Learning to Lead Collective Creativity, Part IV: Leading Distributed Groups

Posted April 8, 2021 in Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies
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The examples of leading collective creativity that we offered in the first three parts of this Advisor series (“Learning to Lead Collective Creativity from Miles Davis,” “Learning to Lead Collective Creativity, Part II: Leading So That No One Is Following,” and “Learning to Lead Collective Creativity, Part III: Entrepreneurial Leadership”) assumed the possibility for close physical proximity, a condition made rare by our current time of pandemic. Jazz legend Miles Davis, for example, performed leadership through the felt energy of his physical presence and attention, as he walked among his collaborators on stage. Members of the Guarneri String Quartet, seated closely together, shared in leadership collectively and spontaneously as they explored new ideas together, adapting to one another’s contributions in the space of a breath and in perfect time. Entrepreneurial leadership means becoming open to affecting and being affected by others, making possible experiences of inspiration, passion, surprise, and play that may be hard to imagine doing over Zoom.

We might resign ourselves to the belief that pursuit of these experiences must be put on hold. But I’d like to offer another possibility. Taking an example again from the musical realm, let’s feel ourselves encouraged by how collective creativity can be made possible when organized by technology across a distance.

In 2009, four string quartets gathered in the UK to perform a new 35-minute piece of music composed by Sir John Tavener called “Towards Silence.” The composition asked these four quartets (16 musicians in all) to perform as one integrated ensemble. To produce the intended effect of four quartets conversing with one another from four corners of an open space while the audience sat in their midst, the composition also directed each quartet to sit at a physical distance from the others, often out of the range of sight and sometimes out of hearing. Furthermore, concerts were scheduled in four dramatically different venues, ranging from a staircase to a cathedral, so the musicians had to adapt to different configurations, with as little as a few hours of preparation each time.

Their aspiration in this project was the same as with any “usual” piece of quartet music — to perform as a unified ensemble, perfectly in time with one another yet with a conversational spontaneity that made each performance unique. But, in their experiences, achieving that aspiration relied on close physical proximity, by which a host of visual, aural, and otherwise embodied cues allowed members to be completely attuned to one another’s every act — sometimes even to anticipate one another’s next act before it happened. What could they do at a distance?

As the quartets performing “Towards Silence” struggled to find this out, I had the fortune to observe and to talk to them. Here, briefly, are some things that I learned related to leadership:

  • Allow time for a distributed group to integrate new technology into their work practice, then encourage them to relate to that technology improvisationally. The quartets at first railed against adopting a coordinating technology called a “click-track.” They deemed it an enemy to art, because it took their attention away from creative activities like conversing with one another and introducing new ideas. They quickly discovered, however, that without the help of the click-track they were spending all of their energy inventing other strategies to coordinate their contributions, causing them to miss out on creative activities anyway. Once they accepted the click-track as the best way to ensure they could play together in perfect time (and thereby hear one another’s contributions), they were able to eventually experience it as an “inner pulse” that became almost subliminal to their work. With coordination reliably addressed, they became free to direct their attention to conversing and building on one another’s ideas and to improvise in relation to the pulse of the click-track rather than being confined by it.

  • Give permission for leadership “duets” to emerge spontaneously. Ideally, quartet musicians would listen to and incorporate input from every other member of the group continuously, sharing leadership dynamically as they did so. When that became impossible, given distance and an increase in group size, they found alternative ways to converse and share leadership with whomever was within range. In one configuration, this meant the first violinists of each of the four quartets shared leadership across an expansive ballroom through physical cues, while their own quartet members could not see many others outside their own group. In another configuration, the cellists conversed across quartets, while simultaneously attuning themselves to their own immediate group of four. The second violinist from one quartet began dueting with the viola player from another quartet, simply because he was the one person outside her own quartet whom she could see and hear from her position on the second landing of a staircase. Participants continued to explore new combinations for “dueting,” as their configurations changed by venue, giving them the chance to take inspiration from new sources and remain active in sharing leadership with one another. They did not need to ask permission to do so.

  • Organize, when possible, episodes of close physical proximity. As the quartets strove to organize their work in different spatially distributed configurations, they periodically made time to gather in a close circle to listen to everyone’s ideas and input and to reinforce their collective purpose. In this format, participants felt better able to contribute freely to the conversation as equals.

  • Give the group the power to decide the best configuration for producing desired results. After integrating the click-track technology into their practice in ways that allowed for improvisational play and developing the capability to “duet” with whomever was within range (even if that meant a different person each time), the musicians gained another new competency: the ability to adapt more and more quickly to different distributed configurations. It took them longer to organize themselves in the first venue than it did in the fourth. They became more efficient, but also more daring in how they sought to use the space — spreading themselves even further apart than producers requested, in order to produce the best aural experience for the audience. They were energized by their innovations. But in the last concert venue, filming the project necessitated that the quartets suddenly sit close together on a shared stage. No longer endowed with the autonomy to use their expertise in making the best possible concert configuration for the space, participant motivation tanked. Musician after musician expressed frustration, even apathy, and disillusionment with the project, a complete reversal of the enthusiasm and engagement I had witnessed up to that point.

This experiment in spatially distributed concerts may not reach the level of distribution your group is adapting to — musicians were still in the same building, sharing the same air. But it does give us reason to believe that an experience of collective creativity is not entirely bound by close physical proximity as these experts once believed. For a while now, technology has made it possible for us to engage in simultaneous interaction at a distance; the pandemic has sped our adoption of technologies to create digital spaces of “togetherness.” We now have the opportunity to invent ways of leading collaborative creativity at a distance that can involve becoming open to and affected by others and experiencing play. These elite musicians gave us some indications of ways to do so. We get to keep advancing the answer to the question through our own experiments: What can we do at a distance?

About The Author
Shannon Hessel
Shannon (O’Donnell) Hessel is a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies practice and a member of Arthur D. Little’s AMP open consulting network. She is an External Lecturer (formerly Associate Professor) at Copenhagen Business School, PhD, and entrepreneur. Her research focuses on collaborative creativity, innovation management, and the role of aesthetics and arts-based practices in processes… Read More