Tag Archives: collaboration

Is It Tougher To Come Up With Ideas When You Work Alone? (A Few More Thoughts on Creativity & Innovation)

America seems to be suffering a decline in innovation advantage.

America seems to be experiencing an increase in the number of people who work alone.

Is it possible that these are connected?

I have read a lot of books on innovation.  And a few on creativity.  (Bob Morris, our blogging colleague, is good at reminding us of the difference between the two).  And I think about these subjects, creativity and innovation, a lot.

And, right now, on my reading list is the new book The Idea Factory, about the Bell Labs, and the new book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine.  (Imagine is getting a lot of buzz, and I will present my synopsis of this book at the May First Friday Book Synopsis).

So, here’s my latest thought about our innovation deficit.  A lot of us are in a deficit position.  Why?  Because we work primarily alone.

I am an independent consultant.  Though Karl Krayer and I have hosted the First Friday Book Synopsis together for fourteen full years, we spend little actual time together.  We each office separately.  And though I work with other folks in a few different ways, I do most of my thinking and pondering alone.  My “coffee breaks” lead to little business interaction.  And yet, all of the new research seems to say a lot about the enormous value of the forced and not-so-forced interactions in idea factories of one kind or another.  Being together, rubbing elbows together, just talking in “unscheduled” run-ins, can lead to breakthrough thinking.

Why?  Here’s a quote from Imagine, which Bob Morris quoted in his review of the book:

“Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires people to connect their imaginations together; the answer arrives only if we collaborate. That’s because a group is not just a collection of individual talents. Instead, it is a chance for those talents to exceed themselves, to produce something greater than anyone thought possible.”

And don’t forget — “together” actually does require some time “together.”

The Bell Laboratories provide an example of a true idea factory. So too with Pixar, and Apple, and other entities that profit from smart and creative people being together.  And it is the sum of all of these many interactions, constantly occurring, that leads to breakthrough ideas.

And, yet, so many more people now work in “alone” settings.  The very people that, if they had more interactions, might produce more great ideas.

I “interact” virtually.  I read widely.  But I’m not sure it is the same as the company cafeteria and ping pong tables and simple coffee breaks…

What do we do about this?  I’m not sure.  But I think this is a problem worth our attention.

Natalie Portman Reminds Us Well – There Are No Little People

Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made.  Or, to be more precise, built, one day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment – and, most of all, through habit…  Like creativity, collaboration is a habit – and one I encourage you to develop.
Collaboration guarantees change because it makes us accommodate the reality of our partners – and accept all the ways they’re not like us.  And those differences are important.  The more we can draw upon our partner’s strengths and avoid approving our partner’s weaknesses, the better the partnership will be.
You need a challenging partner.  In a good collaboration, differences between partners mean that one plus one will always equal more than two.
Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together

With God, there are no little people.
Francis Schaeffer

Here’s a snippet of a scene from Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s first television series (Sorkin won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay last night for The Social Network. You can read the script of this Sports Night episode, The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee,  here). Casey McCall, one of the two fictional Sports Night co-hosts, had appeared on The View in the episode.  A big deal had been made about the color of his tie by the women on The View.    Monica (played by Janel Moloney) came to see him…


Excuse me, Mr. McCall?


I’m sorry, is this a bad time?

For what?

I’d like to ask you a question, but if you’re preparing the show, if this is a bad time, I can come back.

What’s your question?

What’s my name?

(BEAT) What’s your name?


What are we doing right now?

If this is a bad time —

I’m sorry, I’m not very good at remembering names.

Who was the number two man on the Boston Red Sox staff in 1977?

It was Ferguson Jenkins.

My name’s Monica. I’m the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Sports Night as well as two other shows here at CSC. I think you hurt the feelings of the woman I work for. Her name is Maureen and she’s been working here since the day you started.

I know Maureen.

Can I ask you another question?

I’m sorry I didn’t know your name.

(HOLDING UP A NECKTIE) Do you know what color this is?

It’s grey.

It’s called gun metal. Grey has more ivory in it, gun metal has more blue. Can you tell me which of these shirts you should wear it with?

I don’t know.

You’re not supposed to know what shirt goes with what suit or how a color in a necktie can pick up your eyes. You’re not expected to know what’s going to clash with what Dan’s wearing or what pattern’s gonna bleed when Dave changes the lighting. Mr. McCall, you get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do, and all of it’s deserved. When you go on a talk-show and get complimented on something you didn’t, how hard would it be to say “That’s not me. That’s a woman named Maureen who’s been working for us since the first day. It’s Maureen who dresses me every night, and without Maureen, I wouldn’t know gun metal from a hole in the ground.” Do you have an idea what it would’ve meant to her? Do you have any idea how many times she would’ve played that tape for her husband and her kids?


