What do spaghetti, statues and corpses have in common? They can teach you to be a better collaborator.
At the Arts and Business Alliance of Eugene’s most recent Creative Academy seminar, Effective Business Collaboration: Artistic Insights, members of Eugene’s Harmonic Laboratory led participants through a series of exercises designed to help them understand what type of collaborators they are. Building a tower of spaghetti noodles strong enough to hold a marshmallow gave participants insight into whether they prefer to take a leadership role or back seat during team projects.
Posing a partner into a “statue” similar to the ones other people were making helped attendees understand whether they were set on following their own vision or willing to make some sacrifices for the team. The game “Exquisite Corpse” (where three people create a sentence without knowing what the previous person has written) demonstrated how everyone can take ownership of a project, even if they only contributed one part.
Besides helping attendees gain insight into how they might perform as part of a team, composer/conductor Jeremy Schropp, animator John Park, intermedia artist Jon Bellona and dancer/choreographer Brad Garner described what they’ve learned about creating effective collaboration over the past several years. Here are 10 takeaways.
“Awkwardness is a necessary part of learning,” Garner said. “If you look at a baby trying to walk, it’s super awkward, but that’s how they learn – by falling and noodling their way through it.”
The same is true of collaboration. When a group first comes together, there’s bound to be awkward moments as people assess each other’s strengths and weaknesses, try to find common ground and goals, and jostle for different roles. Don’t see that as a bad thing. See it as a necessary part of getting any collaboration off the ground, and use it as an opportunity to learn.
Include people from various backgrounds
Garner referred to this as “interdisciplinary thinking.” “Sometimes what happens when you’re in the same exact field as somebody, when you try to collaborate with each other, you can get into this competitive mode because you might have similar backgrounds,” he said. “But when you get mixed with other disciplines, that diffuses itself because you have different expertise and you’re already set up to learn from each other. Not that the other can’t work, but you might notice the dynamic is different. That’s something to think about when setting up teams.”
Harmonic Laboratory’s first collaboration was a piece called “Tremors.” It included three performances centered around the theme of vulcanism. For one movement, Garner choreographed a dance, and Park and Schropp created animation and music to go along with it. For the second and third movements, another person took the lead on developing a medium and the other two created a corresponding piece of art to go with it.
“We don’t have to do every piece together, but we have some overarching thematic line that goes through the entire work,” Schropp said. “What was really amazing for me was when we had this theme that ran through everything, it opened up this dialogue where we understood the way everyone approached a creative product. So I started to examine the way that Park included code, and then all the sudden the elegance of his code influenced the way I write music. The same with Brad – going and videotaping his choreography then informed the way that I present my music. They still impact my creative practice today.”
Use rotational thinking
Similar to developing themes that bind a production (artistic or business-related) is the idea of concept of “rotational thinking.” “This is me putting myself in the shoes of Brad as a choreographer when I’m composing,” Schropp said. “So when I go to his dance rehearsals and I look at the way a dancer moves across the stage, I try to incorporate that type of movement, that aesthetic, into my compositional practice.” He does the same thing when he looks at Park’s code.
“The three of us do a really nice job of being able to rotationally think,” Schropp continued. “I’m not just saying, ‘I’m going to take this dance stuff and force it into my creative practice.’ I’m taking what affects me most from their respective art forms and allowing that to change the way I do things creatively.” That ability to successfully put yourself in someone else’s shoes can be a huge help when working collaboratively with a group.
“Of course we want our endeavors to be successful,” said Schropp. “But I’d say half the time they’re not.” Case in point: a mixed media project that they all worked on together and presented at the University of Oregon.
“The night of the performance, the lights were too hot, and it negated all the work John did for animation,” Schropp said. “But that doesn’t mean that the piece wasn’t successful, that we didn’t learn something from it and that we can’t grow as an organization by just having the experience together.” If the main success of a collaboration is learning and improving themselves, the group sees that as a win no matter the final result.
Don’t hide your weaknesses
“It’s important to identify the strengths of people in a group – that’s why you want to collaborate with them – but don’t forget about the weaknesses we have too,” Park said. “Part of the weakness thing isn’t to push the weakness under the rug. We all want to learn from each other. We all want to get better. And risking to grow and get better at something may be the best product coming out of collaboration.”
