The long and winding road of collaborationHyper Island Treinamento e Educação Executiva do Brasil Ltda @ 2022-06-22 09:09:33 -0500
Collaboration isn’t easy. Different people with different thoughts from different backgrounds coming together to get on the same page? It’s no walk in the park, but it’s how a lot of us live our professional lives, in teams, working together. After watching the recent documentary on The Beatles, Facilitator and Business Developer at Hyper Island Americas, Tim Lucas has something to say about the challenges brought on by the collaboration process.
I have to confess that I do not have the stamina for overdosing on TV streaming services. I fear this marks me out as something of a freak these days. I did however find myself, like many others I’m sure, indulging in Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” over the course of the last week. Following the best part of a month in the life of The Beatles, in the build up to what transpired to be their last performance, was both insanely gripping and as dull as watching paint dry; as only fly-on-the wall documentaries can be. I’m sure I’m not the only one who came away from the eight hours of time investment with a sense that rock music was a lot less about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and a much more of an excuse to smoke cigarettes and drink cups of tea all day long. Personally, it was something of a nostalgia trip. As someone who spent their teenage years in bands dreaming of becoming the next Beatles or Velvet Underground, it was a stark reminder of just how boring, aimless, and exhausting the creative process can be. Not only does the documentary serve as a wake up call to how difficult group collaboration can be, those endless cups of tea might also contain some of the hidden solutions to collective creativity.
It may have seemed at times that there was very little that The Beatles could agree on by January 1969. Not only did we see George Harrison walking out on the band in the early days of putting the new material together, but the band also discussed how prior to recording ‘Let it Be’, they’d almost stopped working together in the same studio at the same time. The everyday stresses and strains of rock collaboration were evident in different moments of the mini-series. All of which perhaps serves as a reminder to why many of the last century’s most influential bands (or maybe just the ones I liked) were never, in fact, really bands. Kraftwerk, The Fall, and Steely Dan to a large extent were all examples of individual creativity, which simply hired in the best recording musicians as and when required to both record and tour.
The importance of diversity in collaboration
In the case of The Beatles, collaboration was difficult even within a group of people who represented a fairly homogeneous team and had grown up together. Research shows that groups with less diversity tend to ‘norm’ quicker. However, as the film showed, the presence of an outsider, in pianist Billy Preston, highlighted the importance of any collaborative network maximizing both strong and weak ties. Collaboration is about learning to live and work with people who think differently.
In his thought-provoking book ‘Against Creativity’, Ollie Mould argues that in most corporate attempts at collaboration, such plans often fail because the context of hierarchies and social relations within organizations often get ignored. He tells the story of the collaboration that resulted in the popular board game Monopoly. Lizzie Magie, who created the original Landlord’s Game, reportedly earned just $500—probably less than it cost her to patent the concept in the first place. Charles Darrow who was part of the same social circle as Lizzie Maggie subsequently claimed the idea for his own and sold it to Parker Brothers as Monopoly and subsequently made a fortune. As Mould argues, too often it is “white, middle-class, straight, fully-enabled men that are creative and innovative, and all other forms of minority identities and further marginalized. Yet the minority subjects are truly creative in the way that they are experiencing the world in ways ‘beyond the majority”.
For all that both inclusion and collaboration are discussed in organizations, I am still of the opinion that they are like teenage sex was once described: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.
Collaboration is a skill, and like any skill, it takes patience and practice. In his book “Cooperation”, the London School of Economics (LSE) Sociologist, Richard Sennet, argues that the fact is that very few of us are going to have the time or energy to become adept at co-operation; we need short-cuts. Over time, rituals in our patterns of behavior develop that give us all pointers in the right direction. This is where the insights of another LSE professor from a parallel discipline, but a different generation comes in. Bronislaw Malinowski was one of the 20th century’s most renowned anthropologists, perhaps most known for his work in the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea and the study of collaborative rituals amongst fishermen.
Rituals of collaboration
Luckily I didn’t waste all of my time in university trying to be the next Lou Reed. Stories of Malinowski’s recording of a long list of ceremonies and rituals the islanders would perform before venturing out onto the open sea were captivating. But when the fishermen went out into the nearby calm lagoon, they didn’t use these rites. Malinowski concluded that the “magic” rituals performed by the islanders were a response to help them cope with the unpredictable might of the Pacific Ocean. Malinowskis and subsequent generations of anthropologists have identified three core elements of a ritual. Firstly, they are behaviors that occur in fixed succession—one after another—and are typified by formality and repetition. Secondly, these behaviors have symbolic meaning, and lastly, these ritualized behaviors generally have no obvious useful purpose other than as tools to help develop social capital. Recent research during the pandemic has shown that ritualistic practices can help to bring a degree of predictability to an uncertain future. They convince our brains of constancy and predictability as “ritual buffers against uncertainty and anxiety”, according to scientists.
Perhaps these rituals of collaboration are where The Beatles and Hyper Island have a little in common. I’m not advocating more cigarette smoking (though if anyone is offering, I take my tea with a splash of milk and one sugar) and I’m not saying that in Hyper Island we can conjure up magic. I do however believe that some of the rituals of the ‘Fab Four’ were essential to the success of “Get Back”. The cigarette breaks, the cups of tea, swapping instruments, the repetitive cover versions and in-band jokes are perhaps what carried a band in dissolution through long periods in which they lacked focus and discipline to create some of their best work. One of the first things that struck me about Hyper Island was the belief we have in some very basic rituals and the discipline to bring them to life on a regular basis. I find myself guilty at times of questioning the wisdom behind some of our most simple techniques. But it only takes a client telling us how such simple acts as check-ins, stinky fishes, and wells of knowledge allow them to create new vocabularies and simple frameworks for collaborative working to remind me of their power.
About the author
Tim Lucas is a consultant, speaker and facilitator in the fields of Human Centric Innovation, Design Thinking, Digital Transformation and Consumer Anthropology. As well as leading strategy, innovation, and intrapreneurship projects in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S., he’s also a researcher and university lecturer in the areas of UX, Behavioral Economics, Communication, Media, Sociology, and Anthropology.