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Last Updated: Monday, 4 June 2007, 22:32 GMT 23:32 UK
Tim Smit's monkey business
Peter Day
By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Tim Smit's ideas about management are idiosyncratic, and jolly interesting.

Tim Smits
Tim Smits thinks the Eden Project's lessons can apply elsewhere

But - just as I'm not sure that I would ever want to work for a company run by identical twins - so I don't know that working for Mr Smit would be a good idea.

(Given the recent report on the impartiality of business reporting at the BBC, I don't even know if I'm allowed to say that sort of thing any more.)

Tim Smit is best known as the former record producer who moved to Cornwall, unearthed the mysterious lost gardens of Heligan, and then started the Eden Project, the wonderful translucent domes now filled with plants from all over the world in a disused China clay pit near St Austell.

In the seven years since it opened, this wonderful ecological treasure-house has become a beacon and a symbol of revival in a part of the country long depressed by the uncertainties of the tourist season and the decline of mining for lead, tin and china clay.

Back of an envelope

An Anglo-Dutchman educated at an English boarding school, Tim Smit remains a bit of outsider, and he uses that position shamelessly as a member of that already awkward squad, the social entrepreneurs.

It shows up in Tim Smit's rules of management, which he had to come up with in a hurry. He was in the middle of setting up the Eden Project, when the project's chairman asked about his management plans.

In fact he said he wanted them written down, or one of them would have to go.

It was a tall order for Tim Smit, who had to spend a weekend sitting down and putting his management rules on paper.

Rules is a bit strong, perhaps, but beware! Or perhaps rejoice! If you join a Tim Smit project, these are some of the things you will have to do.

Get up and dance

He told me about them the other day.

Tim Smit wants to like the people he works with. So applicants for most jobs are asked to perform in front of him and the team interviewing them : 10 minutes of music, dance, juggling, storytelling when you come to be interviewed for a job.

He wants to work with extroverts not afraid of injecting their own ideas into their work.

(Something similar used to be required at South West Airlines in the USA, the pioneer of low-cost flying. It is of course the airline where energised air hostesses used to hide in the overhead bins and pop out to surprise boarding customers. Not sure if this still happens in these days of heightened security.)

Tim Smit says his interviews take two days, and most job applicants are interviewed by the people who will work under them, as well as alongside them.

Eden Project
The Eden Project: where the "monkey business" rules were born

He says he is amazed how acute the panel's judgment is - the second day's judgement, that is, after the interviewers have had a chance to sleep on their initial recommendation.

Staying fresh

And if you make the grade, then you'll be subject to more monkey business rules - so-called because Tim Smit thinks that most management ideas are about shifting the monkey off your back onto someone else's.

Exactly the spirit he is trying to avoid.

Eden Project people are told they have to prepare a meal for 20 of their co-workers once a year, for the joy of joining in and widening the work experience.

They have to read a book they wouldn't have otherwise thought of reading and tell people about it. They have to see a foreign film in the same spirit.

But it's when it comes to decision-taking that Tim Smit says things that other managers are really likely to bridle at.

Try not to take important decisions in the daytime, he says. Outside our nine-to-five existence, we change personality a little bit. In the dark, over a meal, blessed by wine, that's when the best instinctive decisions are made. That's when an organisation makes the best ones, too.

Management guru Tom Peters - impressive in his time - used to hint at this when he pointed out that individuals come into work with vast social experience, running voluntary organisations and football teams.

They then hang their human experience on a coat peg, and get on with doing what their manager tells them to do, and only that. No wonder workers feel frustrated with their work.

Big ideas?

Tim Smit's Monkey Business is trying to capture some of that extra individual creativity and pour it into his projects, so that Eden can think up and deliver special events in the time that many organisations would take to decide to do them.

Yes, this is all happening in a so-called social enterprise, one not driven by the profit motive.

But Tim Smit doesn't see why social entrepreneurship should be limited to small scale things. He's anxious to extend it to regional activities such as - eco-friendly - power generation and revitalisation projects. Big ones.

Whether you can run big enterprises with these monkey business management rules, I don't know. But someone ought to try.

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends reshaping the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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