Tag Archives: The Collaborative Habit

About those “Right People on the Bus” – Thoughts on Talent, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Triumph of the “Lesser Names”

As a choreographer, my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day.

Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative HabitLife Lessons for Working Together


It’s a broken record.  Everybody knows it.  If you have the wrong people in your organization, on your team, you are in trouble.  You will not accomplish your goals.  You will not take your organization to the next level.  And I’ve read the books; I’ve quoted the findings, the recommendations.  They all make sense.

Getting the right talent is everything.  “Do you have the right people on the bus?” goes the mantra-like question.


Well, let me put it simply – until you get the perfect person to fill that all-important seat on your bus, that all-important slot on your team, there is a better, more realistic solution, and Twyla Tharp gives us the insight:

my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

Twyla Tharp has worked with the very best (Billy Joel and his music; the music of Frank Sinatra; the dancing of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a plethora of others), but she also has worked with many, many dancers who may not reach such heights in the reputation, or talent, department that these superstars represent.  So, what does she do?  She still churns out terrific work, because she views her task as this:

to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

Consider the lowly, seemingly lesser names of the Dallas Mavericks.  OK, Dirk Nowitzki is a “superstar,” but his surrounding cast, the other members of the team? – Coach Rick Carlisle simply made the best possible work with the dancers he found in the room on this given day (in this season).  And, lo and behold, they rose to the occasion, and they won it all.  And, by the way, those lesser names – JET (Jason Terry), J. J. Barea, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, the practically ancient Jason Kidd, and the entire team– they’re not so lesser anymore!

So, fantasize about that perfect team all you want to (while your team fantasizes about that perfect team leader!).  But take a look around you.  There are people with talent – great untapped talent – ready to go to work.  Work with these people.  They are the ones in the room on this given day.  Work with them to do the best this group can do on this day.

Yes, it might be hard work to make this happen.  “The best possible work” is never easy.  But, give it your best shot with the people on your team now.

You might be surprised!

Natalie Portman Reminds Us Well – There Are No Little People

Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made.  Or, to be more precise, built, one day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment – and, most of all, through habit…  Like creativity, collaboration is a habit – and one I encourage you to develop.
Collaboration guarantees change because it makes us accommodate the reality of our partners – and accept all the ways they’re not like us.  And those differences are important.  The more we can draw upon our partner’s strengths and avoid approving our partner’s weaknesses, the better the partnership will be.
You need a challenging partner.  In a good collaboration, differences between partners mean that one plus one will always equal more than two.
Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together

With God, there are no little people.
Francis Schaeffer

Here’s a snippet of a scene from Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s first television series (Sorkin won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay last night for The Social Network. You can read the script of this Sports Night episode, The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee,  here). Casey McCall, one of the two fictional Sports Night co-hosts, had appeared on The View in the episode.  A big deal had been made about the color of his tie by the women on The View.    Monica (played by Janel Moloney) came to see him…


Excuse me, Mr. McCall?


I’m sorry, is this a bad time?

For what?

I’d like to ask you a question, but if you’re preparing the show, if this is a bad time, I can come back.

What’s your question?

What’s my name?

(BEAT) What’s your name?


What are we doing right now?

If this is a bad time —

I’m sorry, I’m not very good at remembering names.

Who was the number two man on the Boston Red Sox staff in 1977?

It was Ferguson Jenkins.

My name’s Monica. I’m the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Sports Night as well as two other shows here at CSC. I think you hurt the feelings of the woman I work for. Her name is Maureen and she’s been working here since the day you started.

I know Maureen.

Can I ask you another question?

I’m sorry I didn’t know your name.

(HOLDING UP A NECKTIE) Do you know what color this is?

It’s grey.

It’s called gun metal. Grey has more ivory in it, gun metal has more blue. Can you tell me which of these shirts you should wear it with?

I don’t know.