Eliminate or level hierarchy
There are times when hierarchies make sense. But in collaborative processes, more often than not, they’re a hindrance. There are two reasons for that. When people try to collaborate with people who are above them in the hierarchy, they may feel too intimidated to share their ideas freely because the power dynamic is unbalanced.
Doing collaborative projects within a hierarchy can also make the process move at a snail’s pace. “Hierarchies create slowness because every ideas has to go to the top for approval, and then make its way down for implementation,” said Garner. “This cycle can go on and on for years, and meanwhile another company is buzzing ahead of you.”
Garner recommended a few ways to mitigate or eliminate the problems caused by hierarchies. One is to utilize the 20 percent rule, a practice that comes from Google. Employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time on creative projects that inspire them. That’s where the company gets some of its best ideas and new products.
Another way to flatten a hierarchy is the “atrium” concept similar to that used by corporations such as Google, 3M and Pixar. “These are open areas where they encourage people to mix and mingle and come together,” Brad explained. This allows people at all different levels to work on projects collectively.
These ideas work best when you’re not doing collaborations half-heartedly. “Try not to think about collaboration as a buzz word, or something you’re supposed to be doing, or something that’s only project oriented,” Garner said. “You can have a whole collaborative environment. You can set up your entire program to be fair and open so that ideas are freely shared and embraced.”
Go “all in”
“All in” is the idea that people are given the freedom to collaborate free of hierarchy and guidelines. During the spaghetti and marshmallow exercise, participants could have been given certain parameters,” Garner pointed out. They could have randomly assigned one person to be in charge, or told everyone they couldn’t talk to each other. Instead, the group was allowed to form whatever structure and follow whatever process it deemed necessary.
“All in, if you’re an introvert, is a great situation to collaborate inside of because oftentimes introverts don’t want to share their ideas because they don’t want to compete with others,” Garner said. “They don’t want to talk over somebody else, or if someone has a strong, assertive personality they tend to submit to that. But what we should know about introverts is sometimes they have the coolest ideas because they tend to be introspective and reflective individuals.”
Let go of authorship
During any collaborative process, “what you’re trying to get going is a chain reaction,” Garner said. “That’s one of the beautiful gifts inside of collaboration – you get something started that gets something else started that gets something else started. You can’t be extremely precious about your own ideas because that idea might be the point of departure for the next spark and the next spark, until you end up with something that’s beyond your own comprehensive. It’s really satisfying to know you were part of that chain even if you’re not necessarily the author at the end of it all.”
“In a group, one of the most threatening parts for people is, is my idea being stolen, or is there something I’m vulnerably giving up and not getting back in return?” Park said. “One way we’ve succeeded in some of this is to think about the authorship question differently. What does this group create, and can we all adopt the successes of the whole group and of each other’s well-being professionally and creatively?” If a team can move from the idea of receiving individual benefit to the idea that what benefits the whol helps everyone, collaboration becomes easier and less frightening.
Be willing to be jostled
“Why do we collaborate in the first place if it can be sticky or uncomfortable?” asked Park. “Sometimes it’s because we want to disrupt our own patterns. Maybe it’s to complete a project, maybe it’s for a certain objective. Collaborations are those times when we can jostle each other and willing put ourselves out there vulnerably to be jostled intellectually, sometimes emotionally, and oftentimes creatively.”
Park gives the example of Intel hiring teams of social scientists. It may seem strange that a technology company would hire anthropologists and sociologists, but there’s a good reason for it.
“Computer scientists don’t happen to know exactly how people use their tools,” he explained. “They’re maybe not the best judge of how families run, or how a small village in China would use a laptop as opposed to a design agency in New York City.” Social scientists are able to dig into how the technology is used so Intel can do a better job of designing their products. When they do that, they create products that people truly want, and they’re more likely to increase their sales.
Intel’s computer scientists were probably skeptical about working with anthropologists in the beginning. But their collaborations are leading the company in an exciting new direction. This demonstrates the importance of diversity in collaborative groups. “Not necessarily racial or gender diversity, but in this case, diversity of thought and opinions and experiences,” Park said. “We want a whole different process. That whole different way to look at things will alter the outcomes excitingly.”
We were thrilled at the exciting outcomes of this workshop, which was one of the most well-received Creative Academy seminars yet. Many thanks to Harmonic Laboratory for moving our needle on the benefits and methods for creative effective collaborations.
To listen to the podcast of this seminar, click here.