The Secrets of Creative Collaboration

We cling to the idea of success being based on individuals, but this article shows the value of the great group.
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From the book, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration , c 1997,by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, now available. Reprinted with permission of Addison Wesley Longman. All rights reserved.

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Great groups have shaped our world, from the gathering of young geniuses at Los Alamos who unleashed the atom, to the youthful scientists and hackers who invented a computer that was personal as well as powerful. That should hardly surprise us. In a society as complex and technologically sophisticated as ours, the most urgent projects require the coordinated contributions of many talented people. Whether the task is building a global business or discovering the mysteries of the human brain, one person can't hope to accomplish it, however gifted or energetic he or she may be. And yet, even as we make the case for collaboration, we resist the idea of collective creativity. Our mythology refuses to catch up with our reality. And so we cling to the myth of the Lone Ranger, the romantic idea that great things are usually accomplished by a larger-than-life individual working alone.

Given our continuing obsession with solitary genius, reflected in everything from the worship of film directors to our fascination with Bill Gates and other high-profile entrepreneurs, it is no surprise that we tend to underestimate just how much creative work is accomplished by groups. Today an important scientific paper may represent the best thinking and patient lab work of hundreds of people. Collaboration constantly takes place in the arts as well. A classic example is the Michelangelo masterpiece, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In our mind's eye, we see Michelangelo, looking remarkably like Charlton Heston, laboring alone on the scaffolding high above the chapel floor. In fact, 13 people helped paint the work. Michelangelo was not only an artist; he was, as biographer William E. Wallace points out, the head of a good-sized entrepreneurial enterprise.

We must turn to great groups if we hope to begin to understand how that rarest of precious resources--genius--can be successfully combined with great effort to achieve results that enhance all our lives. It is in such groups that we may also discover why some organizations seem to breed greatness, freeing members to be better than anyone imagined they could be.

All great groups have extraordinary leaders. It's a paradox, really, because great groups tend to be collegial and nonhierarchical, peopled by singularly competent individuals who often have an anti-authoritarian streak. Nonetheless, virtually every great group has a strong and visionary head. First off, each leader has a keen eye for talent. Recruiting the right genius for the job is the first step in building many great collaborations. The groups' leaders are almost always pragmatic dreamers. The dream is always one of greatness, not simply an ambition to succeed. The dream is the engine that drives the group, the vision that inspires the team to work as if the fate of civilization rested on their completing their project.

Many great groups have a dual administration. They have a visionary leader, and they have someone who protects them from the outside world. Great groups tend to be nonconformist. People in them are always rule busters, never insiders or corporate types on the fast track. People in great groups are always on their own track. As a result, they often need someone to deflect not just the criticism but even the attention of the bureaucrats and conventional thinkers elsewhere in the organization. The protectors typically lack the glamour of the visionary leaders, but they are no less essential, particularly in enterprises that require official sanction or that cannot realize their dream without institutional consent.

Who becomes part of a great group? If not out-and-out rebels, participants may lack traditional credentials or exist on the margins of their professions. They are almost always young. Probably the most important thing that young members bring is their often delusional confidence. Thus, many great groups are fueled by an invigorating, completely unrealistic view of what they can accomplish. Not knowing what they can't do puts everything in the realm of the possible. Great groups often show evidence of collective denial. And "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt," as 12-steppers like to say. Denial can obscure obstacles and stiffen resolve. It can liberate. Great groups are not realistic. They are exuberant and irrationally optimistic.

Many of the people in great groups are tinkerers. There's a joke about engineers that captures the spirit of many participants in creative collaborations: An engineer meets a frog, who offers the engineer anything he wants if he will kiss the frog. "No," says the engineer. "Come on," says the frog. "Kiss me, and I'll turn into a beautiful woman." "Nah," says the engineer. "I don't have time for a girlfriend...but a talking frog, that's really neat."

Curiosity fuels every great group. The members don't simply solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that is its own reward. Many of the people in these groups have dazzling individual skills. But they also have another quality that allows them both to identify significant problems and to find creative, boundary-busting solutions rather than simplistic ones: they have hungry, urgent minds.

Virtually every great group defines itself in terms of an enemy. Sometimes the enemy is real, as the Axis powers were for the Manhattan Project. But more often, the chief function of the enemy is to solidify and define the group itself. In great groups the engagement of the enemy is both dead serious and a lark. Great groups always see themselves as winning underdogs, wily Davids toppling the bloated Goliaths of tradition and convention.

People in great groups often seem to have struck a Faustian bargain, giving up their normal lives, if not their souls, in exchange for greatness. Because they are mission maniacs, obsessed with the project at hand, relationships outside the group routinely suffer.

Although great groups experience their moments of near despair, they are more often raucous with laughter. Creative collaborators become members of their own tribe, with their own language, in-jokes, dress, and traditions.

Great groups often fall apart when the project is finished. Why do these often short-lived associations burn so bright in the memories of former members? There are a host of reasons. Life in the group is often the most fun members ever have. They revel in the pleasure that comes from exercising all their wits in the company of people "used to dealing lightning with both hands," as one great-group member put it. Communities based on merit and passion are rare, and people who have been in them never forget them. And then there is the sheer exhilaration of performing greatly. Talent wants--and needs--to exercise itself.

People pay a price for their membership in great groups. Postpartum depression is often fierce, and the intensity of collaboration is a potent drug that may make everything else, including everything after, seem drab and ordinary.

But no one who has participated in one of these adventures in creativity and community seems to have any real regrets. How much better to be with other worthy people, doing worthy things, than to labor alone. In a great group you are liberated for a time from the prison of self. As part of the team, you are on leave from the mundane--no questions asked--with its meager rewards and sometimes onerous obligations. Genius is rare, and the chance to exercise it in a dance with others is rarer still. Karl Wallenda, the legendary tightrope walker, once said, "Being on the tightrope is living; everything else is waiting." Most of us wait. In great groups talent comes alive.

Last updated: Dec 1, 1996




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