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November 2005 - The Nature of Collaboration

…for in real life, this is the way we’ve always arrived at decisions, even though it has always been done in a disorganized way. We pass the word around; we ponder how the case is put by different people; we read the poetry; we meditate over the literature; we play music; we change our minds; we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way, not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.

– Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail

The Twentieth Century is often called the “Century of Geniuses” – all the arts are filled with legends of individuals single-handedly coming up with ideas and forms that revolutionize their medium. Yet there are also many instances of creative partnership, where brilliant creators “held hands” with others in order to break through to totally new realms. Stravinsky and Diaghilev, Eliot and Pound, Watson and Crick, Page and Plant, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Diller and Scofidio … the list is almost endless.

If the recent trends in architecture are an indication, the cult of individualism seems to be wearing off, and the buzzword this new century definitely seems to be “collaboration”. It is a tantalizing term, filled with the promise of exciting new possibilities, of reaching never before heights. Yet we are often suspicious of it; we often sense its ugly cousin – compromise – lurking somewhere close by.

How did Picasso, for a short period in his life, set aside his infamous self-centeredness and ego to work with Braque, and come up with perhaps the most influential movement in 20th century art? Creativity is mostly seen as an intimate and deeply personal interaction between the artist and the medium. If that is the case how can another person come in there? How do you communicate? Is there a method, or is it solely dependant on the chemistry between individuals and one’s mood at that particular time of the day? Is it possible to learn to collaborate?

Doug McVadon, a consultant with Dorrier Underwood, might have some of the answers. Doug – whom Chuck Barger calls a “psychoanalyst of firms” – is hired by corporations and organizations to study them and to give practical advice on how to work together to realize their vision. He will talk about: “what it takes to master the art of collaboration – what one must put aside to truly accept a creative contribution from another; why creative and scientific advances are unlikely to come from one person working alone, that in the increasingly complex world they will require multi-disciplinary approaches and models of collaboration that go beyond traditional hierarchical thinking.”

What kind of advice would he have for your day-to-day work with others? What about all the future inter-disciplinary collaborations we have been talking about at point8?