Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Huts and Silos

There is a scene in 'The Imitation Game' movie where the brilliant Alan Turing, played by Dominic Cumberbatch, is assembling his famous 'bombe'. This is not an Italian ice cream, but a huge, sophisticated mechanical calculator that helped accelerate the deciphering of German Enigma codes. Whilst most of the film is acknowledged as a faithful representation of the amazing work that went on at Bletchley Park during the war, there were two small factual inaccuracies.

Firstly, the first Bombe was initially built by Polish codebreakers in 1938. Turing's and Gordon Welchman's genius transformed it into a more accurate, electro-mechanical device that could simultaneously process 36 Enigma codes and at phenomenal speed.  Over 200 Bombes were built (not one survived the end of the war), giving industrial capability in codebreaking. The second was that whilst Turing designed them, he didn't actually build the Bombe himself.  Harold Keen was the amazing engineer who physically constructed the machines.

How do I know this? Last weekend we visited Bletchley Park and it was a revelation. The geniuses and support staff (there were 10,000 of them) that worked there are credited with shortening the Second World War by at least 2 years and saving millions of lives.

The teams at Bletchley Park worked in strictly demarcated teams for security, such that almost none of them had the full picture of what the whole was doing. The 'Listeners' who spent literally years in headphones patiently writing down reams of meaningless German Morse code, had no idea what the team next door did. They never asked. In fact they were separated physically, in numbered huts.

Despite this, the whole functioned as an efficient and effective operation. This was largely down to Commander Alastair Dennison, whose own genius was unparalleled leadership and organisational skills. Working with, sometimes petulant, highly able experts who were not used to collaborating, he got the most out of each team.

Many large organisations suffer from isolated knowledge, constrained by department or other 'silos' (aka huts). For ideas about how effective organisation and leadership can improve performance and how to get your experts to give their best, I highly recommend a visit to Bletchley Park. We went for a morning and spent the entire day.

Photo credit: Rebuilt Bombe, Wikipedia

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