A fiddler, a mandolin player, and a guitarist meet in a corner of a small pub, exchange some words of greeting and begin to tune and warm up their instruments. After a minute of tentative plucking and a few short riffs, they erupt into performance, playing a complex tune at breakneck speed in nearly perfect synchronization. On the one hand, this is completely unremarkable: just a typical bluegrass jam between experienced musicians who have done this dozens or hundreds of times. On the other, it’s an extraordinary lesson in the kind of effective creative collaboration that has eluded modern business for decades.
Consider what’s going on here. These are three experts with very different creative skills, yet they’re communicating on the fly with total precision. They build on one another’s ideas and pursue a variety of approaches to a theme while trading off leadership and support roles. It’s exactly the sort of interaction large organizations spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to enable in their project teams, often without success. But even more remarkable is that these players have never performed together—or even met—until just now. What they’ve got that most companies don’t is a strong, clearly articulated shared culture, exemplified by a set of universal melodies called standards, some with roots going back centuries. Knowing these tunes is the cost of entry to a jam session, and while it might seem constrictive to build an entire musical genre around just a couple hundred songs, standards allow for incredible flexibility.
There’s a growing consensus in both business and design that creative collaboration isn’t just crucial to innovation but a prerequisite to a good customer experience. Publications talk at length about the need to get diverse employees to work together, but they haven’t reached agreement on how it actually happens. For every pundit suggesting constant communication, there’s another espousing the value of private time. Better collaboration might come from more frequent meetings or fewer meetings; from stronger leadership or greater freedom; from mutual support or constructive argument. The result has been an abundance of superficial, ineffective solutions. Companies send employees on team-building exercises to the local rock climbing gym, or trick out offices with foosball and ping-pong tables. But the real answer can be found in developing a corporate culture informed by a set of clear standards.
In bluegrass, the process of learning standards teaches basic information like terminology and structure, and pre-answers hundreds of complex questions about tempo, chord progression, and other matters of sound and style. The guitarist, fiddler, and mandolinist above are able to skip the preliminaries and jump straight into creative exploration, relying on their sophisticated shared understanding. All three of them know what it’s supposed to sound like, which frees them to explore what it could sound like.
So what does a non-musical entity, like a business, "sound like"?
Companies like Costco, Patagonia, and Virgin Atlantic are famous for the distinct, integrated brand experiences they offer, winning the loyalty of customers. But a firm that tries to emulate Costco’s business model, for example, or Virgin’s cheeky marketing tone, is missing the point entirely. It’s as if a classical guitarist tried to play bluegrass by donning a cowboy hat and re-tuning her guitar.
Costco is able to offer an integrated experience, largely because of the internal collaboration that its shared culture enables. Costco’s "standards" include its famous 14% rule (no product is marked up more than 14% over wholesale) and its whimsical pairings of high- and low-end products (Cartier watches alongside ten-pound bags of snack mix). For employees, learning about them teaches a clear set of values: deliver unparalleled quality to customer and always treat them fairly. Maintain a sense of humor and play. Fulfill emotional needs as well as pragmatic ones. This enables collaboration by getting preliminary questions out of the way. When everyone knows that fairness is paramount, it’s not a subject of debate. The chord progressions in Bill Monroe’s classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky" aren’t up for debate, either, and that lets our three musicians get on with the serious business of playing it well.
Patagonia’s standards include an embrace of solo outdoor sports and an unflinching dedication to environmentalism. To the customer, this manifests in the photography and copy in Patagonia’s ads, catalogs, and stores, and in unique initiatives like its "Buy Less" campaign on Black Friday, and the Common Threads program, aimed at helping customers buy and sell their used apparel. Bold actions like these set the brand apart, but implementing them depends on a lot of people agreeing on some risky ideas. When they’re bound by a shared culture, though, reaching that agreement is far more possible. This is more than just a mission statement. It’s a set of values that have been established so firmly for so long that they aren’t even a topic of discussion. They simply are.
Conversations go very differently in an organization that has defined its culture that well. The obstacles to smart collaboration—incongruous assumptions, excessive vagueness, endless pre-meetings to "get everyone on the same page"—tend to fall away once everyone shares a precise understanding of what they’re trying to achieve. They enjoy the luxury of having faith in one another’s motives and knowledge, which reduces wariness and streamlines communication.
For an organization that’s repeatedly failed in its attempts at more effective collaboration, it may be time to look more closely at why the company exists in the first place. What is it trying to achieve, beyond just making money? What do most employees already agree is valuable, beyond just getting the job done? What, in other words, does it sound like? And once some clear decisions have been made (and lesser alternatives abandoned), how is that culture communicated to every employee, every single day?
The difficulty, of course, is finding the courage to be that precise. Bluegrass arose because a handful of musicians in the 1940s adapted shared threads of traditional Appalachian music to fit a new style of playing. It was an act of creative leadership but also of close listening and deep familiarity—musical styles don’t form in a vacuum and neither does culture. Whether musical or organizational, shared culture cannot be invented and imposed.
It must first be learned, augmented, and distilled, and that takes a form of leadership that’s rare in large organizations. Corporate leaders tend to compare themselves to teachers, military commanders, or, yes, conductors. And they’re not wrong, but they are missing a crucial component. If creative collaboration is important to what a company does, then the leaders have to do more than lead. They also have to know how to play.