It’s All About The Gut

// June 21st, 2007 // Blog

I know i will be accused of breaking my supposed hiatus (a hiatus from the hiatus?), but these last two days, I have been attending a workshop designed to help final year PhD students, such as myself, finish up their work, and move on to better things – inshā’Allāh! As I didn't plan to do any thesis writing during this time, this blog post is “allowed”… my blog, my rules.

One of the elements of the workshop covered leadership skills, and as part of that we were set a task to complete. We were split up into four groups. Each group was given a box of lego bricks, and sent into different rooms. One person from each group was selected as the team leader, and together we had to figure out the quickest way to build the tallest tower of lego bricks, with the minimum height being 50 cm, and a maximum time of three minutes. The higher the tower and the quicker the time, the more points we would collect. The team with the most points would win a mystery prize! Cue: “Ooooh!” from the audience.

I was just a team member. Our tutor first asked me if i wanted to be leader, but i refrained as i was far too knackered; the early starts had taken their toll on my delicate, night owl metabolism.

We were given 20 minutes to first figure out our “strategy”, before the actual competition began. During this time, we all came up with different ideas, going back and forth, “What will be the most stable structure? How high can we go? How fast can we build?”. After some trial and error, we decided the best way was to build a base using the few large bricks we had, and then pile up each individual small brick, one top of the other, to make a straight line tower. Even though it was a bit wobbly, it was sufficiently stable to be measured, and thus pass the requirements. We came up with a method of splitting the work, so that each member had a pile of bricks to construct a part of the tower. These parts would then be assembled on the base, to complete the tower. The trial time for assembly came out to be 2 mins 30s.

After the 20 mins were up, the four groups were reunited for the build-off, but before the competition began, the tutors did something very curious. They displayed a chart containing data on what each group had accomplished during their trials: the height of the tower, the time it took to build, and how many points they had earned. In all the pre-competition kafuffle, i noticed something a little worrying: although our team had the highest tower, we didn't have the most points. It was the team that had the quickest time, that was in the lead… why was that?! Luckily, I had the task outline in front of me on the desk (which, btw, only the leader had read, and didn't show us, though in hindsight he should have), and right at the bottom, it mentioned that points were allocated as such:

1) 1 point for every second saved, under the maximum time of three minutes. So, for example, if you build in 2 minutes, you have saved 60 seconds, and thus earn 60 points.

2) One point for every cm above the minimum height of 50cm. Thus, a 100 cm tower would earn 50 points.

Number 2 was a crucial piece of info, that our leader failed to mention to us! Within the minute it took for me to see the chart, get confused, read the task outline, and see the point allocation system, i suddenly realized that our plan was completely wrong! I excitedly shouted to the team, “Guys, we have to go for time, NOT height; we just need to get to 50 cm as quick as possible, and then pick up points from our saved time!”. Thank Allāh my team mates were a intelligent bunch, and i didn't have to explain twice, and they all pretty much accepted my idea immediately (umm, that didn't sound very modest of me, did it?). However, the leader had been a little distracted during my explanation, so when we finally grabbed his attention, we kinda just told him that everything had changed, and that he didn't have much choice in the matter. Mutiny! But he was a cool guy, māshā’Allāh, so it was fine.

So, within the few seconds prior to the actual start of the competition, we had completely changed our strategy, and our new plan was to simply “wing it”! The timers went off, and the team hurriedly started putting pieces together, while i stood at the base with a tape measure extended to 50 cms. We reached something like 49.5 cm (at least from my PoV), and i was shouting “Just one more brick! ONE MORE BRICK!!!”. Someone finally clicked, popped three bricks they had assembled on top of the tower, and we all yelled “TIME!”, which turned out to be a total of 30 seconds.

At that point, we all seemed quite pleased with ourselves, especially as the other three groups were still working on their towers – when all of a sudden i experienced this moment of absolute horror. I thought: “OMG, i didn't actually do the maths in my head… what if time wasn't the best way? What if height was actually the best plan, and now we've lost, and everyone will blame me for the failure!”. In my panic-stricken state, it took me far too long to work out that 3 minutes minus 30 seconds, was 2 mins 30s, which translated into 150 points. Even when i reached this sum, i intially didn't trust my maths, and kept asking everyone “Is that right? Is that RIGHT?!”, and annoyingly enough, the question panicked them, and they wouldn't answer! However, when i eventually convinced myself that it was correct, i finally found relief, as this was the same score as the leading group from the trials, and was great improvement on our own trial score. Also, our end height was 52 cm, so we actually scored 152 points!

The three minutes soon came to an end, and it was obvious from the designs of the other three groups, that we were the only ones to go for the time strategy, which was a bit disconcerting. We all waited with baited breath for the results. In order to not make this story any longer, i'll just say… WE WON!!! Alhamdulillah! The prize turned out to be a yummy box of assorted Lindor chocolates, though amazingly, i didn't partake in the end.