Let’s start with the obvious.  The Academy Awards gives out Oscars for a number of different categories – all of which point to the obvious truth there is no such thing as a good movie that is not a team project – a true collaborative product.  It takes a lot of people working together, with great and diverse skills, to make an Oscar-worthy movie.  So there is no best actor, best director, best actress, without a really good cinematographer, or screen writer, or make-up artist, or, composer, or…you get the idea.  And the Oscar telecast is filled with such reminders, as every winner thanks people who helped him or her win this coveted award.

But, within each category there is excellence all the way down to the smallest behind-the-scenes bit-part.  And it was this truth that Natalie Portman so eloquently stated.  Even though one winner (Randy Newman) reminded the audience that reading off a list of names is “not good television,” Portman’s list reminded us that people — real people, behind every name in such a list of “thank-yous” —  are the reason a movie is made well to begin with.

Ms. Portman thanked many people, but near the end of her acceptance speech, she added this (from transcript, here):

And also there are people on films who no one ever talks about that are your heart and soul every day. Margie and Geordie who did my hair and makeup, Nicci, who dressed me, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who designed the beautiful ballet costumes, Joe Reidy, our incredible AD, first AD, and our camera operators J.C. and Steve who gave me so much soul behind the camera everyday, you gave me all of your energy.

Here is the business lesson (and yes, movies are big business).  It takes a team — a diverse team, made up of people with a life-time of carefully honed skills (the 10,000 hour rule!) to make a world-class movie.  Collaboration, with gifted, skilled, trained, people, at every level of the organization, produces excellence – even magic.  And shoddiness, anywhere on the team, can lower the quality all the way through the endeavor.

And for every leader (or, those with “leading roles”), take a lesson from Natalie Portman.  Don’t forget to include, and thank, the “little people.”

As We Enter 2011: We Can Not Do It Alone, as “Auld Lang Syne” Reminds Us

Business , and life, is all about “together” rather than “alone.”  As we start 2011, here is a brief excerpt (from Sullivan’s Daily Dish) of a great, great article by Peggy Noonan on the classic “Auld Lang Syne.”  I encourage you to read all of Noonan’s article, and think about connections, collaborations, “interdependency,” in business, and in life.

“Auld Lang Syne”—the phrase can be translated as “long, long ago,” or “old long since,” but I like “old times past”—is a song that asks a question, a tender little question that has to do with the nature of being alive, of being a person on a journey in the world. It not only asks, it gives an answer.

It was written, or written down, by Robert Burns, lyric poet and Bard of Scotland. In 1788 he sent a copy of the poem to the Scots Musical Museum, with the words: “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, has never been in print.” Burns was interested in the culture of Scotland, and collected old folk tales and poems. He said he got this one “from an old man”—no one knows who—and wrote it down. Being a writer, Burns revised and compressed. He found the phrase auld lang syne “exceedingly expressive” and thought whoever first wrote the poem “heaven inspired.” The song spread throughout Scotland, where it was sung to mark the end of the old year, and soon to the English-speaking world, where it’s sung to mark the new.

The question it asks is clear: Should those we knew and loved be forgotten and never thought of? Should old times past be forgotten? No, says the song, they shouldn’t be. We’ll remember those times and those people, we’ll toast them now and always, we’ll keep them close. “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet.”

To a successful, effective, fulfilling 2011 for us all!



“Together Effort” Really Does Trump “By Myself Effort” – Insight From Drucker, Tharp, Lennon/Mccartney, Eisner, and Anderson

Let’s talk about teamwork – or collaboration – or connections — or “together effort” instead of “by myself effort.”

A lot seems to be cropping up on my own radar about this idea of “together work.” And it is true – we can do more than meWe are smarter, more capable, more able to reach breakthrough ideas and even develop the next level of skills when we, somehow, tackle “together effort.”

In this post, I will share quite a few excerpts from different sources, then I will make a few of my own observations.

