPROACH
- The engine room approach is not a universal panacea to all problems
- It could be possible for a person to dominate a group.
- Will it be the "Law of the jungle?"
- The exercise might favour particular types of mind, e.g. intuitive - the distribution of information prior to the event should tackle this problem.
- Just how sustainable is the approach?
- Where is the time for reflection?
- Risk taking can be compromised by the voting process.
- Do people feel ownership if their ideas are not taken forwards?
- Is it open to manipulation - particularly by the engine room driver or organising group?
- Will people take it seriously?
- Will ideas be thought through properly?