Entries in heartnsoul (3)


On Collaboration #6: Mark Williams, Heart n Soul

Ahead of our next Group Think event in May (co-produced with the Barbican Centre), on the subject of collaboration, we've been talking to some of our friends, colleagues and clients about how collaboration fits into their lives and work. So we sent out a little questionnaire and, over the next few weeks, we'll be publishing what everyone told us.

Here's number 6, one of our clients, Mark Williams of Heart n Soul.

Who are you and what do you do?

I am Mark Williams and I am the Artistic Director of Heart n Soul. Heart n Soul are one of the UK's leading cultural producing organisations. We make spaces where people can feel safe, creative and free to express themselves and to learn. We work together with people with and without a learning disability.

Why do you collaborate?

The best kind of collaboration for us is one based on a shared sense of purpose, as open a brief as possible and as above the creation of a space where we can all feel safe, creative and free to express ourselves. We collaborate because we want to work with people who know more about certain stuff than we do! We want to learn more, be open to trying new approaches and ways of thinking and together create something far richer and more interesting than we could possibly achieve on our own.

Which collaboration tools do you like and why?

We are experimenting with google plus at the moment for a couple of creative projects and one major international collaborative piece. We like the way that google circles enable a more focussed, transparent and personal/private way of sharing information, photos, audio and film clips, commenting in a chronological way that means everyone involved can follow streams and comments. We are liking Posterous (blog site) as a way of sharing news, influences and milestones in a more public way and Soundcloud for music making and musical collaboration. We are working with ipads as a creative technology and collaboration tool and are loving the speed with which apps can provide accessible, creative and immediate results that can be easily seen across a range of digital channels. Apps we like at the moment are Madpad, Vidrhythm, Video Star, Animoog, ikaoscillator and Green Screen. We are excited about the new update of Garageband which has options for wifi real-time jamming sessions.

In a lateral way, we are enjoying the 'to the side' possibilities of Tumblr - a space where individuals on a project can share and reveal more personal creative sides to them than might be obvious in the main collaboration. By following each other and not being limited by the parameters of the collaboration it is possible to gain additional insights and perspectives around the collaborators which can inform the work together in different and interesting ways.

When does collaboration tend to work best?

When there is a clearly defined concept and lots of creative space to experiment and try things out, learn, improve and combine ideas to make something that did not exist before and that is enhanced by the extended and expanded range of voices and expertise that are shaping the final product.

What framework or rules do you need for successful collaboration?

The space is created by agreeing a set of boundaries and 'rules' that allow everyone to feel ok about trying things out, experimenting, failing and learning. It is important to identify key roles - for example - a concept facilitator who can help guide and inform the rest of the team. Roles and responsibilities are important but again should not be too 'rigid' - there should be plenty of room for left and right turns and clear and transparent ways of keeping in touch with the project (ie google plus) and enough time built in for the right people to meet together with some clear understanding of why they are meeting.

Briefly describe a collaboration you admire and tell us why you think it works.

Hate to blow our own trumpet... but the most exciting, ambitious and very live collaboration that I have ever been involved in has to be the current Dean Rodney Singers. Led by the vision of autisitc artist Dean Rodney, the aim is to explore and create spaces for online and real time collaboration to take place across 7 countries with a mix of 72 disabled and non-disabled band members who together are creating and enhancing 7 dimensions, 23 characters and pieces of music, narrative and dance moves and developing ways that the rest of the world can comment, play and add to the canon of work both online and in a 9 day installation at the South Bank over the summer (during the Paralympics).

It is working because it is coming from a place of everyone believing that it is a good thing to make happen (and that it will happen!); because there is a clear vision mixed with a large amount of not knowing exactly how we are going to realise it (genuinely innovative,creative, exciting and 'on the edge of a precipice' frightening). the people involved are low ego, highly creative, and have a lot of space to experiment in with a clear timeline and simple boundaries.

When has collaboration gone wrong for you?

Collaboration can go wrong when the framework is too creatively restricting and too tight to enable people to do what they do best. This can happen when there is too much direction from the top down and/or a 'box ticking' mentality applied so that a degree of tokenism and looking good in a funding application occurs with out any real authentic substance being allowed to come through.


What's the problem with collaboration? (Complete - and long!)

Over the past few days I've been posting some thoughts about the challenges of digital collaboration which are becoming apparent to me through the planning work I'm doing for Heart n Soul around their Dean Rodney Singers project. For those of you with a bit of stamina - or who simply like things in one place - here's that essay in full.

I am thinking a lot at the moment about practical solutions to get people creatively collaborating on projects. In particular I am trying to find a number of straightforward ways a whole bunch of people from seven different countries can make music with each other for the Dean Rodney Singers project I am working on with Heart n Soul.

As always, for me, trying to find solutions has mostly been about trying to better define the problems. Over the next few days I'll lay out a few of the ones I'm trying to get my hands around at the moment and point to some examples I think might shed some light on emerging solutions. Let's start with this:

Synchronising one's contribution with other people's

When we work together we often have to decide if it will be better to work at same time or work at different times, handing the object we are working on back and forth. If we are a band and the work is to make a song sound great when we all play it, the best approach might well be to spend time together. If I am composing a work with someone else it might be better for me to do my bit and hand it over.