You’re not supposed to know what shirt goes with what suit or how a color in a necktie can pick up your eyes. You’re not expected to know what’s going to clash with what Dan’s wearing or what pattern’s gonna bleed when Dave changes the lighting. Mr. McCall, you get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do, and all of it’s deserved. When you go on a talk-show and get complimented on something you didn’t, how hard would it be to say “That’s not me. That’s a woman named Maureen who’s been working for us since the first day. It’s Maureen who dresses me every night, and without Maureen, I wouldn’t know gun metal from a hole in the ground.” Do you have an idea what it would’ve meant to her? Do you have any idea how many times she would’ve played that tape for her husband and her kids?


Let’s start with the obvious.  The Academy Awards gives out Oscars for a number of different categories – all of which point to the obvious truth there is no such thing as a good movie that is not a team project – a true collaborative product.  It takes a lot of people working together, with great and diverse skills, to make an Oscar-worthy movie.  So there is no best actor, best director, best actress, without a really good cinematographer, or screen writer, or make-up artist, or, composer, or…you get the idea.  And the Oscar telecast is filled with such reminders, as every winner thanks people who helped him or her win this coveted award.

But, within each category there is excellence all the way down to the smallest behind-the-scenes bit-part.  And it was this truth that Natalie Portman so eloquently stated.  Even though one winner (Randy Newman) reminded the audience that reading off a list of names is “not good television,” Portman’s list reminded us that people — real people, behind every name in such a list of “thank-yous” —  are the reason a movie is made well to begin with.

Ms. Portman thanked many people, but near the end of her acceptance speech, she added this (from transcript, here):

And also there are people on films who no one ever talks about that are your heart and soul every day. Margie and Geordie who did my hair and makeup, Nicci, who dressed me, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who designed the beautiful ballet costumes, Joe Reidy, our incredible AD, first AD, and our camera operators J.C. and Steve who gave me so much soul behind the camera everyday, you gave me all of your energy.

Here is the business lesson (and yes, movies are big business).  It takes a team — a diverse team, made up of people with a life-time of carefully honed skills (the 10,000 hour rule!) to make a world-class movie.  Collaboration, with gifted, skilled, trained, people, at every level of the organization, produces excellence – even magic.  And shoddiness, anywhere on the team, can lower the quality all the way through the endeavor.

And for every leader (or, those with “leading roles”), take a lesson from Natalie Portman.  Don’t forget to include, and thank, the “little people.”

If Stephen Sondheim Needed Help, You Probably Will To – Twyla Tharp On Collaboration

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

Something convulsive,
Something repulsive,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something aesthetic,
Something frenetic,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

(A Comedy Tonight, from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)


It may not take long to make a really big difference.

A consultant who is the right consultant is worth everything.

Collaboration really does matter.

These are my thoughts as I think of the opening story in the book The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp.  The year was 1962.  If you know Broadway at all, you know the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  When it was in its pre-Broadway run, it was not going well.  The audiences were not warming up to the play.  They had a sure-fire disaster on their hands.

So Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince (Let me say that again:  Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince had a disaster on their hands – that ought to tell us something!) called in a consultant.  Admittedly, this was a world-class consultant:  Jerome Robbins.  He had just won his Oscar for West Side Story, and was a legend in every sense of the word.  Here is Tharp’s account:

No one was laughing.  Not Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics.  Not veteran director George Abbott.  Certainly not producer Hal Prince and the play’s backers.  And, most important of all, not the audience.  (They were) fleeing the theater.

When a show has script trouble, it’s common for the producers to bring in a “play doctor.”  In business, he’d be called a consultant.  I’d call him a collaborator – someone who works with others to solve a problem.

Jerome Robbins watched a performance – and by intermission, not only had he analyzed the problem, he had a solution.  Jerome Robbins offered simple, commonsense advice:  “It’s a comedy.  Tell them that.”

Sondheim quickly wrote an opening number called “Comedy Tonight” – “Something convulsive,/Something repulsive/Something for everyone:  a comedy tonight!” – and once ticket buyers knew what they were supposed to do, they laughed.  The New York reviews were cheers for an “uninhibited romp.”

The rest, as they say, is history.  954 performances, a hit movie followed.  In other words, a consultation/collaboration that was a complete success.

