Many people are familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Behind these legendary creative books and mythic worlds is a remarkable story of collaboration. These two writers met in the English department at Oxford University in the mid 1920’s, and discovered they shared an interest in writing mythic fiction and poetry. Lewis and Tolkien formed a small group with other colleagues called The Inklings. In sharing this story in his book, Group Genius, Keith Sawyer writes, “this was a pun that described them not only as writers but also as people who were searching with ‘vague or half-formed intimations and ideas.’”
The group met at a pub every Tuesday to talk about mythology and ideas. As trust in the group grew, they shared their writings. They took turns reading aloud and offered edits and critiques on one another’s work. Before this group, neither Tolkien nor Lewis had published their poems or mythic stories. The themes and ideas from The Inklings took shape within the writings of each man and made their way into the world in what are now widely popular books and movies.
This is a great example of a micro-collaboration – when two people or small groups work together in ways that support one another’s work or co-create new work. Our society’s focus on the individual (e.g., the creative genius, scientist, or entrepreneur) causes us to overlook the potential of micro-collaborations. Though in reality, most creations emerge from a web of conversations. Just look at the Acknowledgements page at the start of a book to see how many people contribute and inform the ultimate work, even though one author’s name is on the front cover.
We need to think about how to create spaces and ways of working like The Inklings, where we can share our half-baked ideas and questions, where we can think out loud. In competitive schools and work places, we are supposed to “have it all figured out” and present our best work. We are seen as weak or ill-prepared if we have more questions than answers or show up with something only partially complete because we got stuck. When I get stuck, I take it as a sign that I need the creative sparks and insights that come from conversation and multiple perspectives.
Personally, I have come to realize that I do my best work in collaboration. Working together with a thinking partner is much more effective than me sitting by myself at the computer. For example, I am grateful to have Nancy Gabriel as a friend and collaborator on many projects. I joke sometimes that she is half my brain. Here is an example of how micro-collaboration works in planning a client meeting:
One of us might do a first draft of an agenda for the meeting, and then we will talk about it over the phone with the document on a shared Google drive, so we can both see it and edit it. Nancy will see things I don’t, or I may pick up on an aspect of the client situation that she didn’t notice (and vice versa). Sometimes an element is not sitting right and she names it, not quite sure what is bothering her. I listen to her talk and ask more questions, giving her the space to talk it through out loud. I reflect back what I heard, and/or build on it, and eventually we both get clearer on the real issue. I may recall a way we solved a similar challenge on another project or share an article I just saw on Facebook related to the same point. In this space of exchange, new insights and ideas appear. We circle back and forth through the agenda, developing the right questions to ask and the flow of activities.
A clarity and rightness about what is needed naturally emerges. Every time, the result that we achieve together is far better than what I could have created on my own. Then, we go through the same process with a small group from the client, which brings more perspectives on the situation and context. We are open and curious to see how the agenda can be refined and improved. Adjustments are made and the flow and approach become clearer. Not only does this collaboration lead to a better agenda, but through the course of these conversations, the team gets aligned. This co-creative process generates a coherence and confidence among the facilitation team that is like an invisible but sturdy container for the larger group in the meeting to do their best thinking and work together.
We Need This!
The example above speaks to the necessity of this kind of collaboration to do our most effective work. Equally important is the fulfillment and joy in working this way. Levels of satisfaction and morale at workplaces are hitting new lows, which I think have their roots in the orientation and expectation of individual achievement. Human beings are wired to be social animals. This kind of collaboration feeds our need to belong, be seen, contribute and participate. As this Guardian article exploring the disease of isolation states: “Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”
When I experience this kind of collaboration and generative listening, I feel more connected and fulfilled: surely what we need more of in this world at the moment. To restore ecosystems we plant trees. To restore ourselves and our communities to health we need to plant micro-collaborations. See Part 2 for ideas on how to create more micro-collaborations in your life and work.