A Fresh take on Creative Collaboration: Why do stars ensemble?



Image from Deadline.com


Yes, yes, it’s true … ensemble is not a verb. So why the blatant verbing abuse in the title of this article? Well, maybe because it should be a verb. More on that, in a minute.


First, let’s admit at the outset that there is a common fear that flares up when most people are first asked to collaborate on a project. The fear is of losing a bit of one’s identity and sense of self-worth, of having to give up too much autonomy and status, of having to work too closely with fellow collaborators who may not be friends, or friendly … or even friend-worthy.


Now it is certainly true that some personal autonomy and influence will take a hit when collaborating with others on a project. And very few, if any, of one’s own brilliant ideas and marvelous contributions will likely make it straight through to the end, ‘uncontaminated’ by the refinements of others … and some of one’s best suggestions may get seriously mauled and manhandled before being unceremoniously rejected … and egos will undoubtedly get knocked down a few notches.


But it is also true that on many projects, particularly large, complex ones that call for highly creative or original treatment, there is still a powerful and overwhelming argument for collaborating:


The potential for creative breakthroughs (and uncommon levels of personal fulfillment) is profoundly greater when diverse ideas, skills, and talents are blended together and the richest talents are harvested from all players on the team through genuine collaborative interactions.


Consider this: Comedian Jerry Seinfeld chose to collaborate, in multiple capacities, to co-create and co-star in the self-named show Seinfeld. Its ensemble cast, playing quirky characters with peculiar dispositions on a show ‘about nothing,’ shattered several conventions of mainstream television at the time. As Wikipedia humorously explains it, the show offered no growth or reconciliation to its characters, it eschewed sentimentality (the notion that the characters should not develop or improve throughout the series was expressed, on the set, as the "no hugging, no learning" rule), and for goodness’ sake, even the tragedy of a character’s death in the show elicited no genuine emotion — from anybody! Yet, Seinfeld was undoubtedly one of the greatest and most influential sitcoms ever made. It has been ranked among the best television shows of all time. That silly little show ‘about nothing’ was a massive hit that ran for nine seasons.


As star stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated, many talented people collaborate on some things and go it alone on others. Collaboration is, after all, project-confined behavior: it happens for a limited time and for a limited purpose. It is simply a mode of working that offers ‘stretch potential’ in new directions and for outsized results beyond one’s own limited capabilities. It is also a great chance to learn from fellow collaborators, friend and foe alike. And that is why many stars in many fields choose to collaborate, on many projects, often.


Now, back to why ‘ensemble’ should be a verb.


Most people associate that word with art, play, community, creativity, and group effort. Ensembles are artistic performances where groups of musicians, actors, or dancers play and perform together, and the members of the group and the performance itself are viewed as a whole rather than individually.


Collaborating is essentially the same thing: people coming together for a time to share ideas, skills, talents, and personal initiative in hopes of producing something original and extraordinary that could not have been produced by any one individual acting alone — or even by several individuals working together, but in relative isolation from each other (i.e., cooperating). High-performing, creative, collaborative teams behave, essentially, as ensembles.


Also, let’s admit that that word — ‘ensemble’ — with its alluring French aural styling, sounds vastly more appealing than ‘collaborate,’ a word that looks too much like a bloated version of ‘collate,’ with all its stuffiness and orderliness and fall-in-line-ness. ‘Ensemble’ deserves a wider audience, don’t you think?


So, as we all expect to be collaborating much more often on projects as organizations seek more inspired and creative outcomes from their teams, let’s make it easier on newbies (new to collaborating, that is) by giving the behavior a softer, smooth-jazzier name: ensembling. It just sounds more inviting, doesn’t it?


Collaborating (ensembling!) satisfies our innate need as humans to be part of, and contribute to, a larger group endeavor, to work towards a greater shared goal, to feel connected to a like-minded community around a meaningful and purposeful activity.


Collaborating (ensembling!) promotes individual growth and offers heightened social interactivity with full-team interaction and participation as defensiveness gets replaced with trust and as divergent interests, experiences, and talents come together to converge imaginative possibilities and novel solutions.


The next time you get assigned a major project that calls for serious (and playful) creative effort, don’t be afraid to round up some fellow superstars and suggest that it be handled as a (careful now, say it with a timid voice) — ‘collaborative’ — effort.


You’ll know you’re off to a marvelous start if the rousing choral response you get back is, “You mean, let’s ensemble?!


Author: Rich Leon

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