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The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Togetherby Twyla Tharp
What It Is, Why It Matters, Why It's the Future
I'm a choreographer who makes dances that are performed on stages around the world. It's just as accurate to say I'm a career collaborator. That is, I identify problems, organize them, and solve them by working with others. Many of the stories I'll be telling involve the world of dance, but you don't have to know anything about dance to get the point. Work is work.
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.
Here's a classic example of someone who identified a problem and worked with others to solve it. The year was 1962. The problem was a new play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The collaborator was Jerome Robbins, the choreographer and director who later became my good friend and coworker.
As A Funny Thing was completing its pre-Broadway tour, 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.
At the Washington previews, just three weeks before the New York opening, audiences were fleeing the theater. By the time the curtain came down, the theater was often only half full.
And yet, on paper, A Funny Thing should have been a huge hit — the creative team couldn't have been more distinguished.
What was wrong? No one knew.
What to do? That they knew.
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.
The doctor they called in was Jerome Robbins, who came to Washington from Los Angeles, where he had just collected an Academy Award for West Side Story. He watched a performance — and by intermission, not only had he analyzed the problem, he had a solution.
A Funny Thing, Robbins said, was a farce inspired by the comedies of Plautus, a Roman playwright. But Plautus lived from 254 to 184...before Christ. How many theatergoers knew who he was? Or what kind of plays he wrote? And, most of all, who knew what kind of play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was supposed to be?
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," and A Funny Thing played 964 performances on Broadway before going off to Hollywood and becoming a hit movie.
Clearly, it's a good idea to tell people what to expect.
Here's what you can expect from this book: a field guide to a lot of the issues that surface when you are working in a collaborative environment. I'll explain why collaboration is important to me — and, I'll bet, to you. I'll show you how to recognize good candidates to work with and how you build a successful collaboration — and I'll share what it feels like to be trapped in a dysfunctional one. And, finally, although this isn't a book that promises to help you find love or deepen your romantic life, I suspect that some of what you may learn from these pages can help you in your personal relationships. In each case, because collaboration isn't an airy concept but a practice that's found in our daily reality, I'll be light on ideas and heavy on stories.
Collaboration is how most of our ancestors used to work and live, before machines came along and fragmented society.
Time to plant the fields? Everybody pitched in and got it done. Harvesttime? The community raced to get the crops in before the rains came. Where were those crops stored? In barns built by teams of neighbors.
In the cities, the same spirit applied. Anonymous craftsmen spent their lives building cathedrals that wouldn't be completed for generations. Michelangelo is celebrated for the Sistine Chapel; in fact, he supervised a dozen unacknowledged assistants. Even one of the greatest composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, chose to deflect credit for his compositions, writing at the bottom of each of his pieces "SDG," for Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone the glory.
By the twentieth century, only a few self-isolated sects practiced the collaborative tradition. Blame it on wars that killed millions, the atomic bomb, Freud, or any combination of factors you choose — there's no shortage of reasons. The result is that 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. Collaboration? Why bother? You only live once; grab whatever you can.
But now more and more of us are realizing that the brilliant CEO, the politician who keeps his own counsel, and the lone hero are yesterday's role models. The media may still love them, but our new heroes are men and women who know how to gather allies, build teams, and work together toward shared goals. Name an enterprise, and you'll find levels of collaboration that were unthinkable just a few years ago. The real success stories of our time are about joint efforts: sports teams, political campaigns, businesses, causes.
Collaboration is the buzzword of the new millennium.
Like many of you, I went to school when victory meant raising your hand first and shouting out the answer — school was a war zone that rewarded only the brightest and most aggressive. But now learning is collaborative; children work together in groups to solve problems. They solve them faster this way, and without winners or losers. And in doing so, they gain valuable life skills.
Consider the Internet, which has dramatically increased our ability to communicate with friends and associates — and millions of strangers around the world. Now we can form networks and create collaborations without start-up money, an infrastructure, or even an office. Result? Our basic urge to work in groups can be realized more easily now than at any time in modern history.
