'I stood on the sidelines, watching, waiting. The garden party, fuelled with wine and snacks of French fruit and cheese, buzzed along in a typically genteel manner, till finally we hit our tipping point. Out came the daff and Sherwan struck up the call to party. The orchestra coagulated into its familiar ring of dance. Within moments, the French reacted by joining in with uninhibited gusto; no sitting on the sidelines for them. I breathed deeply, relieved that our young guests had some Gallic spunk in them. It was looking good.'
'The beat kicked in and Orchestre Francais des Jeunes locked itself scarily into co-ordinated blocks of 70s disco steps. But they were happy. Mine were not. Across the hall I could see some of them hacking into the conference laptop with their own USB sticks, and as if by magic, up started the Iraqi pop music. Squares broke down helplessly into whooping circles, with selfies being flashed through the irresistible mayhem.'
From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin
Most of us would accept that making time for informality within our lives and work is important. It is during this time that we get to know the people behind their labels and begin to peel away the stereotypical veneers we have unthinkingly pasted upon them.
Collaborative projects are no exception. Indeed, creating time for informality between partners from different organisations, communities and societies, etc., is not merely important: it is essential to collaborative success. To work well together partners need to move beyond making assumptions about what each other does, thinks and feels towards exploring what each other does, thinks and feels (and they need a safe informal space within which to start doing this).
The above quotations not only demonstrate how important it is to make time for informality but also illustrate how informal time can be exploited to a collaboration's advantage without unduly manipulating the individuals involved.
They clearly describe an 'informality tipping point': a point during an informal gathering when the spontaneity and closeness between people rapidly increases, so offering the opportunity (if this increase is sustained) for gaining an enhanced understanding between individuals and (eventually) an accurate appreciation of what each person can do and offer.
The quotations also identify the way in which this 'informality tipping point' can be encouraged and usefully exploited. There are five things which need to be done:
- Create an informal and friendly atmosphere which is safe, comfortable and enjoyable.
- Watch and observe what is going on. Be patient, and be prepared to wait. Take time to notice the changing emotional and group dynamics.
- Encourage or introduce some kind of catalyst which will move you toward and over the informality tipping point. (In the first quotation the catalyst was the introduction of the Daff and the 'call to party'. In the second quotation it was the hacking of the conference laptop with Iraqi pop music.)
- Notice the changes which occur between people when the tipping point has been passed. What specifically are people saying and doing differently? You will be able to use the look and feel of these things as a benchmark for assessing the quality of relationships between people as the collaboration progresses. (In the second quotation passing the tipping point was marked by dancing squares turning into whooping circles and the taking of selfies.)
- Keep a record of the moment when the tipping point was reached and passed. Encourage those involved to take pictures and record videos. (As the second quotation shows, people are likely to do this without encouragement by taking selfies, etc.) Keeping a visual record and sharing and revisiting it during the life of a collaboration will remind people of the spontaneity and closeness that is possible between them (and encourage them to maintain or regain it).
The passing of informality tipping points will not always be so clear, exaggerated or obvious as in the example described by Paul. Their exact manifestation will depend on the people involved and their shared context. However, a tipping point will appear and be passed if you make time for informality and are observant -- and willing to risk a catalyst or two!
And be sure to get some pictures of it happening.