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  • Writer's pictureTodd Gentzel

Collaboration, Innovation and the Making of a Movement

It’s late on a Thursday afternoon in a cafe on Avenue de Clichy in Paris. A crowd has gathered around an easel listening intently as an artist elaborates on his technique and inspiration. The group is loud and boisterous, critiquing his work with the kind of good-natured brutality typically reserved for family and close friends.

Manet and the impressionists engaged in dialogue, critique and learning
A Studio in the Batignolles (Homage to Manet) by Henri Fantin-Latour

At the center of it all, a curly-haired gentleman with a full beard sits quietly with a walking stick in hand. He’s clearly revered by the others. His words carry weight, but he’s aware of the shadow he casts and makes a conscious effort to elevate the work and opinions of the others.

The group is abruptly brought to attention with a pair of quick taps to the floor. The man smiles, gestures to the crowd and inquires in a booming voice, ‘à qui le tour (whose turn is it)?’ And with that, the next artist takes his place at the easel, and it all begins again.

To be present at those raucous Thursday evenings at the Café Guerbois, was to witness Édouard Manet holding court with his fellow Bohemians. The attendees included the likes of Renoir, Degas, Monet, Latour, Cézanne and Pissarro. Far more than just a gathering of artists, this was the making of a movement.

Organizing for Constructive Collaboration

The Café Guerbois served an important role as a place of convening - a container of sorts for hosting the critical dialogues that would shape the ideas as well as the work of some of the century’s greatest artists. There was a purposefulness to it. The gatherings were curated, in as much as they were scheduled at regular intervals and attendance brought with it an expectation for active and constructive participation.

The artists came prepared to present and discuss their work. They shared their techniques as well as any learnings they believed might prove useful for the others. Nothing was off limits but one thing was certain, standing at the easel took courage.

Critique has for thousands of years been viewed as critical to the learning process and the furtherance of human progress. From the philosophers, architects and artists of the ancient world to their modern-day equivalents, critique has always been used as a means to explore and unlock untapped potential. Even still, it takes real mettle and self-reflectivity to have one’s work serve as the object of criticism, even if it has the potential to be a mechanism for learning or a catalyst for innovation.

The confidence required to engage with and learn from criticism has always been earned at the bench, not the board. The work happens mostly in solitude, the artist and their materials toiling away into the early hours of the morning. It’s work of the most challenging kind, requiring both a high level of mastery and an abiding commitment to continuous learning. The virtuous cycle of creating, convening and critiquing (learning) plays out repeatedly over time as part of an iterative process that improves the work while simultaneously building both competence and confidence among the participants.

We see in the Café Guerbois experience a self-reinforcing engine for learning that was giving rise to significant gains among the artists who were participating. Those in attendance were building on their own experience and the experience of others. There was a sense among them that something important was happening, and the proof was in the product. So what can we learn from this example?

In the organizational setting, cultivating a cycle of learning requires a commitment to constructive dialogue and critique that can run counter to the hyper-sensitive corporate cultures that have taken hold over the course of the past decade. Stifling critique in favor of arriving at superficial agreements is one of the greatest threats to innovation and continuous improvement facing organizations. Collaboration without critique is great for perpetuating the status quo, but leaves little room for individual or collective learning.

Building Trust as a Foundation for Collaborative Work

Creating an environment that supports productive collaboration prioritizes the cultivation of trust among participants. Shared risk creates the opportunity for shared learning. There is little room for tourism in high-performing collaborative environments. The expectation is that everyone takes their time at the easel and everyone constructively contributes to the shared learning of the group. The critique is focused on the work. It’s never personal and it’s always applicable to everyone.

It’s worth noting that there were people who were frequently present on those Thursday evenings at the Café Guerbois who weren’t artists. One of them was Edmond Duranty, one of Manet’s longtime friends. A novelist and art critic of growing renown, he was a champion of Realism before he became one of Impressionism's greatest advocates.

A painting by Edgar Degas of his close friend Edmond Duranty
Edmond Duranty by Edgar Degas

In February of 1870, Manet confronted Duranty about a recent review he had done on two of his paintings. The argument escalated and ultimately led to a challenge. And while duels were technically illegal in Paris, the two met the following morning in the forest of Saint-Germain. With swords in hand, they struck one another. Manet drew blood, a minor wound that was deemed sufficient to restore his honor. In the following weeks, their friendship was restored, things returned to normal and the two remained close throughout the remainder of their lives.

So what explains Manet’s response to Duranty’s criticism? After all, he and his fellow artists routinely engaged in critique. It was central to their process. Manet viewed Duranty’s public criticism of his work as a breach of trust. Unlike the mutual critique that happened routinely between artists, this was a public rebuke of the work that served no legitimate generative purpose. At least that’s how it was perceived.

There’s an important lesson in this incident. Collaboration works best in high-trust environments where there is confidence in the mutual value exchange between participants. Duranty was a part of the larger social circle, but he was not a part of the collaborative. His work was never in a position to be critiqued by the group and his efforts fell outside the bounds of the social contract that existed between the artists.

