Friday, February 27, 2009

Collaboration, chaos, catfights and concealment – groups in all their glory!

Last weekend’s paper found me reading about the impact of the Ballet-Russe in Australia (and worldwide) 100 years ago (formore information about this project overall see the national library). In particular I was impressed with the sheer connective power of Diaghilev. He wasn’t a dancer, he wasn’t the choreographer of these new works… he wasn’t the designer… no position so mundane. In the article Michelle Potter calls him an ‘orchestrator of events’ – really he was a very talented kind of producer, a collector and curator… not just of art works, but of very talented people. People he worked with included Stravinsky, Cocteau, Picasso, Satie, Balanchine, Matisse, de Chirico, Nijinsky, Pavolva and so the list goes on. … what a potent mix for potential brilliance or chaos - one can only imagine the scale of behind the scenes dramas, catfights and histrionics. He is described as an alchemist, an innovator, a risk-taker with artistic courage and manipulative powers… one can only contemplate these powers in awe!

Diaghilev was obviously a master when it came to managing jostling egos and reputations – perhaps his ego was just so enormous others knew to back off. But he also obviously was able to manage the delicate art of true collaboration. The term collaboration is freely bandied around these days, everyone’s working in collaborative groups and teams… or are they? Collaborative work is more than just having different people working together – putting people into a group, or having them reside in the same building, faculty or city is not enough. In exploring the nature of collaborative relationships I’ve found the writings of Vera John-Steiner and Seana Moran of value. They discuss three characteristics of effective collaboration:

* Complementarity – collaborators have different perspectives, expertise, conceptualisations and so on and the interaction of these forms the foundation for the dynamics of collaboration
* Tension – collaboration is not about consensus (which may not actually lead to learning or challenge). Tensions are not necessarily eliminated but taken advantage of as a ‘mechanisms for bringing out latent opportunities of the domain’…. ‘Collaboration is not absence of tension, but fruitful cultivation of tension’
* Emergence – collaboration can lead to outcomes greater than the additive power of the group. These relationships often develop over time with the collaborators becoming more interdependent across stages of the creative process, with different contributions being made to the process, the working methods, the roles and the products. (paraphrased from Moran & John-Steiner, 2004: 13)

That’s all well and good when you have been working with the same people over time and you’ve worked out your strengths and how you can complement each other. Very tricky stuff in new groups where you’ve got to work out who can do what, where there are overlaps, what are the gaps someone needs to fill, where are the rough surfaces and jagged edges. You can try and speed through this process and assign roles and tasks… and you might just get things done, however that’s not actually collaboration and you may very well end up with a servicable but not particularly inspiring creation. To work through this stuff takes time… and I reckon you all need to be in the same place at the same time for a good part of it. It’s very hard to achieve the same collaboration on-line with new collaborators and even harder if some participants are meeting face to face and others aren’t. I’ve experienced this in the most personal of ways. (Mmm so this is looking like being a longer post than I thought... my apologies... but let's go with it)!

You see it’s not so long ago ‘Pollyanna’ was talking to some local friends about why they should get involved in some collaborative community ventures and said friends were vowing and declaring that creative work with others was just too hard. “Oh no,” claimed Pollyanna, “not if you understand how groups work and how you can work together in complementary ways. You can work through group problems if you know how.”

Mmm… really… Well in fact the answer is that knowledge is not necessarily any protection from the slings and arrows of 'new group' dynamics. You can know everything there is to know about groups and how they work, but if you don’t actually form the group properly and reach some state of shared purpose, confidence and trust in the group, then things can turn from nice to nasty in the blink of an eye. For example if some members meet face to face and one member is not part of some of those meetings…. or if that member tries to ring other members to find out what’s going on and they don’t take their calls or ring them back… and so if that member finally resorts to saying things on email that are could then be seen as directive, obstructive or bossy … well then… all the more reason not to invite that member to the next meeting or ring them on the phone. We'll just email them ... and we know where that can lead! While the ‘insider’ discussions might all be very productive and innocent (you’re probably thinking…. unlikely) the ‘outsider’ starts to imagine all kinds of reasons why they’ve been excluded and their actions start to appear more desperate or anti-social. They might search for possible allies in the group, or express their frustration outside the group, or finally… just tell the group to f….. off. Dynamics and tension emerge all right, but not of the most fruitful kind.

I think this kind of less than ideal outcome is more likely in new groups where the participants don’t really know each other – where they come with sets of overlapping skills and lack of clarity of roles. It’s much easier if you enter something… say for example a collaborative performance project, knowing who is director, who is the producer, writer, actors etc… but if you start from scratch where everyone could do everything in a particular process… that’s actually much harder… what if three people want to be director, how to you work out who does it? The one with the biggest ego, the loudest voice, the most experience, or should it be the one with the least experience who needs a break? How do you decide? Vote, talk about it and try and arrive at consensus or just start working and see who triumphs? I reckon often the biggest ego wins out especially if it’s combined with charisma, charm and a dash of chutzpa… that’s probably what happened with Diaghilev. He was the central ego around whom others were drawn and their roles were somewhat defined on entry to the collaboration, even if they shifted throughout.

