I am passionate about true collaboration. For me this means:
- A fundamental commitment to the idea that everyone on the team is equal
- A shared vision and passion for the project
- Dedicating time to exploring ideas – questioning and questioning again what we are doing and why, because….
- You want to make the end result as good as possible – good enough is, well, not good enough
- An understanding that this requires everyone to relinquish control. This is impossible to do without trust. Which takes me back to dedicating time to exploring ideas – you need to do some shared activity in order to develop the relationships within the team.
I have recently written a longer piece on the five process involved in effective collaboration. . Writing this article made me more think again about why I am so keen on collaboration and how i can become a better collaborator.
Why am I so bothered?
I am not really sure. I guess believing in the idea that everyone should have a say is pretty typical for people who are starting out in the world of work as they greatly value any opportunity they are given to input.
I have a history of initiating and running fairly elaborate projects in my spare time (dance productions, big parties, putting on plays, making films, starting websites) that gave me opportunities to work with really interesting people. Projects that are organised outside of formal employment only really work if they are collaborative – who sticks around to be bossed about if they are not getting paid?
They also have to be fun. I guess I don’t really see why work should not be as fun as such projects can be, especially since engaged, passionate people do way better (and way more) work than people watching the clock. It is the best deal for all – more efficient, more effective. It is this instrumental rationality that has probably persuaded bigger institutions to get on board with the principle while not being able to fully endorse all the practices.
The idea of ensemble
Unless there is a commitment to the core principles of collaboration, not just for the efficiencies of outcome, it probably won’t work that well. There are lots of obstacles to true collaboration in the world of work – the career ladder, line management structure – but these obstacles are not impossible to overcome.
The point is that good collaboration is actually very difficult. It is a struggle, but the crucial factor is that all of the collaborators are able to be self-aware about how much they are controlling/trusting their team members.
Recently I came across the use of collaboration in reference to the work of a theatre company. I had never thought about it this way but i found the example illuminating. In Max Stafford Clark’s Letters to George he writes:
Theatre is a collaborative act and, when the conditions for true collaboration can be created, theatre hits its most thrilling potential. Everybody in theatre really knows this but, because it is so difficult to achieve and so impossible to sustain, we all manage to evade it.
This means directors end up directing classics, where they don’t have to deal with the difficult relationships with the writers; the writers wish to direct their own plays, so as not to be challenged by the directors imagination; and actors wish to start their own companies, which is a fashionable idea but in practice the work often becomes vapid and facile.
This application brings so many central issues for all collaboration into focus. Try thinking about your team as if they were a theatre company -
- Is the performance as good as it could be?
- Do the actors know the script?
- Does the director get to know the actors and working individually with them?
- Does everybody understand the various roles within the team?
- What does the audience think?
Extra resources on the idea of ensemble
I found this pdf by the Directors Guild of Great Britain that was written about an Ensemble Theatre conference in 2004. It starts with a great list of quotes. They are sometimes talking about the specific question of whether theatres should be based on a permanent collective of actors which is not relevant to this post, but they also usefully explore the notion of ‘ensemble’. Here are a few of my favourites:
- No one mind or imagination can foresee what a play will become until all physical and intellectual stimuli, which are crystallised in the poetry of the author, have been understood by a company, and then tried out in terms of mime, discussion and the precise music of grammar, words and movement allied and integrated. Joan Littlewood
- The concept of a group of artists working and progressing together, with give and take, through times of both hardship and plenty, conjured up for me co-existing images of heroism and humility, of artistic imperatives taking precedence over the ad hoc assumptions of the market place, the ‘vogue’, the bauble of personal fame. Trevor Nunn
- The riot that is at the theatre’s heart – the gaudy assertion of carnival values, upturning everything, embracing everything – cannot be reduced to a note, or a gesture. It springs from the primitive act of theatre – an actor and an audience –fuelled by an all-consuming, raging need on both parts of the equation, which is why a theatre that doesn’t have a company at its centre will always, by one means or another, end up cerebral, and that spells death for it. Simon Callow
- The connectivity of the actors was almost tangible, an organic tissue which made them breathe as one and move with a profound awareness of everything that was going on within the group. I was overwhelmed. I had never seen a group like it and never had a comparable experience in a theatre… Simon Callow