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Successful Collaboration is Like Jazz

Almost Meeting the Sapphire Bloggers

When the pre-conference ASUG/BPX day on the Sunday before Sapphire concluded, I felt a tremendous wave of relief.  The feedback was quite positive; the room had been packed with participants. I’d managed to capture almost the entire day on video (which I’m still in the process of editing) and I was eagerly looking forward to three days of interacting with community members, as well as taking a seat at the table with the blogger-analysts, some of whom I had only heard about but was eager to meet and engage with.  Mike Prosceno the guardian angel of blogger-analysts and the person responsible for Craig’s appearance last year at Sapphire and the man providing a ticket to the bloggers again this year in Sapphire Berlin, had offered me entrance into that inner sanctum of global communications, press, and journalists.  I was really looking forward to meeting folks like Maggie Fox, Brian Summer, Jevon MacDonald, Susan Scrupski, and reconnecting with Dennis Howlett, Ed Herrmann, Dan McWeeney, Sandy Kemsley. And perhaps rubbing elbows with some of the other folks I hoped would be there like the three Jasons: Bush, Corsello and Wood or Charlie Wood.  I also imagined I would bump into Shel Israel, Vinnie Mirchandani and Zoli Erdos.

A Not So Pleasant Surprise 

Well I did see many of those folks, happily, although I only met one of the Jasons (Bush), missed Vinnie and never had the pleasure of meeting Susan (who I’d still like to meet), but the plans of being a “fly on the wall” during some of the blogger conversations vanished into thin air when I bumped into a friend and SAP mentor, Paul Taylor of Kraft Foods who just relocated to the US from the UK.  Paul told me that he was going to participate in my ASUG speaker session on the second day of Sapphire.  Well there was only one small problem with his announcement, I didn’t know that I was giving said session.

Desperately Seeking Guidance

So in I charge to the blogger corner to see if I can get some of the social media technorati and intelligentsia to give me a crash course in explaining social networking to the masses and to collect ideas of how to create a credible presence in the absence of a slide deck and defined conference agenda.  Needless to say my relief at having finished up pre-conference day was rapidly metamorphosing into a major ulcer.  I was in the throes of “panic attack”.

I walked to the corner and discovered a new face: Kevin de Kock who together with Maggie Fox is on the management team of the Social Media Group.  Now Maggie has been admired by me for some time, but I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting Kevin (who has been a veteran, albeit rather quiet member, of our SDN community.)

Kevin turned into my savior while Maggie also provided some tips and insights including the name of an interesting thought guru: Clay Shirky (many of those in the know, know the name, but not I).

Kevin shared with me his take on collaboration, which proved to be the key to rescuing my soon-to-be-at-risk reputation and the session agenda.  He said: “successful collaboration is like jazz”.

How is Collaboration like Jazz?

Okay….but how will I transform that into an hour conference session, how to make that come alive for participants?  And what does all that jazz mean?

That evening, Kevin had a rather creative idea and sent me over to visit the jazz ensemble which was playing for the blogger and press social that I and my SAP mentor friends were invited to. (you may have seen the picture that Jim Spath took of me listening to them) .  I asked Jim to snap a picture of the musicians and I briefly chatted with them about how they work together, how they chose what to play, who played what, and how their musical opinions evolved into a consensus without a conductor, without governance, and without a formal structure.  Listening to them speak about their ensemble relationship started to sound an awful lot like the collaboration in the BPX Community Project.   I was starting to feel that Kevin really was on to something.  I also took a quick visit to his blog post: Learning from Jazz.

But I realized that even if I internalized his wonderful points about how jazz players speak the same language of music, truly listen to each other and keep their egos at bay, I might not be able to rehearse an entire lecture about that in front of a random audience and further, I wasn’t sure what materials I’d bring to the session room to illustrate.

The Impromptu Session

Well the morning arrived, and I decided to have integrity and come clean about my unprepared state.  I invited the audience to leave if they weren’t ready for an informal conversation, and to throw courtesy aside and leave the moment they were no longer interested.  I also had some colleagues in the room with me: Mark Finnern, Marco ten Vaanholt, Jim Spath and a new acquaintance, Shel Israel.  But as knowledgeable as these guys sounded to the audience, what was most interesting was the audience on comments and their conversation in the room.  People did create their own analogies to collaboration and jazz and did describe in a very articulate way, those characteristics that personify a great jazz collaboration, including some elements that didn’t appear in Kevin’s excellent blog.  One of the participants spoke about the ability of musicians to have expertise on one or many instruments, much like the skills that a collaboration partner brings to the table, or dare I say, as Business Process Expert.

I learned that jazz collaborations can also be born of somewhat serendipitous connections.  One of those was when a participating member of the audience, who had some great things to say about collaboration shared that she is an active grassroots community member in an internal environmental awareness blog for her company, Kimberly Clark.  Loved meeting Kim Iversen , dragged her along to a great gig with Invitation to RESIST and hope to hear her playing some sweet CSR music shortly.  You can hear  her speak during the CSR roundtable that I dragged her off to. See minute 45:08 with Kim from Kimberly Clark.  But more on that in an upcoming “fly-on-the-wall” at Sapphire installment.

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  • Marilyn – At Tech Ed last year, we saw a successful improvisational comedy troupe do a show that was spontaneous and wickedly funny.  But I’ve watched improv teams practice at my house, and while you might think it is all spontaneity and serendipity, there is a rigor and thematic discipline to preparing yourself to be creative and reactive to an audience.  Your performance delivered value because of your rehearsals and your experiences, not because you had some quips on some slides.  As Kerouac said, “We know time,” meaning in this case, the beat of the music and the lyrics.  Jim
    (p.s. If you haven’t heard Ken Nordine, try him some time)
    • Nice observation (although too kind to me).  That fits into the jazz conversation about expertise of the improv team, their “knowing” one another.
  • … could also be like theatre sports. When that is done well it almost needs a reading of each others minds and for everyone to be in the zone.

    just my 2p.

    • Nigel that’s exactly what the musicians said.  They had this ability to pass off the ball from one to another, the flow was really seamless and seemed almost orchestrated.  It takes intense concentration and the space did become a zone. I asked them what it was like if a rookie entered and they did say that they had events where they played in different configurations, but it seemed their best gigs were with the team they felt they knew.  These guys had been together for decades by the way ….not something that happens in our work environments too often.
    • Thanks for tying the two pieces together.  Nice quote from Gail: “a community needs a structure the same way an ensemble of musicians needs to understand the chord changes on which they are basing their improvisations”.
      I’ve often thought of the correlation of abstraction to classic forms.  Even Picasso learned to realistically draw before he abstracted to a few brushstrokes.  That means that the disciplines, learnings, skills all needed to be really mastered before one can collapse it all down to something that might appear simple but actually is the product of years of training and a razor sharp plan.  Thought about that expertise at the Clapton concert, too.  Mastery and extreme focus: It’s what distinguishes premeditated genius.