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What you can learn from Monty Python about the power of collaboration

What you can learn from Monty Python about the power of collaboration

Knights who call themselves The knights who say ‘Ni’ and demand shrubbery as a sacrifice?

It is hard to imagine how the comedians of Monty Python came up with such an off the wall idea. No doubt they all possess genius level creativity.

Or, was it more about the method they used?

John Cleese, one of the best known members of Monty Python, gives an excellent talk on creativity. However, he focuses entirely on how to be creative as an individual.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a whole group of comedians. How did the creative process work with them?

Attending one of his lectures, I asked him that very question.

“That’s an interesting question,” he replied as he thoughtfully paced the stage.

When they first started, Monty Python’s Flying Circus did not fly at all. Their brainstorming sessions wallowed in fights over whose idea they would use.

Once they decided to only bring complete sketches to the group it went well.

A giant chandelier in a scene would iterate from being a chicken, a goat, a cow, to finally a moose. Here a relatively mundane aspect of the sketch morphed into something comically insane. A signature of Monty Python humor.

There is much more behind this method than meets the eye. Here are four  counterintuitive tips for instilling Monty Python level creativity in your collaborations.

1. Establish rules

Keith Sawyer the author of Group Genius has spent years studying improvisational comedy. He recorded performances and then analyzed every minute.

He concludes that there needs to be a certain degree of structure:

“The paradox of improvisation is that it can happen only when there are rules and the players share tacit understandings, but with too many rules or too much cohesion, the potential for innovation is lost.”

This is exactly the paradox that John Cleese and his colleagues discovered in the early days of Monty Python. It was only with the structure inherent to working on complete sketches that their creative potential was unleashed.

Establish rules for meetings and conference calls with your collaborators.

Incorporate a facilitator in your group. Task someone within the group with making sure the rules are followed, or better yet, involve a facilitator from outside the group whose sole focus is getting the group to achieve genius level.

Even if you are not leading a meeting, you can instill a degree of structure. Ask questions that dig deeper. Periodically summarize what has been discussed. “So, if I get this right you want King Arthur and his men to encounter a group of knights who call the selves the knights who say ‘Ni’ and demand shrubbery?”

The previous post on Assembled Chaos that details 53 tips for better conference calls is a good set of rules to start with

2. Sleep and play more

John Cleese explains that you have two different mindsets, a ‘hare brain’ and a  ‘tortoise mind’. A concept developed by Guy Claxton.  Hare brain is the reactive, linear, immediate problem solving mindset. Survival mode. Tortoise mind is contemplative and associative.

When you are playing or waking up it is easier for your mind to make unusual lateral connections – the subconscious at work. You get those flashes of insight that come when you least expect them. “I was sitting around doing nothing and it just came to me.”

Cleese makes the point that you should work on a problem and then ‘sleep on it’ or play.  This is not unlike planning your dreams. You are telling your subconscious what to work on.

In fact there is evidence that you are more creative when you are groggy.

How can you apply this advice to your collaborations?

First of all, realize that locking everyone in a room until they come up with something produces feeble results.

Applying pressure fixates everyone in a ‘hare brain’ mindset.

Consciously plan meetings or conference calls to allow for incubation. This gets back to the idea of using conference calls as a means of continual communication with your collaborators. Often new ideas are met with cautious silence at the time they are first presented. It is the subsequent conference calls or meetings where new ideas begin to be discussed seriously. Why?

Because people need time to decide what they think about a new idea. They need to have time to consider it when they are not using ‘hare brain’.

You can achieve the same effect by sending a summary of an idea in advance of a meeting or conference call. It should be a summary, not a long document. Long texts are much less likely to be read.

3. Brainstorm alone

This is counterintuitive. How is brainstorming alone part of creating in a group? All your life you have been taught that brainstorming is done in a group with a flipchart or a white board.

Keith Sawyer spends time in his book debunking the myth of traditional brainstorming. There are a number of studies that show individuals working on their own produce as many ideas as those who brainstorm in a group.

A central tenet of traditional brainstorming is that there is to be no criticism. Yet, groups that openly debate and criticize produce better ideas.

Topic fixation, social inhibition, and social loafing are pitfalls that can severely limit the number of ideas a group produces. You avoid these by brainstorming alone.

Ideas should be generated by individuals and extended by groups.

When the members of Monty Python decided to go away and write complete sketches they were doing exactly this.

You can leverage solo brainstorming by asking each group member to list 10 ideas without stopping. Make sure they do this on their own.

The 5th or 6th idea is usually the best. The first 4 are produced by ‘hare brain’.

You do run the risk of getting too many ideas. So, either have them send all their ideas and triage which or best, or just each person send one best idea.

You can introduce this to your collaborators by making a habit of making lists yourself and showing them to the group. Demonstrate that you prepare for meetings by doing the hard work of thinking.

4. Think like kindergartners 

The Monty Python troupe hit upon one of the most powerful creativity methods.  A method that enables kindergartners to outperform business school graduates.

In a Ted Conference talk, Tom Wuljec reveals some stunning analyses on how different groups of people solve difficult construction problems.

In a Marshmellow Challenge, teams of four build the tallest structure possible from dry spaghetti, string, and tape in 18 minutes. Their structure has to be able to support a marshmellow.

Who performs best?

Engineers and architects. They know the value of using triangular constructions and do this sort of thing all the time. That is not particularly surprising.

Business school graduates, do what good business people do. They discuss and decide upon the best strategy. Then plan how to do it, then implement. Typically they get the structure built just before time is up and place the marshmellow on top as the last step. What happens?

The structure almost always collapses.

Kindergartners consistently do better.


They implement a strategy of prototyping and refinement. It begins by the construction of a short structure complete with the marshmellow on top.  They iterate the first structure into bigger and bigger structures.

This is exactly the strategy the Monty Python troupe adopted by bringing complete sketches to the group. It worked because they were no longer fighting to get their individual ideas accepted. They all focused on refining and extending one sketch.

The power of creating in a group is the ability to extend ideas in ways you could not have anticipated.

Productive and creative groups embrace unrefined or completely speculative ideas.

In order for a group to iterate, there needs to be a starting point. This is where asking everyone to brainstorm alone is useful. However, iterative approaches are useful beyond idea generation.

Research is almost by definition flexible. A new finding spurs a new avenue of research. Fixed rigid planning almost never works for research. Like a group of kindergartners your research collaborations are best run by adapting to new findings in a series of iterative cycles.

Strive for genius level collaborations

It is easy just to engage in a collaboration and do what is usually done. You have meetings with a standard agenda. A few people produce some interesting work and everyone nods.

By doing so you are missing out on a lot of potential. Potential to achieve a new level of creativity that exceeds all expectations.

Collaborations are fraught with difficulties. Counterbalance them by fostering creativity with the four tips above.

They are somewhat counterintuitive, but that makes implementing them fun. Although the fun really begins when you and your collaborators come up with some real paradigm shifting breakthroughs.