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What can pop teach us about collaboration?

Exploitation, punishing schedules and some massive egos. Pop music and the NHS have more in common than you might think. We've just shared the characteristics of high performing collaborations, but how many of those characteristics are visible in the world of discos and divas?

I love pop music. Not cool pop music, the songs everybody can join in. I also love effective collaboration, not just because it’s nice to do but it’s very much part of the ethos here at Kaleidoscope.

Two brains are better than one, it’s not just helpful to get another perspective, it can transform what you do, how you do it and how people think of you. There’s a long history of collaboration to create chart topping tracks, so which of the key characteristics of effective collaboration have contributed to making hits?

1. Purpose 

Denniz PoP was the legendary founder of the Swedish production company Cheiron, 90s pop acts climbed over themselves to collaborate with him. He revolutionised the sounds that sold records for the best part of a decade. So far, so what? Denniz was fanatical about purpose. Every note, beat, layer in a song has to be there for a reason. He found most music flabby and dull. His passion for purpose helped him craft massive world hits for Britney, the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync.

He understood that to get noticed, songs need to command attention. For that to happen, every element needs a reason to be included. Beyond music, purpose is the cornerstone of collaboration success. For people to get behind it, they need a clear statement explaining the collaboration’s reason for being. Something that everyone can understand and support.

2. Leaders who actively span boundaries 

Spanning cultural boundaries is a staple in the pop industry – not always sensitively – but there are examples of people who’ve opened up the mainstream to new influences.

Elton John first dueted with Kiki Dee on ‘Don’t go breaking my heart’ in 1976, which Wikipedia describes as ‘an affectionate pastiche of Motown’. Nearly 20 years later, John re-released the track with drag icon RuPaul.

Both Elton and RuPaul have had careers that are stratospherically successful because they move beyond genres. Elton’s gone from pop to musicals, Hollywood and his Foundation, earning him the status of national treasure. Rupaul’s ‘werk’ ethic has created an entire industry, churning out books, TV shows, albums, podcasts, as well as being an activist and supermodel.

Spanning boundaries is essential in health collaborations too. It starts with creating a culture that encourages people to look beyond existing silos. Not only can it bring in new insights and perspectives, it can help break down barriers to collaborative working as well, particularly with external organisations. Here is an interesting study of community mental health working with multi-disciplinary teams in a collaboration that improved both mental and physical health services.

You cannot expect collaboration to just happen, that people can just somehow fit it in around their day job.

Resources and structure 

Beyoncé and Lady Gaga are women in demand, Gaga is a world health advocate and she’s won every music award going (including an Oscar). Beyoncé, well, she’s Beyoncé.  Yet they’ve collaborated a couple of times, a pairing so successful that it has been nominated for a Grammy award.

On Lady Gaga’s track ‘Telephone’ they wanted to do something ambitious and different. What they came up with was a real departure. Apart from accelerating the influence of electronic dance music on the charts, the song helped Queen Bey move away from her perfect pop persona to reveal the angrier, more left field side. Writer Andrew Unterberger of Billboard said that Gaga raised the standards for ambition in pop, and that “she was the asteroid pop music was begging to have crash through it.”

The video for Telephone alone is eight minutes long. They knew that in 2010 a mini-feature film format would work for Youtube and allow them to convey a wealth of ideas that a traditional format wouldn’t. They created something compelling and delivered it in a new way.

You cannot expect collaboration to just happen, that people can just somehow fit it in around their day job.  Time and resources are necessary for it to be effective. Collaboration needs commitment and a shared vision to make it work. The lesson from pop is that is the way to create something that is different to what has gone before and greater than the sum of its parts.

If you want to know more about how to create and maintain a high performing collaboration, sign up for our free online workshop on 10 December. Pop music collaboration conversation optional.

Charmian Walker-Smith18 November 2021


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