Photo by Debbie Hudson at unsplash.com

Throughout history people have been motivated to band together. To build villages, trade and barter, rebel against injustice. And, create. Today there’s debate about whether collaboration is wearing out ambitious professionals in matrixed organizations. Fair enough. Coordinating with others can take longer than making decisions on your own, and an excess of meetings, especially if they’re poorly run, can feel like a colossal waste of time. How collaboration happens makes a difference.

In the words of a master

To draw inspiration from a master creator and collaborator, take a stroll back in time, nearly two centuries, to the cafes of Paris. Painters on the cusp of an emerging art form gathered frequently. Ideas flew. In the words of Claude Monet

It wasn’t until 1869 that I [Monet] saw Manet again, but we became close friends at once, as soon as we met. He invited me to come and see him each evening in a cafe in the Batignolle district where he and his friends met when the day’s work in the studio was over. There I met … Cezanne, Degas who had just returned from a trip to Italy, the art critic Duranty, Emile Soza who was then making his debut in literature, and several others as well. I myself brought along Sisley, Bazille, and Renoir. Nothing could be more interesting than the talks we had with their perpetual clashes of opinion. Your mind was held in suspense all the time, you spurred the others on to sincere, disinterested inquiry and were spurred on yourself, you laid in a stock of enthusiasm that kept you going for weeks on end until you could give final form to the idea you had in mind. You always went home afterwards better steeled for the fray, with a new sense of purpose and a clearer head.

Forming new possibilities

Those conclaves inspired creative tension of such enormity that Monet’s ideas were able to cook all the way through to a new form, rather than being prematurely hatched or abandoned altogether. He sensed a new possibility without knowing immediately how to bring it to life. Through verbal sparring, his ideas were afforded fertile space for gestation. They were allowed to evolve fully into their ultimate expression.

Clearly his peers valued the exchange. They kept returning. Collectively, they sustained creative tension on a scale that no one person could have managed on their own. The result? Not one individual’s success but the successes of many. A composite of breakthroughs constituting a movement.

These were original thinkers and doers. While each had a style in their own right, they also had each other. They shared a collective urge to bring new ideas to life. What exactly did they talk about? Wrestle with? Challenge in each other?

What’s the look and sound of collaboration when it generates an entirely new genre?

Look no further

In this era of advanced technology and communications, we’re privy to such glimpses. Numerous videos, interviews and articles go behind the scenes to reveal the process Lin-Manuel Miranda went through to write the breakout musical Hamilton. Without collaborators, it never could have been staged. He and three others — director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music director Alex Lacamoire — were recognized on December 2 during the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s the first time the award went not to an individual for lifetime achievement but to a team. They were hailed as “trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category.”

I discovered Monet’s recitation in Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen. Belsky’s accompanying commentary is as true of the Impressionists as it is of the Hamilton collaborators:

Despite prevailing notions of the lone genius, this story of how the Impressionists, a circle of friends, spurred each other on to achieve major breakthrough in the world of painting is more common than you might think.

The next post in this series on collaboration continues with an exploration of the qualities and skills possessed by people with genuine collaborative know-how.