A lot of digital collaboration happens asynchronously. When we email we are exchanging ideas over sequential time rather than parallel time. But many creative exchanges are richer, more serendipitous or branching when done synchronously. This often leads to better or unexpected results.

In the mid-2000s I used to dream - and bore a lot of people - about an idea I had about digital music making collaboration being more like improvisation than design. I envisaged people hooked up to their Xboxes with their multi-faceted controllers choosing sounds and playing them in real-time with other people across the world. And of course the whole thing would be captured in the form of the music played and a visual score. Well I saw this the other day: Plink by DinahMoe is clearly not quite what I had in mind, but it does start to grapple with a number of the challenges of people playing together, while apart.

How do you synchronise different particpants' inputs? How do you visualise the musical activity of each person playing? How do you limit the key, timbre and pulse to make the combined sound cohesive? And how do you do the opposite to all of the things I have just suggested if you find that particular musical experience is too on-rails, not free-form enough?

Even though it is easy to feel the limitations of the Plink experience I am just full of admiration that someone has given it a go. And I suspect that it is easier to build a proof of concept with all those experiential limitations in place and then remove them than the other way around. My hope is that their recent FWA award will send a signal to the development community that this is category of problem begging for more attention.

Getting material moving between software and devices

A real challenge for digital collaboration is how to make the materials accessible easily to the participants. Many projects get around this problem somewhat by using one bit of software that does it all. It may be that I can persuade everyone in a team to use Basecamp as a project management and co-ordination tool. And now that everyone is using it insist they only create stuff within its walls, to ensure that we can all get at everything.

But for my project just one tool is not going to work. I need the global band to feel they can use many music tools and be able to exchange and develop each other's work.

We've decided to use as many iPad apps as we like, in an unrestrained way. Right now if you make music on an iPad you'll know what a potential headache this might turn into. It is notoriously tricky to get sound from one app to another, let alone off the iPad itself and onto another machine.

Here I want to point to the work Soundcloud and Sonoma Wire Works are doing to make collaboration easier. Believe it or not Sonoma is bit by bit bringing audio copy and paste to the world of Apple devices. Essentially they are creating the bridge between applications so that now I can create a beat in one app and then paste it into another app to have effects put on it or make it part of a larger piece of work in a sequencer app.

But what about the bridge off of the device and into the rest of the world, where your fellow collaborators live? This is where Soundcloud apps come in. Because Soundcloud's built the way it is, it's reasonably straightforward to publish audio to Soundcloud from an app. And thank goodness for that, because if it wasn't possible it would be a very horrible process to get audio out involving cables and iTunes and a lot of shouting. That said, it's still very tricky to get sound from Soundcloud back into your iPad. These devices are going through a rapid evolution: starting as media consumption units, through to production tools, on to publishing tools... and yet still not quite yet the two-way open creative tool they need to become.

The balance between having a clear vision and a hazy set of outcomes

Both of these bits of iOS innovation are not the core development concern of either company, but they are providing the essential building blocks to creating a new approach to working with each other using digital tools.

Every creative project that involves drawing on the combined expressive force of a crowd is faced with a dilemma. How much control should the centre have? Is it best to know exactly what should be built by the group and issue clear instructions? Or is it best to see what emerges and adjust what we are aiming for as we go along?

For the efficiency of a project that takes the fewest blind alleys, central control looks seductive. But creativity is rarely efficient, it is very likely to be exploratory and by the end of the project the rules and processes that were designed at the start now look naïve or over-engineered.

My current hunch for the Dean Rodney Singers project is that spread betting and loose processes are going to be the best approach. By "spread betting" I mean using a wide range of apps and sharing platforms at the start and keeping a close eye on which ones are doing the best job and adjusting our efforts accordingly.

By "loose processes" I mean that I have designed a way that over the next eight months 72 people from seven countries will be able to make 25 new tracks with each other, but that those processes should be under constant review, and that we shouldn't feel bad accepting the failure of a process. In fact failure, observation and setting a new course I would call success.

In our project we've come to replace the idea of control with the idea of inspiration. We want Dean to drive the project through his vision, his musical ideas and his personality - not because he's the boss and has the blueprint.

Dealing with increasing project complexity through time

A major difficulty with using digital tools to create art of any kind is that as the art object becomes more layered or complex, the tools needed to change that object also become more complex - and less collaborative in their nature. Think how video and music as they become more finished or 'polished' end up living in big systems like Logic or Final Cut.

With the Dean Rodney project, everything starts open and exciting – everyone creating and pitching musical ideas to one another. Over six months, as we get closer to finished tracks, the tools that can handle all the combined musical materials created by the 72 members of the band become the more complex type. In this case I think Ableton Live would be the best and most flexible space. 

