Collaboration Welcome

Grant McCracken posted an interesting question regarding the television series that are found on USA Network. These are shows like Burn Notice, In Plain Sight, Royal Pains, White Collar, Psych and Monk. USA Network's tag line is "Character's Welcome." McCracken writes,

See a pattern?  It is most clear in the case of the first three shows(Burn Notice, Royal Pains & White Collar).  A man riding high is brought low.  He now survives by dint of his wits and only because he relies on people he never relied on before.  This man is now thoroughly enmeshed in a small group of friends and relatives. Without them he is nothing. 

Interesting observation. He follows with ...

Explain, please, why this new pattern is so much in evidence in these USA Network shows.  

What is happening in American culture that might help explain this new vision of our masculinity?  After all, American culture has long been home to a notion of the unconstrained, rogue male.  Consider all those tradtional TV heroes and movie stars, men who answered to no one.  Why a new pattern? Why an enmeshed male?  

Here's my response.

We are living in an age where what use to be specialized professional services are now being commoditized. (I introduced this idea recently here and here.) Today, I can go online and buy the forms to incorporate my business, do my taxes, and diagnose my child’s illness symptoms. Until women became a significant presence in the marketplace, men could be the professional individualist, not needing anyone, but the quasi-serf assistant to be a success (See Mad Men.). Technology has become the great leveler of the professional class. And the entrance of women in large numbers into the professional marketplace has raised the quality, standards and competitive intensity of the world of the professional service provider. Technology only intensifies this trend even more.

As quickly as we moved from the industrial era to the information age, even more quickly have we moved to the collaboration age.

Real value is not in an individual's knowledge. Expert help is also being commoditized. Real value comes in aggregated knowledge derived from networks.  The value of these networks is not even based on the individual people that I know. Everyone is now connected to everyone else. Everyone can be six degrees of separation from any one person on the planet. That kind of networking is easy with the aid of an internet connection.

The real distinctive difference now is the ability to marshal the value of participation in a network. Developing a network of networks is the next level skill for the collaboration age. It isn't who I know that matters. It is who I'm collaborating with in these various networks that does matter.

The collaboration keys are participation in and contribution to a widely diverse, dispersed set of networks that provide me the widest possible exposure to new ideas and people for making a difference.

For example.

Just this afternoon, I participated in a Skype conference call with people from the US, England, Canada, Pakistan and India. For two hours we discussed a wide range of topics, offering support and advice on various projects that we are in.

Another example.

In preparation for a webinar for a client on leadership and morale in the workplace, I asked in one of the Ning networks that I’m in about the issue of morale. Over the course of 12 days, over 130 responses came from 36 people in 11 countries on four continents. The substance and perspective was so good that we took the conversation and turned it into an ebook. Here’s the link. Its free. Managing Morale in a time of change: ATriiibes discussion ebook. This collection of people represented a wide variety of networks whose influence through each participant created a product of unique value.

I see this kind of collaboration mirrored in these USA series. I watch them all because I like the characters' interaction in the context of the story. It is also why CSI, NCSI, & Bones, as forensic science series, are also such hits. They are shows based on collaborative relationships in the work place. The leader of the team is not usually the expert who provides the catalytic influence to their success. In fact, what the leader does is provide a gathering point for the real talent to find a unified expression. In this sense the leader isn’t the star, the expert, the individualist, but rather the facilitator of the collaborative efforts of the team. 

In addition, each of these shows demonstrates the reality that the line between our personal lives and our work lives is thinning. The way to find balance between them is in creating a higher level of collaboration in both sides of our lives.

The business leadership lesson here is that people who are able to forge collaborative relationships across network boundaries will be the most influential people in the future. As professional services becomes more commoditized, the differentiating factor is the ability to draw upon people from a wide collection of networks to provide a level of service that our parents and grandparents would not recognize or provide.

This is a paradigm shift of dramatic scope. It isn't simply learning to relate better to people. It is rather the beginnings of a fundamental shift in the ways organizations are designed and lead.

How to fix "Heroes"

The NYTimes has an article today about some staff changes in the NBC show Heroes.
Heroes is a show about average people who discover they have superpowers. The first season was great because it stayed with a simple theme of these average people learning to deal with their super powers. The second season got off track with some lame story about a virus, and season three which started well has also become a bit confused by too much emphasis on good guys and bad guys, criminal conspiracies, etc.

I love the show and believe that there is a simple fix to the story line. And if you are a NBC exec, or know one, pass this little bit of advice along to them, please.

There are two reasons why Heroes is interesting.

1. The characters are average people with a single super power. They are not Superman who can do anything, but average people who can do one thing remarkable well.

2. The dilemma for each of them is what is the meaning of their super power. Their super power is limited. As a result, they need other people to make a difference.  They all have identity issues. Don't we all.

How to fix the story.  The current theme of a sinister mafioso like don who steals super powers is complicated by the characters trying to figure out whether their power is to be used for good or evil.

So to fix the story, make the line between the good guys and the bad ones clear. Bad things can happen with one simple action. Good things take time to create, to mature and consolidate into something simple.

Therefore create a new story line that is clear that where the "good guys" collaborate on how they are going to save the world.