For most of us… I guess we often stick to collaborating with those we know and trust, just go and do our own thing … or like my friends, avoid collaborations like the plague. I’m still Pollyanna enough to put my faith in a good creative collaboration… as long as there’s time to build trust and engage in constructive dialogue! Phew ... got that out of my system!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A big year for the big C

So Friday the 13th may be auspicious in many ways ... but this year saw the launch of the Year of Creativity in Queensland.... well I think it's only for schools really as it's an idea that emerged from the office of the Minister for Education and the Arts. The Minister obviously decided to try and grab the media's attention and ensure there were some fun folk to chat with by inviting along a few high-profilers to be "Ambassadors for the Year of Creativity" - these included actors Leah Purcell and Paul Bishop, writers Rebecca Sparrow & Sam Wagan Watson, chefs Alistair McLeod & Phillip Johnson, John Lee from production company Cutting Edge and a range of other interesting people. Unfortunately somehow my invitation got lost in the mail... however I have been going to some meetings with folk in the department about shaping up some of the activities for the yera and writing up a framing paper.... oh well, put the heels and sparkles away for next time.

It seems Years of Creativity are not all that original though, with Europe having an even bigger and better one this year - not just confined to one state, nor one ministry alone. Theirs is called the European Year of Creativity and Inovation and their launch was in Prague in January... not sure what minor celebrities were at that one.. but it sounds like there were lots of political types, perhaps their ministerial advisers weren't so craft with the invite list. They too have come up with the idea of "Ambassadors for the Year", ooh, another great chef in there - Ferran Adria Acosta, plus some pretty big names including Richard Florida & Ken Robinson (I've met both but I'm sure they might not recall the same about me) and some interesting sounding creatives including Philip Starck. So a big year for creativity coming up... will follow developments and hope that the invitation to something in Europe comes in soon - mmmm September would be nice!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Create what you will!

This is one of my favourite quotes in relation to creativity... it's attributed to George Bernard Shaw. The full quote goes "Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will". It's from the play "Back to Methuselah" a piece which is called a A Metabiological Pentateuch (???) - first published in 1921, an epic 5 cycle philosophical piece not often produced (for obvious reasons). So at this point in the play the Serpent is explaining to Eve how it came to be that Lilith created two beings - Adam and Eve. There is a lovely interchange then about the process of creating, with Eve saying:

EVE: To desire, to imagine, will, to create. That is too long a story, find me one word for it all; you who are so clever with words at words.

SERPENT: In one word, to conceive. That is the word that means both the beginning in the imagination and the end in creation.

Eve then tells the Serpent she will go and tell Adam 'to conceive', at which the Serpent laughs. He explains to Eve that Adam can imagine, he can will, desire and create - all but one thing, his own kind. So in this account women really have it all - the abilities to create and to conceive in all ways, including the most significant to human kind (a pity that first half has been forgotten for so much of human history).

Anyway back to why I like this quote... I think that for me it highlights the idea that while creativity can arise from experimentation and play, then there is an act of will, you have to want to do something, make something, bring it into being. This act of will is an essentially human act. We enjoy creating, we enjoy newness, we enjoy changing things, objects, ideas and our environment to make it more as we would like it to be. The big Csik guy also talks about this kind of idea (that humans are programmed for creativity) but an interesting addition to this is when he identifies that the counterpoint to creativity is 'entrophy'. Whilst we can derive pleasure from creating and doing something new, humans also derive pleasure when we are comfortable, when we can relax and enjoy ourselves by doing nothing ('Flow', 1996 p 109). The urge to relax and veg out can be so strong that this least effort option overpowers the more energetic act of creating... boy did he get that one right!! However ... there's only so much entrophic vegetating most of us can really enjoy in one sitting and then..... if we listen to this other force - this creative calling... we too can bring into being something quite marvellous!

Pondering the process

Okay so Wendy's found out I've heeded her advice without me even telling her - i was keeping quiet about my blogging forays... just seeing where it might lead me. So perhaps time for a bit of personal reflection.