Peter Drucker saw this coming.  Here are excerpts from his article, published in The Atlantic, November, 1994, The Age of Social TransformationA survey of the epoch that began early in this century, and an analysis of its latest manifestations: an economic order in which knowledge, not labor or raw material or capital, is the key resource; a social order in which inequality based on knowledge is a major challenge; and a polity in which government cannot be looked to for solving social and economic problems:

There is a great deal of talk these days about “teams” and “teamwork.” Most of it starts out with the wrong assumption–namely, that we have never before worked in teams. Actually people have always worked in teams; very few people ever could work effectively by themselves. The farmer had to have a wife, and the farm wife had to have a husband. The two worked as a team. And both worked as a team with their employees, the hired hands. The craftsman also had to have a wife, with whom he worked as a team–he took care of the craft work, and she took care of the customers, the apprentices, and the business altogether. And both worked as a team with journeymen and apprentices. Much discussion today assumes that there is only one kind of team. Actually there are quite a few. But until now the emphasis has been on the individual worker and not on the team. With knowledge work growing increasingly effective as it is increasingly specialized, teams become the work unit rather than the individual himself.

The team that is being touted now–I call it the “jazz combo” team–is only one kind of team. It is actually the most difficult kind of team both to assemble and to make work effectively, and the kind that requires the longest time to gain performance capacity. We will have to learn to use different kinds of teams for different purposes. We will have to learn to understand teams–and this is something to which, so far, very little attention has been paid. The understanding of teams, the performance capacities of different kinds of teams, their strengths and limitations, and the trade-offs between various kinds of teams will thus become central concerns in the management of people.

Recently, I read The Collaborative Habit:  Life Lessons for Working Together by Twyla Tharp.

I define collaboration as people working together – sometimes by choice, sometimes not.  Sometimes we collaborate to jump-start creativity; other times the focus is simply on getting things done.  In each case, people in a good collaboration accomplish more than the group’s most talented members could achieve on their own.

And Ms. Tharp warns against “by myself effort:”

Most of us grew up in a culture that applauded only individual achievement.  We are, each of us, generals in an ego-driven “army of one,” each the center of an absurd cosmos, taking such happiness as we can find.

In Slate.com, there is a terrific article about one of the true world-class collaborations in my lifetime.  This is from Inside the Lennon/McCartney Connection, Part 2 by Joshua Wolf Shenk:

At the top of their music sheets, they would write, “Another Lennon/McCartney original.” They collapsed the space between them—not even an “and” would divide their names, just a slash.

John and Paul constantly pulled away from each other—and moved closer at the same time. Their competition actually enhanced their individual differences, even as it brought them into a relationship that was itself a third entity, the space where two circles overlap.

And just yesterday, I heard an interview with Michael Eisner on the Diane Rehm show on NPR (go here for links to the audio and transcript).  He has the author of the new book Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed.  Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

And the point was that throughout my career, I have noticed that strong partnerships like I had with Frank result in better products, more ethical behavior, more fun. And at the end of the day, those people that have them are happier. And I would include a spouse in that — in that (unintelligible).

And I think you’d be more successful with a partner, it’s much more fun. And by the way, the conclusion that I come to in this book as my overall conclusion are partners are happier. All the people I interviewed are happier. That Harvard longitudal study over 70 years kinda proved that. Sole practitioners do not have the fun of the ups and the downs. You know, when you do badly — like in my life, if a film doesn’t open, then my wife, who was a great partner, who asked me why I made that film in the first place, but other than that, your partner and you can kinda sit there and say, well, next movie will survive…

And in Chris Anderson’s latest presentation at TED, Chris Anderson: How web video powers global innovation, he has graphic descriptions of how the web, and TED itself, is raisng the bar.  In other words, in the unofficial collaboration available because of the web, and in the exposure to other speakers at TED, everyone is pushed to “get better.”  Two of his primary illustrations are the improvements and breakthroughs made by many dancers because of dancers who put their dance moves on Youtube, and then, the overall improvement of speakers simply from exposure to other TED speakers.  Fascinating!  The official TED link is here, but I’ve embedded the video from Youtube.


A few observations:

#1 – You can keep getting better.  Paying attention to others, learning from others, working with others, you see the greater possibilities —  and then you stretch to tackle new challenges, to learn and adapt, to get better in every part of your work life.

#2 – “Together Effort” is what naturally flows from the technological tools of the era.  And Knowledge Workers rely on the knowledge of others, many others — and “together possibilities” expand greatly, over and over again.

#3 – A bad “partnership” can be, and usually is, devastating to your own energy level, your own morale, your own future.  BUT – A good partnership is energizing, and multiplying in its effects.

#4 – Collaboration is working together – kind of “short-term partnerships.”  These can lead to longer-lasting partnerships, that then tackle collaboration after collaboration.  In other words, life is a series of collaborations that are, in reality, one long pursuit of the right partner/partners.

