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!

1 comment:

  1. Groucho said it for me. Apologies to him if I misquote: "I have no wish to be part of any club that would have me as a member."