We all know those inane light bulb jokes about how many Irishmen/feminists/economists/engineers /Catholics it would take to change a light bulb. Ridiculous as it may seem, those were what came to mind as I looked on as Tom and I and at least 7 others made a site visit the other day. Notice that I say “looked on”, because at some point I lost my ability to participate coherently and could only take on the role of amazed spectator.
The old consulting days with their very structured communication were long forgotten as this particular meeting took place. It looked more like a semi-civilised scrum than a meeting. Everyone would gather around first one drawing or a specific concrete pillar, all would have an opinion (at the same time) and then people would randomly split off into smaller groups and discuss completely unrelated aspects of the plans on the side, only to join the bigger group again, which had in the meantime reformed and reformed again. Actually, now that I think about it, it looked more like an amoeba in motion and I wonder if the collective communication skills exceeded those of an amoeba. Don’t get me wrong, the people who are involved in our project know what they’re talking about. They’re all very skilled people who generally provide good ideas and feedback. The difficulty is making your way through the way those ideas are communicated. Just as you think you’ve grasped one element – or at least figured out what the subject of the conversation is – someone would cut in enthusiastically and you’d lose your tenuous grip on the conversation completely. The whole process is so messily collaborative, so democratic and (so far) so good-natured, that it’s hard to fault them for it, however.
It’s not the first time we’ve been the bewildered participants (read hapless victims) in this kind of communication. A few months ago, while we were waiting for the building approval process to run its course, we became restless and decided to start rebuilding the old stone wall that runs around our property. There are some wonderfully skilled craftsmen here in Portugal and we were looking forward to employing some of the local stonemasons. Naturally we felt the whole process required exhaustive research on our part, which meant we drove around northern Portugal and took photos of stone walls as far as we went. Only then did we feel able to compile a short list to show to the stonemasons, to be sure they understood what type of stone wall we were after. In retrospect, our methods probably made them think we were mad, but nevertheless we managed to proceed with the plan to build the wall.
You would think getting a quote from a team of guys who have built stone walls for the past 2 decades would be a fairly straightforward thing to get, but you’d be dead wrong. No, they said, we’d have to see how long it takes, how much cutting of the stone would be required and so on and so forth. A fair point, so we agreed that they would excavate more rock from the land and build 20 metres of wall after which they would give us a quote for the remainder.
Two weeks and the work of a very extended family later, we had 50 metres of wall – apparently they simply couldn’t stop themselves – and a quote so staggeringly high that we shrieked STOP. We were suddenly significantly poorer, and all we had to show for it was a half-finished stone wall. But oh was it a beautiful piece of wall! Still is. And probably will be for the next 50 years. No, make that 150 years.
And so it goes. Whether you’re after the best stone wall north of Lisbon or not, whether you’ve ever expressed the wish to have a pond (or very much not) or a closed-off this and an open that, I can guarantee you it will get discussed. By many people. Repeatedly. You may also think that you’ve agreed on one thing, but if you don’t keep an eagle’s eye on what’s happening, you could end up with something quite different. It appears that the art of it is to be vigorously involved, to let everyone have their say and to keep a steady focus on your vision while the communication goes off on a tangent (or seven simultaneous tangents) around you. As yet not an art we’ve mastered, but I can promise you we’re getting regular practice.
So now that you understand why I was thinking of the light bulb jokes, you probably wonder what we’ve learnt about how many people it would take to change a light bulb here.
We don’t know yet (although we certainly know how many people it takes to build a 50-metre wall), but someone told us that Ricardo’s uncle Zé’s neighbour knew a guy who did it for a good price once, but why are we standing here talking? There has to be a café around here somewhere where we could go sit down, have a coffee and discuss the matter further…