Thanks to the Internet, a battered economy, and a profound shift in personal values, a notion that was once heresy — that the wisdom of a smart group is greater than the brainpower of its smartest member — is increasingly accepted in every discipline and every profession and at every age and stage of life.
On the Internet, someone posts an article, then others comment. With the addition of new facts and points of view, readers benefit — and by contributing to the conversation, they become part of a smart community.
In business, "crowdsourcing" — assigning a task that used to be done by a single worker to whole communities — has become a powerful tool in the product-development process.
Dell Computers, for example, created an outreach called IdeaStorm to get ideas and feedback from customers. So far, the company has used almost three hundred of their suggestions — keyboards that light up in the dark, more color choices, longer battery life — in its new products.
Starbucks has launched a Web site called My Starbucks Idea to gather consumer brainstorms, filter them through management, and then have the coffee company's customers vote on the best ones. The site has collected seventy thousand suggestions.
In politics, the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama proved that the most powerful word in his slogan, "Yes we can," was we.
Until 2008, most politicians used the Internet only for fund-raising. Barack Obama, a former community organizer, saw that "social networking" could mean more than the exchange of trivial blasts of personal information by virtual "friends." And he used the Web to build a movement that transformed interest into participation.
Obama's site had double the traffic of opponent John McCain's. Four times as many visitors to YouTube watched Obama's videos. He had five times as many Facebook "friends." Three million people signed up for his text messages — and he sent them fifteen to twenty a month. And in the last four days of the campaign, Obama campaign volunteers made three million personal phone calls.
Experts say that no political campaign, no matter how well funded, could generate that much content on its own. Obama's core Internet team consisted of just eleven people. The rest of the work was done by highly committed supporters who took the communication devices they used every day and repurposed them to rally their personal networks for a common cause.
In sports it has always been about the team.
Michael Jordan started winning scoring titles in 1986. But the Chicago Bulls were not winning championships. Bulls Coach Phil Jackson knew why: "Scoring champions don't win championships." The team brought in some stronger players. And although Michael Jordan was already recognized as the greatest player in the history of basketball, he started moving the ball around. In 1991, the Bulls won their first championship in franchise history. That year, Jordan was voted the most valuable player in the finals in part because he scored thirty points in the deciding game — but also because, in the same game, he passed the ball to teammates for ten assists.
You are probably not a professional basketball player or a politician or the proprietor of an Internet news site. You probably don't run a high-tech company or make educational policy for a school district. But in the last few years, you've certainly been exposed to the notion that collaboration is all-pervasive and you're wondering how it applies to you — especially if you have not picked the people you work with and report to a remote, unhelpful boss.
So your first question may be as simple as this: I'm trapped in a job that has me assigned to a team made up of impossible people. I need the salary and the benefits. How can I get along with these colleagues so I deliver good work and advance?
The answer is that it's no different for you than it is for the players on a championship sports team or a crew of genius scientists or, for that matter, dancers in leotards rehearsing a new ballet.
People are people. And people are problems. But — and this is a very big but — people who are practiced in collaboration will do better than those who insist on their individuality.
Consider, for example, the "hero" of that miraculous emergency landing of a passenger jet in New York's Hudson River.
After geese damaged the engines of his plane shortly after takeoff, US Airways' Captain Chesley Sullenberger managed to guide the jet with its 155 passengers and crew to a safe landing on the water.
A few months later, at an aviation safety hearing to learn why no one died, the captain was asked, "This event turned out differently than a lot of the situations the board has looked at. What made the critical difference in this event? How did this event turn out so well?"
Captain Sullenberger's response: "I don't think it was one thing; it was many things. We had a highly experienced, well-trained crew. The first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, and I worked together well as a team and we solved each problem as it presented itself to us."
Look at the key words in that response: experience...crew...team. Sullenberger couldn't be clearer. He might be a media darling and a national hero, but he viewed this successful landing as the collaborative triumph of a practiced group.