Creating an environment of trust is foundational for fostering continuous learning and improvement in collaborative environments. Membership demands contribution and boundaries must be managed to allow for external input, without stifling creativity and disrupting progress. As we consider how to maximize the value of our collaborative efforts in the organizational setting, we must cultivate the trust and respect required to yield the benefits associated with constructive critique and mutual learning.

Collaboration and the Importance of Curated Value Creation

There are many different types of collaboration, but the kind that transforms businesses and industries is unique. Just as the impressionists were focused on challenging convention, shaping the sensibilities of the public and redefining their discipline, transformative collaboration in business is focused on creating value through innovation, identifying and meeting latent or unmet consumer needs and disrupting established market and industry norms.

For the sake of discussion, let’s separate the routine use of collaborative tools for the purpose of enabling meetings and delivering projects from the more ambitious work associated with innovation and value creation. Let’s assume that every organization and industry possesses a significant measure of latent knowledge and untapped value that resides in the networked intelligence of its workforce. And let’s also acknowledge the extraordinary opportunity associated with a curated rather than managed approach to value creation in the enterprise.

So what’s the difference between curating and managing the creation of value? Curation is focused on organizing and maintaining, while management is focused on directing and supervising. At the Café Guerbois, Manet was clearly involved in curation. He organized and maintained the integrity of the gatherings. He established himself as a participant and modeled the constructive behaviors he expected from the others. The value was in the collective discovery and exploration of new ways of seeing and doing things, not in realizing the singular vision or ambition of one individual.

Heiftiz and Linsky, in their book Leadership on the Line, put it like this. ‘… there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.’

High-velocity business environments by way of their nature represent a unique challenge for most organizations. Traditional operating models and approaches to leadership were developed for the sake of maintaining stability and pursuing incremental improvement in relatively predictable business environments. As the pace of change has accelerated and the disruptive potential of new technologies has increased, the scale as well as the frequency of adaptive challenges has grown, and so has the need to revisit long-held assumptions about leadership, innovation and value creation.

Our greatest challenge is no longer our ability to effectively manage what we know, but to make sense of what we don’t know and how best to create value in dynamic environments with rapidly opening and closing windows of opportunity. We must learn to balance our efforts to realize the full measure of value associated with our existing assets and infrastructure with our ability to rapidly identify and respond to changes in the business environment.

The Groups, Nodes and Networks that Will Define Our Future

Embracing distributed sensemaking and problem-solving will always be key to maintaining the balance between stability and resilience. The people closest to the work are often those best positioned to identify changes in the operating environment and explore opportunities for meeting the evolving needs of customers (internal and external). We must find a way to organize and enable their efforts through improved models of collaboration and business execution. At scale, this requires a shift in mindset toward a more balanced approach to leadership that includes both curation and management. It also requires a commitment to developing the collaborative groups, nodes and networks necessary to navigate the velocity and complexity associated with modern operating environments.

At the most basic level, it’s important to identify the key opportunity landscapes that represent the greatest potential value or risk to the organization. The nature of the opportunities speaks to the focus and make-up of the groups that are required. It’s best to keep it simple in the beginning, with a handful of groups focused on the most significant areas of opportunity.

Over time the number of groups will increase, as will the level of sophistication of the work. Organic and facilitated collaboration between groups will form nodes of activity as the collaborative network takes shape across the enterprise. When the time is right, those tasked with curation can introduce emergence as a driver of potential value, working with individuals to identify opportunities, commission and curate groups and participate in the value-producing activity of a particular node within the network.

Curation at every level remains critically important, as the various groups and nodes are expected to surface opportunities and potential value-creating solutions. While at the network level, opportunities are assessed, projects are scoped, budgets are approved and work is commissioned in service of maximizing the value-creating capacity of the organization. This is where the balance between curated and managed collaboration is most obvious, where discovery and exploration give way to implementation. Success requires both, and the future belongs to those who can identify and act on opportunities quickly.

In future articles, we will discuss in greater detail the mechanics of transitioning to a more productive collaboration environment, the technologies associated with developing and curating collaboration networks and the unique opportunity associated with leveraging this work as a means to achieve scaled transformation.

Authors note: The Café Guerbois and the Impressionists were used as an illustration of collaborative work that had a scaled impact on their time and culture, but there are many other examples we could have used including Picasso and Gaudí at Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona, The Algonquin Round Table in New York, Tolkien, Lewis and the other Inklings at the Eagle and Child in Oxfordshire and the Beat Poets at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco. There are dozens of examples, of this kind of collaboration and the importance of the create, convene critique cycle of learning.

Todd Gentzel is a Partner at BigBend Co. and an expert in strategic foresight, design futures and product development. He’s been a senior leader in agencies, consulting firms and client-side organizations in the healthcare, energy and aviation sectors, and holds the Oxford University | HEC Paris Masters of Science in Consulting for Change.

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