I had one of those nights last night... I had been thinking about one of the current projects I'm involved in, wrestling with some ways to pull together some ideas that just weren't falling into place... then eventually falling asleep ... only to have the muse jolt me awake at 2.45 am. I find that often seems to be when she taps on my shoulder... i've learnt from past experience that I can't ignore her. Try to go back to sleep and it just doesn't happen. The ideas keep appearing, tumbling over each other, sometimes coherent, sometimes not... so then I give in to the mistress, drag myself out of bed and go and write it all down. It's coming together, a symbol, a character, a pre-text that will prompt young people to want to find out about our dramatic past, a theatrical device, a merchandising opportunity all rolled into one... i'm in love with her already! (I won't tell you more just yet, that might come in time - building tension, hook them in). By 3.15 am I'm ready for bed again. Heart still racing, but I'm feeling good. The ideas haven't just exploded from nowhere though... i've been thinking, researching and talking about this project since last sept (four months now), i'm drawing on lots of different things I've read and seen, my own past and lots of cultural references... the profile seems to sit well with some of things I've read about the creative process by people like Gardner, Gruber, Feldman and the big Csik man. The creative process arises from the flow of experience, knowledge, curiosity and the desire to solve a particular problem... I think i'm getting somewhere. You've got to be open to the callings of the muse I find... ignore her, roll over, take drugs to get back to sleep if you like - but often those mad midnight scribblings contain some gems of insight the next day.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Creatives profiles - Eugene & Motown

Every weekend when I sit down to read the papers, I like to look for the stories of creative people that are usually profiled and I like to draw out key ideas and learnings from their stories. As a particular reference I often relate my thinking to concepts about creativity drawn from the work of Csikszentmihalyi , R Keith Sawyer, Vera John-Steiner and the like. These people view creativity as arising from the interaction of individuals and groups within social contexts rather than seeing it as something that is a special talent or ability only possessed by the gifted few (I'll post elsewhere a bit more about these kinds of views of creativity). Here's what I found this weekend.

Eugene Gilfedder is a Brisbane based actor and a bit of a renaissance man (writer, director, musician and so on) who is about to star as Hook in a production of Peter Pan. Eugene is a very talented and experienced actor, and really could be up there with Geoffrey Rush in terms of Australian actors on the international stage. However he has stayed put in Brisbane, created a life and a family and perhaps has not had the recognition he deserves outside of his home state. What I found interesting in this weekend's profile ('Enjoying theatre's Neverland' by Fiona Purdon in etc liftout, Courier Mail, jan 10-11, 2009, p 3) is that now that his children are finished school he is now open to more national and international work. There were a couple of things in this story that interested me... firstly the importance of the 'field' the gatekeepers and audiences who acknowledge and accept someone's creative work - one of the key components Csikszentmihalyi says is important for someone's creative work to be recognised and have impact. The field for Gilfedder's work has not be as wide as it could be to date, whilst he could be as talented as any famous actor around, his work has not been seen by or acknowledged by an international field. Could that now change as he embarks this year on a national tour with an independent production of 'Kursk'.

Also of interest were comments about Gilfedder's motivation and the kind of internal motivation that drives his work, rather than external success and rewards. He says "I've never been focused on the career, the blimbing of ladders, but my focus is on the stuff, the words and productions". Amabile and many others have talked about the importance of internal motivation as important for creativity and engagement and it seems that has been very much the driver for Gilfedder. Finally I was also interested in his comments about relating to the spirit of Peter Pan and how playing different roles keeps him young. In his book 'Creating Minds' Howard Gardner talks about creative people being able to retain the ability to see the world as if through the eyes of a child - retaining a kind of freshness and curiousity about the world. This is something that is evident in Gilfedder's approach to his creative work. I look forward to seeing how he goes in terms of finding a wider 'field' for his work in the years to come.

The Motown article "Can't Stop the Music" (in the Review section of Weekend Austrlian, Jan 10-11, 2009, pp 4-6) was interesting for a range of reasons, especially relating to the importance of the coalescence of opportunity, shifts in the culture and the rise of individuals and groups who had the right skill sets and ideas at the right time. This story marks the 50th anniversary on Jan 12 of the founding of Motown by Berry Gordy Jr in 1959. Gordy worked through disappointments and failure (dropping out of school, failure of first musical venture) to take the risk of borrowing money to found his own label and take their music national. The point I found particularly interesting in this article was the role of critique and reflection - the interactive work of their 'field' - in ensuring that what the label released was of a consistently high quality. Smokey Robinson says "We had Monday morning meetings. All the creative people were in those meetings, the writers, the producers. We would play our stuff for each other, critique each other's stuff and make suggestions on each other's stuff to make it better.... Many of the tracks were sent back and reworked, and reworked, until they became the hits that they became." Creativity isn't just about inspiration and individual expressions of ideas, good creative work benefits from critical reflection and feedback. The trick is to know what to listen to and act on and what to screen out!

A beginning

Finally succumbed and created the blog - like everyone else I have more than enough distractions to keep me away from the things I should be doing. However the thought of having somewhere to post my musings, discoveries, snippets of information and stories has been attracting me for some time ... and so now after Wendy urging me to 'stop putting it off and just do it', I have done so!

This is a space I'd like to use to collect various ideas about creativity, giving in to and following our creative callings. There'll be stories about others, reflections on things I read and see, as well as some thoughts of my own, both from my professional and personal life. I'm not sure where it will go just yet, but here goes!