#5 – Thus, when a collaboration “clicks,” grab on to the collaborator(s) and build longer-lasting partnerships.

If Stephen Sondheim Needed Help, You Probably Will To – Twyla Tharp On Collaboration

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

Something convulsive,
Something repulsive,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something aesthetic,
Something frenetic,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

(A Comedy Tonight, from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)


It may not take long to make a really big difference.

A consultant who is the right consultant is worth everything.

Collaboration really does matter.

These are my thoughts as I think of the opening story in the book The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp.  The year was 1962.  If you know Broadway at all, you know the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  When it was in its pre-Broadway run, it was not going well.  The audiences were not warming up to the play.  They had a sure-fire disaster on their hands.

So Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince (Let me say that again:  Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince had a disaster on their hands – that ought to tell us something!) called in a consultant.  Admittedly, this was a world-class consultant:  Jerome Robbins.  He had just won his Oscar for West Side Story, and was a legend in every sense of the word.  Here is Tharp’s account:

No one was laughing.  Not Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics.  Not veteran director George Abbott.  Certainly not producer Hal Prince and the play’s backers.  And, most important of all, not the audience.  (They were) fleeing the theater.

When a show has script trouble, it’s common for the producers to bring in a “play doctor.”  In business, he’d be called a consultant.  I’d call him a collaborator – someone who works with others to solve a problem.

Jerome Robbins watched a performance – and by intermission, not only had he analyzed the problem, he had a solution.  Jerome Robbins offered simple, commonsense advice:  “It’s a comedy.  Tell them that.”

Sondheim quickly wrote an opening number called “Comedy Tonight” – “Something convulsive,/Something repulsive/Something for everyone:  a comedy tonight!” – and once ticket buyers knew what they were supposed to do, they laughed.  The New York reviews were cheers for an “uninhibited romp.”

The rest, as they say, is history.  954 performances, a hit movie followed.  In other words, a consultation/collaboration that was a complete success.

Here is the lesson.  “We are smarter than me.”  Find the right “we.”  Listen to advice – and implement solutions quickly.

And never think you know enough without the wisdom of others.  If Stephen Sondheim needed help, there’s a good chance you will too.

The Collaborative Era

You’re already self employed. When are you going to start acting like it?”
Seth Godin

Themes. Clusters.  After 12+ years of presenting synopses and briefings of business books, I clearly see that there are patterns, themes, clusters of books dealing with similar problems and pointing us in similar directions.  Here is one really obvious, and important such theme.

We need to learn to collaborate – or perish.

Why?  Because:
• Because “I” don’t know enough – “we are smarter than any “me”
• Because the problems may be really, really big
• Because the knowledge obtained through collaboration will make your decisions/actions better
• Because the knowledge is more available than anyone could have ever imagined…

This phrase (collaborate – or perish) is a direct quote from Wikinomics:  How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.  Here’s the more complete quote:

Peer production is a very social activity.  All one needs is a computer, a network connection, and a bright spark of initiative and creativity to join in the economy.

These changes are ushering us toward a world where knowledge, power, and productive capability will be more dispersed than at any time in our history – a world where value creation will be fast, fluid, and persistently disruptive.  A world where only the connected will survive.  A power shift is underway, and a tough new business rule is emerging:  Harness the new collaboration or perish.  Those who fail to grasp this will find themselves ever more isolated – cut off from the networks that are sharing, adapting, and updating knowledge to create value.

We must collaborate or perish – across borders, cultures, disciplines, and firms, and increasingly with masses of people at one time.

The principle:  we all have to work “together” to build the future.  And even though we each work in a specific job, or in a specific company, the growing reality is that we are free agents.  For an increasing number of people each year, we have no idea where we will be working, for whom we will be working, this time next year.  Job security is a thing of the past.

So collaboration is needed for two reasons:  to succeed at any and every task we tackle, because “we” are smarter than “me” – and, to build that network of connections that we will all need, probably over and over again, to find and open that next work and life  opportunity.

With whom shall we all collaborate?  Recognize that anyone and everyone (from anywhere and everywhere) can be a collaboration partner.  Thus we need to practice generalized reciprocity – “pay it forward;” “be generous.”

And in this collaborative era, we collaborate because it helps people, and it is the “right” thing to do.  We do not collaborate to “get credit.”  In fact, we don’t care who gets the credit — we share the credit, freely and generously.  The result is what matters.

It truly is the collaborative era.