|Can you imagine getting hundreds of people divided into dozens of teams to work together to do a job in half the time it usually takes? Suppose that job includes building a rain forest with nearly 200 trees, more than 1,500 shrubs and smaller plants, and 20,000 feet of vines, all inside a 129-year-old building in the middle of New York City. And suppose the work has to be done at the same time as 3,000,000 visitors a year traipse through the building and 1,000 other people are working in offices above, below, and immediately adjacent to the work site.
That is what Phil Fraley did for nearly two years. We asked him how he managed it.
"The first and most important thing is knowing how to get along with others. You have to be able to communicate your ideas, and to understand that everyone else has his and her own ideas. You have to be willing and able to find a way to compromise to make a project like this work.
"I have to deal on a daily basis with museum administrators, architects and designers, construction managers, scientists and curatorial staff, and my own staff. I believe it's the interpersonal relationships on all levels that make a job difficult or make it easier."
How does Phil build those relationships? "When I interview people for a job, I may look to see if they have specific skills or training in certain areas, but what I'm looking at more than anything is their personality: how they are able to relate to other people and work with other people. That's probably more important than anything else, because if someone is personable and willing, that person can always learn what needs to be done," Phil said.
"After I've had an opportunity to get to know each one a little better, I try to match the jobs to the people. I evaluate who they are and the skills they have and assign them to positions that allow them to use those skills. What I really want is for the people who work for me to be successful; I do not want them to fail. When people are successful at the tasks they do, they find enjoyment in it. And when they enjoy their work, they work harder at it. If you give people tasks that are too difficult and they continually fail, they won't want to come to work every day and do a good job."
Phil may be the boss, but he tries not to be bossy. "When I assign a task, I let the person do the task in whatever way he or she thinks is best. I may do something one way, but that doesn't mean it's the only or even the best way to do it. If I have a serious question about the way someone wants to do a task, I'll ask him or her to put together a plan. If it's well thought out, he or she should be able to explain to me why it is going to work. If he or she can't explain it, that's an indication that it needs to be thought about some more, or maybe we'll be able to work together to solve the problem," Phil said.
It's a two-way street, though, according to Phil. "The people who work for me have the opportunity to question what I say, and I should be able to explain to them what my reasons are. If I can't do that, then I need to go back and reconsider it also."
We asked Phil how he keeps track of the many tasks that need to be done. "I outline all of the tasks and then categorize them according to level of importance. If any tasks need to be done before others can be done, I arrange them in sequence. Based on past experience, I try to figure out about how long each task will take. Then I go to the people who are working with me and ask them to use my information to come up with their own schedule for accomplishing their part of the project."
Phil thinks it works best to ask people to make their own schedule rather than telling them what it should be. This is especially important when there is a lot of work to do and not very much time to do it. "My experience is that allowing people to tell me how much time they think they need means they accept responsibility for their jobs and feel committed to the project as a whole. Then they are more likely to meet their own schedule--and they even often finish ahead of time."
No matter how systematic he is, Phil knows that sometimes things do not go according to plan. He told us about one of the first challenges he faced with this project.
"I had to organize a collecting trip to the Central African Republic. That involved working with doctors to make sure that everyone who was going got the necessary shots, and arranging for transportation for 15 tons of equipment and 20 people. While we were there civil war broke out and we had to be evacuated. And then I had to get all the equipment and the material we collected back to the United States. I found it pretty difficult to ask where a bunch of trees and leaves were while other people were dying. It felt heartless and cold during such trying times for the people who live there."
|A Teamwork Tip
Willard Whitson, formerly the Senior Exhibition Developer and Associate Director of the Exhibition Department at the American Museum of Natural History, also thinks people do best when they do what they like and like what they do.
"Different people have different skills and interests," Willard observed. "Some people enjoy doing two-dimensional design while others are good at making models. Some people like to build things and others are good at writing or photography or producing audio/video material. I think there's probably a natural falling out of people into these various disciplines so that, with a little bit of attention, each person can be working in roles that suit him or her."
Willard recommends that students working on an exhibit define the teams and their roles and decide how big each team will be. Depending on when different tasks need to be done and how much time they take, some people might join more than one team.
Phil got back to New York in December 1996, and it was March 1997 before all of the material was recovered. Then he oversaw the fabrication of 35 huge canopy and 150 small to medium trees. In addition, models were made of 61 species of smaller plants and vines and numerous insects and herptiles (reptiles and amphibians). All were then installed in the rain forest diorama, which opened in June 1988.
"There are sounds, smells, videos, and special effects, bringing the art of diorama making into the twenty-first century," Phil told us proudly.
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