And here comes the big BUT – Ableton Live is a crushingly un-collaborative tool. This is where the loose processes kick in: in order to keep the whole six months open and exciting for the collaborating band we need to keep publishing each track out to Soundcloud in many work-in-progress versions. This will allow us to develop, comment, remix and call for new musical material, which can be drawn back into the next version. We have talked about this essential feedback loop, one which gives digital creativity its unique qualities, elsewhere.

So oddly the way to deal with complexity for me has been to not deal with it – rather to accept it but to ensure that the open and more playful processes that involve the most people can run in parallel all the way through.


The Heart n Soul of strategy

If you have ever been subjected to presentations of strategy, had your objectives set on the basis of a strategy or even been involved in creating one, you are likely to approach the subject with anything from mild unease to outright derision, depending on your temperament and experience. Certainly I've lived under poor or ill-thought out strategies - enough to make me quite interested in getting professionally involved in formulating better ones.

A tougher nut to crack is that good strategies also sometimes fail. A well-formulated strategy should be based on a holistic view of an organisation's customers or users, its context and competitive environment and of course its vision and purpose. Crucially it should also take into account the organisation's resources, processes and culture - understanding that these internal factors provide both constraints and opportunities for the execution of a strategy. Building those internal constraints into strategy helps avoid silly mistakes and ground strategies in reality.

But even such a holistic approach doesn't guarantee against failure. In truth, nothing does. A new strategy is a bit like a new car, losing thousands in value as soon as it leaves the showroom. This is true squared when it comes to a strategy that aims at the fast-moving target of digital media. Worse, people tend to treat their cars better than their strategies, which often end up in drawers, ready to glance reproachfully at their sheepish curators if disturbed.

We in Unthinkable spend a lot of time thinking about how to bridge that gap between sparkly strategy and messy reality. There are some less desirable ways of doing this:

  • Keep us coming back. Our advice was so good first time round, we've made ourselves indispensable. Great news for us, not so great for the client's budget.
  • Make sure that the key individual who understands this stuff and is able to bring the organisation with him/her doesn't get a job elsewhere. (If they understand this stuff, they are likely to have opportunities.)
  • Bake the strategy so deep into company processes and objectives that it hardens around the creativity of staff. Whatever you do, make sure that no one has the room for manoeuvre to depart from the strategy. 
  • Or do the opposite. Ditch the strategy and get on with the day job in the hopes that things will work themselves out through improvisation and instinct.

We think there is another way, and it is part of what makes us different as a consultancy. We have had enough experience in enough different workplaces to know quite how messy reality is. Which brings us to Heart n Soul. I've made no secret of the fact that Heart n Soul are one of our favourite clients (though of course we love them all). This is partly because of the brilliant work that Heart n Soul do, partly because of their intelligence and radicalism as individuals and partly because they are so extremely civil and pleasant to work with.

But it's also because there has been a meeting of minds on our work with them that has opened the space for us to develop new process and thinking in just this gap between theory and practice. When Heart n Soul commissioned a five-year communications strategy from us, we couldn't help thinking of that new car leaving the showroom, and the junkyard of casualties where many once shiny strategies in our lives have ended up. So we persuaded them to come with us on the journey of minting a new piece of process and documentation.

Now, I ought to acknowledge that a lot of thoughtful people are active in this area. At the more complex end of the picture, this bridging work is often termed service design and entails very detailed and formal analyses of what happens inside organisations, or between companies and their customers. Agencies like Engine and Fjord are establishing reputations in this area, and we certainly take an active interest in developments and see ourselves as part of this world. Indeed, we have been using the term "service design" to help describe our work on this website since we opened for business.

But we know that for many of our clients, a detailed, forensic and process-heavy approach to bridging strategy and reality just isn't feasible in terms of time, money or culture. So, for Heart n Soul we came up with a pragmatic, light-touch approach to the same problem. We called it a "strategic toolkit". It's a document that enshrines a set of actions and challenges designed to renew the strategy periodically at several levels, translate it into tangible short-term objectives and evaluate its success year to year. (The equivalent of a service plan for our car, but where the owner doesn't have to pay through the nose to the dealer to keep their vehicle on the road.)

We wanted to leave Heart n Soul with a tool that would be the nearest thing to having us and our difficult questions in the room with them, without making them dependent on having us back every year. And I'm confident they can make this work. It would be remiss not to admit that my confidence stems in part from my respect for the individuals in the organisation. But more importantly, there is a durable culture at Heart n Soul that we know will see it through many changes, despite the small size of the organisation.

One of the frustrations of the job for me at the moment is that we are all so busy with client work that we are moving more slowly than we would like in articulating changes and developments in our own service offering. Thus this post: if a lot of new thinking for our website and pitching process is still under wraps, at least I can lift up the corner of the paper.

And yes, I'm aware of the irony here. We talked when we launched last year about how we were now taking a more strategic approach as a company. That's true - and we are now increasingly determined to practise what we preach in the transmission of that strategy to our day-to-day reality. It's as if we have built our own car, driven it out of the showroom, provided ourselves with the tech spec and a set of monkey wrenches and... OK, please stop me now.