I was just so chuffed that following my gut instinct had paid off, māshā’Allāh, (especially as it was all gut, as i didn't even do the maths to check that the plan was correct before proposing it), and also that my team mates had actually trusted me enough to follow my advice, even without any stats to prove it (we didn't have any time for all that, anyway, prior to the start of the test). I always assume that people are going to ignore my ideas, for some reason, and it was nice to know that when it comes to crunch time, i am not the invisible woman!

We obviously should've read the instructions properly at the beginning; we may have built the tower in less time, and would definitely not have stressed our adrenal glands so much. Yeah, i know that we won, and it wasn't even an important task, but i am a competitive perfectionist, like that! But this kind of last minute, risk taking can be so much fun, especially when it pays off. I am aware that that sounds a little too much like an endorsment of gambling – Reminder: Gambling is HARAM!

Just in case you're wondering, i did actually benefit from the course in ways more relevant to my PhD, including some excellent advice on a possible career move. Something called “Tech Transfer”, which i will, inshā’Allāh, explain at a later date.

Take home message (workshop tutors love that phrase): do trust your gut instincts from time to time, as taking a little risk sometimes pays off (but gambling is still haram).

12 Responses to “It’s All About The Gut”

  1. mcpagal says:

    Glad you’re back, if only for a wee while :)

    And well done for good planning under pressure! It sounds a bit like one of the Apprentice tasks, with the twist in the rules.

    Maybe you should go in for The Apprentice when you’ve finished your thesis?

  2. Faraz says:

    I was at a training seminar in Chicago last year, and had to do something similar; we had to build a tower of minimum 50cm out of paper, and it had to hold up a full sized brick for 10 seconds. In my section, there were 5 teams of 6 people each, and amazingly each team managed to successfully build the tower (we had an hour) with enough support to hold up the brick using only paper and masking tape.

    Unfortunately, we fell in second place because we used more paper and more tape than another team; we were judged also by our “efficiency” in how low we kept our “cost of materials”.

    The title of this post reminds me of Stephen Colbert. If you don’t know who that is… well, your gut can tell you.

  3. Manas says:

    Wow! That was great!

  4. iMuslim says:

    mcpagal: Just for a wee while. ;)
    I’ve never watched an entire episode of the Apprentice… i don’t really like those kind of competitions, where people are made to feel small and worthless when they don’t meet the challenge. Well, that’s the impression i get, anyway.

    Faraz: That definitely sounds like a task for engineers. I’d have no idea how to do it! My team did have two engineers, though one was mechanical and the other electrical. A civil engineer may have been more apt for tower building.
    I’ve seen a few episodes of the Colbert Report… can’t watch the video just yet, though. However, i heard today that our broadband service should be activated on the 28th, inshallah. :D

    Manas: It was fun… a nice break from writing, mashallah. :)

  5. Alefyah says:

    Wow! MashaAllah.. Congrats on your win.

    I’m had a similiar management game in school the other day and it went pathetic! I learnt a lot on how you ‘strategised’ on your win. Mubarak! :)

  6. Sumera says:

    Sounds similar to the tasks we had to do as part of Intro week. Found it so dire, i dont think i really cared much about the tower standing or collapsing! We had to make it out of marshmallows and toothpicks!

  7. iMuslim says:

    Alefyah: The best strategy is to actually to read the instructions properly before you begin the task, so in that sense, we failed… :)

    Sumera: Mmmm… Marshmallows. Halal ones, naturally! ;)
    The task itself is silly, but it’s the thrill of the competition that i thrive on. I really am too competitive for my own good, sometimes!

  8. hema says:

    i’m no good at team work , i need complete control or nothing.
    yes, i do realise this is a fault on my part, but it’s just the way i am.
    one of my colleagues tried this task with spaghetti and marshmellows. i walked into the room afterwards, and it looked like a bomb had hit it, they’d had a food fight or something. it was so funny!
    i love lindor chocolate.

  9. AnonyMouse says:

    I suck at those timed thingies w/ conditions… :S

    I’ve noticed that I’m good at being either a leader or an organizer – the last couple years I and several other classmates had to do an online science project, and at the end of it the teacher commended me for my “heavy encouragement” (aka nagging!) that spurred the others into finally finishing their share of assignments. (Now whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know!)

  10. Daniel says:

    Hey, Z……, hope life is going well for you. I’m back blogging again after I found myself rather rudderless and discontent following the close-down.

    Best of luck with your finals and I would love to hear from you!

  11. iMuslim says:

    hema: I am a bit of a control freak, too… it’s not pretty, is it? :)

    Mouse: I think i am genetically predisposed to becoming a ‘nag’, a’authobillah. I really am fighting the urges, honest!

    Hmm, perhaps i’m being a little too honest about my dark side…

    Daniel: Thanks, and glad to have you back! :D

  12. […] problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment [and] are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generally prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal […]

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