By Greg Roth

Collaboration and the Alchemy of Individuals

Team collaboration is a hot topic in business and leadership circles, for obvious reason. It’s the foundation of “workplace culture”, a sometimes ambiguous yet very real aspect of our professional lives. We can’t always define what culture is, but we know it when we see it. We feel it, good or bad. Even if it’s hard to measure or pin down, it’s there, everyday. Some organizations even hire someone to be in charge of it.

But, it’s not just for knowledge workers in cubicles or at tables in open office environments. Teams exist in every industry, and creative work, in all its forms, is a constant exercise in negotiation, both with new ideas and with the people all around those ideas. It’s an imperfect art getting a collection of individuals to bring their unique perspective and skill to a project, yet function, in some way, collectively as a coordinated, intentional entity.

Take, for example, rock bands.

Tucked away at the end of this American Songwriter profile of The National is a look into their creative process and how they attempt to engage and involve all five members of the band in creative dialogue. (Emphasis is mine).

With the National back in the studio together in Hudson without any immediate deadlines or time crunches, the band was able to experiment and create more freely, and more collaboratively, than they had in years.

Devendorf characterizes the band’s recording sessions as opportunities for each member of the band, “a five-headed monster,” as he puts it, to constantly give each other feedback and advice.

“There will be times when I think I’ve messed up a whole section on the drums and think it’s terrible, and Aaron will say, ‘That’s the best thing you’ve done on the whole record,’” says Bryan. “The band helps me see what’s working. Otherwise, I would just try to make things too complex.”

For their most recent sessions, Berninger introduced a few gags to help lighten the mood and foster directness. He instilled “Honesty Hour,” when the band would give unfiltered opinions about each other’s creative ideas. He also embroidered a knit cap with the word “Producer,” and whoever wore the literal “Producer’s Hat” would get to make production decisions at that moment. “Matt wore it a lot,” says Scott Devendorf. Indeed, Sleep Well Beast marks the first time Berninger receives an individual co-production credit on a National album.

Seven albums and 15-plus years into their career, the National are still finding ways to reinvent and fine-tune the way the band harnesses the talents of all of its individual members to write interesting songs and make lasting records.

“It’s kind of a cliché, but bands are all about the alchemy of individuals,” says Bryce Dessner. “There are fairly well-worn relationships that play out, and then we subtly challenge them. That’s part of keeping it interesting — we have to keep growing. How do you do that? Especially a band that becomes mildly successful, it’s easy to get overconfident. Part of it is that our self-deprecating personalities allow us to challenge ourselves. It’s like, ‘Actually, though, what we do is not that interesting, so let’s keep improving it.’” 

This is some straight-out-of-design-school thinking. Interestingly enough, all five members of the band met through the University of Cincinnati’s graphic design program in the early 90s.

Turns out, rock bands are just like companies. Some have of alot of turnover and end up being centered around 1 or 2 individuals. Others find a way to keep talented individuals together for years, offering them ways to explore and grow beyond job titles.