We live in a time where people are looking for hope for the future. All of us feel inadequate to make the level of difference that we want to make, so we need other people to do it. We all have talent, some developed, some hidden.

The characters of Heroes are like us, or we are them, needing to do the same thing.  They need to build the story line around the cheerleader, Claire, becoming the leader who brings all the characters together to collaborate on saving the world.The original tag line - Save the Cheerleader - Save the World - has been lost in Claire's trying "to fine herself" and the ambiguities of her family life.

In so doing, we gain a vision of future community collaboration, you have a good vs. evil story line, and you see how talented, common, everyday people needing other people to be successful at a higher level than their talent will allow. We do need each other. And the show is the perfect platform for showing this. Done well, and I believe the audience will return.

This is the genius I see in Heroes, and the pathway to how to fix the story.  Pass this along if you know someone at NBC.

Heroes - A tale for us

The third season of Heroes has begun. It is not just "must-see TV."  It is a compelling story for our time.  It is Heroes impossible to tell you everything you need to know about Heroes. It is enough for you to know that this is a story about people like you and me who discover that they have an extraordinary power. Each one has a different power or sometimes more than one.

The power could be to hear and control peoples' thoughts.  Or the power to heal, even from the most horrible of injuries.  It could be the power talk to machines or to stop time or fly. The powers are individual and special.

Even into the third season, the whole point of the story has not been revealed. We know some people want to do good, others evil. We know some people want to get rid of their power, and others to acquire more. We know that there is a company that is at the heart of the story. We know that it has to do with genetic engineering.

The story is compelling because it shows humanity to be a collection of talented people who require other talented people to be complete. We are all individuals with individual talent and abilities.  And many of those strengths are hidden from us because we've never encountered situations where we could use them.  We live safe, secure, comfortable lives. As a result, we never truly learn what we are capable of doing.

The story is a great lesson about leadership and team work. It shows how important clarity of communication and collaboration are to achieve good things. It also show how easy it is for one bad person to wreck all sorts of destruction.

You can watch the first three episodes of Heroes at or at HULU. I highly recommend the show.

Quick Takes: the help of a guardian angel

We live in a time where visual images become our reference point for understanding who we are and the time we live in. It was this thought that hit me as I read Grant McCracken's post on two new TV shows - In Plain Sight and The Cleaner - that feature a guardian angel motif.

In Plain Sight stars Mary McCormack as a U.S. Federal Marshal who helps relocate witnesses and then care for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often.  She is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel.

The Cleaner stars Benjamin Bratt as a ex-drug addict who comes to the rescue of people in need,  and then cares for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often.  He is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel. 

We are drawn to the idea of angelic intervention.  But of course TV has too much integrity to go for celestial trumpets, fluffy wings, smiling cherubim.  No, televisual angels come in street clothing and street cred.  Our angels are troubled, this is meant to make them troubling, and this is meant to turn TV into art. 

I don't get to watch much TV. So, I haven't seen either these shows, but I plan to catch up on them at their websites. I understand the idea behind the shows. I understand the connection of a stranger caring for another stranger. I understand being a guardian angel. It is to a large extent a factor in my work as a consultant.

I am a fan of the George Clooney film, Michael Clayton. I am because as I watched it for the first time, I realized that in my work as a consultant, that I'm a fixer. There is a guardian angel aspect to his role in the law practice.  He cares for people in trouble.

The guardian angel / fixer theme is a well used theme in film and television. There was the angel in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Michael Landon was an angel in Highway to Heaven, as was Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel and David Boreanaz' vampire Angel.

What explains this character device? 

Two thoughts:
1. In spite of  "rugged individualism" as central theme in our culture, the theme of helpfulness is also present.  We see it in the image of the Boy Scout helping the elderly woman across the street. We see in people who take in stranded travelers, abandoned children and stray dogs.  I certainly see it in the out-pouring of help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. 

A guardian angel is a helper, a servant. For almost a half century, the idea of servant leadership has gained increasing prominence. 

So, along with this independent streak is this helpful, servant one that provides a sufficient level of dramatic tension to make stories interesting.

2. I'd like to think that there are some producers, script writers and film companies who also see that there has been a diminishment of the ethic of service in public life.  Watch enough TV, and you can't help but be carried away with not just egotism run rampant, but actually sort of the reverse of my first comment. Instead of public life being filled with rugged individualists who are exemplars of servant leadership. We have celebrity figures who have an entourage that follows them everywhere, doing for them what they can't do for themselves. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite films, The Emperor's Club with Kevin Kine. In it, Kline a classics professor at a New England prep school, instructs his students about ancient values. Over the door of his class is a plaque commemorating the exploits of Shutruk Nahunte. The plaque reads:

I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my God, Inshushinak. Shutruk Nahunte - 1158 B.C.

Kline admonishes his class that Nahunte is a forgotten leader because he he was simply ambitious. The the theme of the film as well as of his classs, Kline tells them, "great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance."

Whether the character in In Plain Sight or The Cleaner are ones who will become significant is unknown.  What is known is that legacy is tied to service.  As Waite Philips said, "The only things we keep permantly are those we give away."