But note: You can't force people to collaborate. You can make them share offices and serve on committees together, but if their hearts aren't in it, the process is an empty shell. Personal, emotional commitment is crucial.
Collaborators aren't born, they're made. Or, to be more precise, built, a day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment — and, most of all, through habit.
A book I wrote a few years ago, The Creative Habit, began with an account of what was then my daily ritual. Up at 5:50 . A cab ride to a gym across townm. And then two hours of stretching and weight training. After that, I was ready to be a choreographer.
This account of my daily routine shocked some readers. People want to believe that the creative habit has something to do with creating — making dance, writing music or fiction, painting a great picture, forming a successful business. Instead, I was pointing to everything that came before the dance, before the writing, before the painting: preparedness, getting ready for the job of creating — because creating isn't some exalted process, it's a grimy job. Manual labor. Heavy lifting. And as those who do physical work know, the more routine it feels, the better.
That's an extremely unromantic view of creativity. When my friend and collaborator Milos Forman filmed Amadeus, he showed you Mozart as a prodigy, maybe the greatest ever. He didn't show you how Mozart became Mozart — you wouldn't have liked that story. Because the truth is, Mozart wasn't born a "genius." His father recognized that the boy had talent, and he pushed him — hard. By the time Mozart was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.
Like creativity, collaboration is a habit — and one I encourage you to develop. At first it may seem unnatural to show up and care more about a collaborative project than about your personal advancement, but once you start ignoring your comfort level, you're on your way. Even if your collaborators are smarter than you? More hardworking? Quicker-thinking? More imaginative? Yes. It's like playing tennis; you improve only when you play above your level.
So if you have any say in the matter, gravitate to people who are smart and caring. Watch them, learn from them. And see if you don't soon feel that, far from being burdened with a partner, you're beginning to find new options and new ways of thinking.
Thinking? Collaboration may be a practice — a way of working in harmony with others — but it begins as a point of view. Could your relationships be better? Consider this first: You might be the problem (or a big part of it).
The Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh deals bluntly with the first reason you might be having trouble: You put yourself first — but you don't love yourself enough. He quotes the Buddha: "The moment you see how important it is to love yourself, you will stop making others suffer."
How do you love yourself more?
Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Stop treating yourself like an enemy." Well, consider your self-esteem. Skip your problems — we all have them — and examine only your general feelings about yourself. Do you have generous, compassionate feelings toward your friends, relatives, and romantic partners? Can you share with them in ways that give you tools to work with others? Are you so "honest" that you alienate people? In a group, do you share information? Confront problems openly? Support the mission?
It's easy enough to claim that we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, that we want to do well and do good. But as much as we are all similar, we're also unique. Do you have the temperament to be on a team? Or do others exist simply to get you the ball so you're the one who shoots and scores?
If you don't like other people and don't trust group activity, you're going to have a problem in a collaborative environment. Change your attitude and see if others don't respond.
Over four decades, I have worked with thousands of dancers and almost a hundred companies — in 2008, the especially intense year that I'll be talking about frequently in these pages, I made four new works for three different companies to the music of four composers, two of these newly commissioned scores. I've experienced the thrill of shared achievement and seen what happens when group efforts fizzle. My professional life has been — and continues to be — one collaboration after another.
I work with lawyers, designers, composers, sponsoring ballet companies, the directors of those ballet companies, and, not least, the audience. When the curtain goes up, we hope that all of you sitting in the theater will find a believable fantasy world. But I will see that effortless performance as the result of a great deal of solid, real-world, blue-collar collaborative effort.
For dancers, the process of working together doesn't look like what you may think of as collaboration — nothing's written down, and very little is spoken. If you stepped into my studio while I'm working with dancers, what you'd see is...dance. I don't tell, I show. Then they do. Something doesn't work? We try it again, look at it closely, make a modification. Dancers are smart, quick, and practical. Like intelligent people everywhere, they learn best by example. So do you.
Time's tight. You're busy. And there are people and organizations that need your talent and energy. Let's go.
Copyright © 2009 by W. A. T. Ltd.
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