Here is the lesson.  “We are smarter than me.”  Find the right “we.”  Listen to advice – and implement solutions quickly.

And never think you know enough without the wisdom of others.  If Stephen Sondheim needed help, there’s a good chance you will too.

The Stupidity of Crowds ( a reflection)

"A person is smart. People are stupid." (Kay)

Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.
Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb.
(Will Smith & Tommy Lee Jones — Men in Black)


I’m a  big fan of James Suroweicki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.  I really like Wikinomics:  How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott, and The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp.  I believe that “we” know more, and can accomplish more, than any “me.”

But… there is another side to this equation.  Call it “The Stupidity of Crowds.”

I keep thinking about this as I ponder the oil-rig disaster, and the Wall Street meltdown.  I already quoted a portion of this section from The Big Short by Michael Lewis in a recent blog post, but, to refresh our memory (with a little more of the quote this time – note:  Danny and Vinny were colleagues of Steve Eisman, one of the main characters in the book):

This is a fictitious Ponzi schmene.  In Vegas the question lingering at the back of their minds ceased to be Do these bond market people know something we do not.  It was replaced by, Do they deserve merely to be fired, or should they be put in jail? Are they delusional, or do they know what they’re doing? Danny thought that the vest majority of the people in the industry were blinded by their interests and failed to see the risks that had created.  Vinny, always darker, said, “There were more morons than crooks, but the crooks were higher up.”

This has been called by many names: Groupthink, The Herd Mentality — but here’s what I think.  When everyone says “this is true – this is what you can count on,” it takes a lot of courage – a whole lot of courage! – to say to the crowd: “are you crazy?”

For one reason, the crowd may be right.  So, in labeling the crowd stupid, you may be wrong.  For another, even if the crowd is wrong, and stupid in their wrongness, it may cost you your reputation, your social standing, your friendships to stand up against the crowd.

But when the stupidity of crowds actually does the people in the crowd harm, it really, really is time for the courageous few with sight and insight to stand up and say – ENOUGH!

Unfortunately, we usually only hear about the few who say no after the fact (like the Burry and Eisman stories in The Big Short).  During the actual madness, no one is listening to them – the noise of the crowd vastly outweighs and drowns out the courage of the few.

And so, sadly, all too often, we are at the mercy of the stupidity of crowds.  Not a good place to be.

“We” Are Better Than “Me” – Wisdom From Twyla Tharp’s The Collaborative Habit

Collaboration is the buzzword of this new millennium.  For some of us, it’s a superior way of working; for almost all of us, it’s inevitable.

I’ve just finished reading The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp.  (I’m presenting a synopsis of this book at Take Your Brain to Lunch, this week in Dallas).  It is a good book.  Not as good as her earlier book, The Creative Habit – one of my all-time favorite books.  But still, a good book.  And it is an absolutely wonderful collection of stories.

Tharp & Baryshnikov

She tells, throughout the book, of her collaborations with dancers, company directors, and artists from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel to Mikhail Baryshnikov…  But there are plenty of non-dance stories sprinkled through the book.  Her premise is simple, and concurs with the overall wisdom from books such as The Wisdom of Crowds and Wikinomics.  Here it is:

We are greater than me.

And, as fads and approaches and changes come and go, and get refined, and are jettisoned, there is a deep need to focus on the wisdom and the efforts of us over the wisdom and effort of me.  In other words, collaboration is not a fad – it is a lasting necessity.

Here are a couple of quotes:

We are a culture that consumes and discards in almost one motion.  Just think of the bright ideas for more efficient and humane ways of working that have come and gone in the last few decades…


Reality’s tutorials can be harsh.  You can run your life “my way,” struggling alone, or “our way,” struggling to make a group effort work.

Here’s a simple question, asked in different ways:

Do you play well with others?
Are you a good, effective, team player?
Do you collaborate well?

If the answer is no, it’s time to learn!  Collaboration is the name of the new game in town, and those who don’t learn to do this well will get left behind.