All It Takes

Lessons learned about management from watching flash mobs.

The woman stands composedly in the half-empty space in the middle of the vaulted rotunda, long hair pulled back in a tidy braid. Her unhurried removal of her overcoat reveals a military uniform. Turning to her left, she trades the coat for a violin handed to her by another uniformed person who just happens to walk up at that moment. She starts playing, joining the band members already assembled: a guy sitting on a chair, playing a cello; another standing behind his bass, plunking away; others in the background with saxophones.

Over the next few minutes, the entire United States Air Force band emerges as if by magic from the crowd at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and plays a set of Christmas music.

Flash mobs. We’ve all seen them on YouTube. Dancers, singers, and musicians appear as if out of nowhere, perform, and disappear. The best ones look impromptu and blur the line between participant and observer, sort of like quantum physics.

Starting — so the all-wise Wiki tells us — as ironic social commentary on meaningless fads, they have largely morphed into performances: either for advertising paid for by large companies (TMobile or Belgian TV) or for ‘street-art’ initiatives paid for by public institutions (Opera Company of Philadelphia).

Most happen indoors (think airports and shopping malls) or outdoors on a nice day, but I saw one where the participants braved a Moscow winter. That one was so large that the participants seemed to outnumber the onlookers, raising the question of whom they were performing for. With cameras everywhere, of course, they’re all performing for the internet masses, and for the ages.

The surprise factor is part of their appeal: so, I think, is the deceptive ease with which they come off.

There’s no sign of the commitment required to learn a craft well enough that public performance is even an option.

There’s no sign of the organizational collaboration required to get permission to perform in a public place; or to arrange for piped-in music over someone else’s broadcast system.

There’s no sign of the planning and logistics work required to get a whack of people with a common purpose to one location at the same time, and to hide the cameras that will record it all, usually from many angles and often from great heights.

There’s no sign of the creativity required to synchronize participants who can’t rehearse in the actual performance space.

There’s little sign of the leadership required.  While a few music mobs bring their own conductor, many do not, and dance mobs never have their choreographers front and centre, calling the next move.

And there’s no sign of the post-production work required to take the raw footage and turn it into an edited video.

Flash mobs (or ‘smart mobs,’ per Wiki) play to a fantasy about ‘sparks’: that one person can set off another in a chain reaction that soon has a mob of unrelated people performing as one.  It’s not true, of course, but it’s no less seductive for that.

As I leave YouTube to go back to my day job — which requires no singing or dancing but which does require me to work with others to a common purpose — I resolve again to appreciate the miracle of coordinated human achievement, in all its forms. To appreciate the commitment, collaboration, planning, creativity, leadership, and follow-up, which is all it takes to let us work together, more or less as one.        

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10 Responses to All It Takes

  1. Mary Gibson says:

    Excellent insight. One that gives me a new appreciation for the dying arts (?) of governance, leadership, management and last but not least, acceptance of personal responsibility.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – Let’s hope those arts aren’t dying! But now that you mention it, there does seem to be a trend in my line of work to trying to manage teams through teams, rather than having one person in charge of, and accountable for, the whole effort. I don’t know how that works in other places, but for deadline-driven work it’s not the right answer.

  2. Dorothy Warren says:

    I don’t think I have ever seen a flash mob video where the audience wasn’t smiling. All commercial and political reasons aside, if the flash mob exists only to give joy for few moments that is enough. Sadly joy is not always the focus of our work, but certainly there is a satisfaction in a goal achieved. I am, I guess, old enough to agree with you and Mary that while teams and team empowerment have a place in our work lives, there must at least be a project leader to keep the team on track. After all, every sports team has a captain.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dorothy – Joy is an excellent point, especially at this time of year. Some things lift our hearts – performance and connection as obvious examples – in a way that solid (stolid?) work does not. Sometimes I wonder whether we could have more joy, even in our day to day, if we just would.

      • Saw this on-line the other day: Make every “think” a “thank” .

        We readers
        of your blog have an incredibly privileged lives, relative to the billions on the planet who do not. We aren’t under siege or being bombed or harassed or wonder where our next meal is to be found. We have warmth, people who love us, free healthcare and all the You-Tube entertainment we want. What’s not to be joyful about?
        But… a funny, touching unexpected event or a belly laugh? Now, that’s entertainment! God bless those who surprise us.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Maybe being surprised is being young again. Rare in direct proportion to our age and experience; and valuable in (at least direct, maybe exponential) relationship to its rarity.

          • Rarity… Yet I am surprised constantly when I sit with people around the tea table at the studio. As provocateur, I ask people questions, like, “What do you do with your pocket lint?” I got hundreds of surprising answers and wrote them down. Many were hilarious and would never have seen the light of day without probing. I loved the touching, complex, messy, unexpected answers and so did the people I asked — they surprised themselves, didn’t think they were that interesting, but they are. We are so afraid of revealing ourselves, but what are we here for but to amuse and surprise each other? Life is hard enough without the eccentricity of our unique life experiences, shared.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – Yes, I’m not surprised that an answer to “What do you do with your pocket lint?” would not see the light of day without you asking. I don’t suppose the answer would exist in any meaningful way without you asking. Maybe that’s one way we create the world: by asking new questions that let people see their experience (and themselves) in new ways. As for the rarity – well, all that surprise has one common element: You.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    I like your Christmas column better than mine. (Ed’s note: Here’s Jim’s Christmas column)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – All that singing and dancing really helps, eh? (I’m starting to use ‘eh’ deliberately now, having heard/read that it’s on its way out among teenagers. Dratted kids.) Although I’d have to admit that I wasn’t thinking much about Christmas when I wrote this yesterday, even though some of the flash mobs were doing Christmas-y things. I still might try for a Christmas column. I wonder if there have been any writing flash mobs . . .

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