The circumstances that led up to my meeting with David Schneider are a microcosm of the sorts of things that I think organisations (and we individually) need to do to be able to survive and flourish in our ever-ambiguous modern world. Social networks enable us to make connections with people with an ease that just wasn’t possible before; working in the open and building on others’ ideas leads to good things; serendipity comes from larking about.
A few months back I made a half-funny observation connecting The Donald’s claim to be “Mr Brexit” to the 1995 hit (Mr) Boombastic by Jamaican star Shaggy in response to something that David had posted on Twitter. Something about the line tickled him, and he got in touch to ask if he could turn the joke into a Vine (a short-form video streaming service).
I think I had first become aware of Schneider for his part in the remarkable (and prophetic) TV satire The Day Today created by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci. Something I had written had been picked up by someone I regarded as properly funny. Of course I unhesitatingly agreed to David’s request.
What happened next was remarkable. Within minutes the Vine was created and published. And moments later I got a message from its creator:
“Disappointing response. Never mind. That’s showbiz/Twitter…”
In the brief period that I had been dreaming of my second stab at viral success following my social nadir of jokes about The Four Tops in flowchart format, David had not only created and distributed, but also allowed the audience to judge the success of the thing.
I found this fascinating. Working in the realms of innovation and technology one hears a lot of talk about rapid prototyping and failing fast, but this appeared to be at another level. The ensuing conversation resulted in, a couple of months later, my visit to see David at his company’s offices in London’s Hatton Garden.
His company That Lot provides a broad range of social network-related services to clients. It’s a company that has grown quickly over its three years so that it now has offices and over 30 staff. From its start with the three founders (Davids Schneider, Levin and Beresford) working from home “sitting in our pants, chatting on Skype, hardly a company at all”, it has grown…
“…very quickly into a much more corporate thing – offices, staff, management structures, business directors and what have you. But trying at all times to hold on to that creativity and the ‘fun thing’. Making sure that throughout the organisation everybody enjoys themselves.
All the stuff I’ve done that that has done well and has been good, from the comedy that I did in the 90s to the stuff that we are doing here at That Lot has got that feel that you’re mucking about with mates. Even if you know that you’ve got to make a programme for BBC2, or if you’ve got to make a little video for Nandos (a restaurant chain), it’s that feel of just having a laugh.”
The way in which people get along with one another, and fit within the company, is very important at That Lot.
“When we interview people there are people who come in who are very, very good on paper, and are clearly very competent. But we go away feeling that they don’t feel like That Lot people, and I think that’s because even if they do a fantastic job, you just want to make sure that you are with mates all the time, mucking about and playing. It gets harder to hold on to that, but I think that is the essence.”
There’s a danger that this could sound like recruiting in one’s own image, but hearing about David’s background might help to understand this as a matter of creating a trusting environment in which people feel able to experiment with ideas.
“If a thing goes wrong or goes badly, trying not to blame anyone. Trying to be positive about it and think ‘Well, we fucked up there. What can we learn?’ and trying to maintain in a position of play.
It does become harder to sustain as we grow, but I think that’s the secret and I think that’s why our stuff is good, because it’s enjoyable in the making and that transmits.”
This is an approach that goes back to Schneider’s roots in drama, acting and improvisation, and his role as a director:
“There are very safe actors who stick to the script and can deliver, but what’s really exciting is the actor who sticks to the script but then suddenly ‘Woah, woah, keep filming! Keep filming!’ because they have gone off somewhere else. That’s where the real gold is.
It was how we put together The Day Today. It started with improvisation, then a script would sort of get written. Then the script is rehearsed and more improvisation. Another script gets written. More improvisation. It would come to filming and more improvisation.
At all times you are keeping hold of the possibility of play. And the rules are that you are free to do that and the people around you don’t panic and will go with you, knowing that at some point we’ll come back to the script. Or maybe we don’t. But it’s exciting and we’ll see what we get.”
David believes that what businesses can learn from this is to maintain that sense of freedom and fun. What he describes as means by which comedy is created is so much about the environment in which it happens, and the trust that exists between players.
It sounds a great deal like the aspirations behind the Agile software movement.
In February 2001 a group of software developers got together at the Snowbird ski resort in the Wasatch mountains of Utah “to talk, ski, relax, and try to find common ground—and of course, to eat. What emerged was the Agile ‘Software Development’ Manifesto.”
The Agile Manifesto – a set of principles by which the design and development of software could take place – railed against the heavy planning and documentation approaches that dominated at the time and seemed to do little to help deliver working, functional products.
The very first point of the manifesto was that interactions and individuals would be valued over processes and tools. David, and That Lot appear to be living that value, driven by the experience of producing great, groundbreaking comedy.
But although Agile methods have permeated throughout most major organisations a decade and a half after the meetings in Utah, it’s very debatable whether the values that the writers of the manifesto encapsulated have been adopted. The hard-wiring of industrialised organisations is to value process above all else, and Agile approaches end up becoming bastardised, a dogged following of rituals in Cargo Cult-like behaviour. Ultimately they miss the point.
Following a set of instructions is really useful if you both know what it is that you want to do and know that somebody has done it before in the same way. The instructions to flat-pack furniture. The diagrams that come in a set of Lego. The outcome is known, and the method documented.
But if you want to do something novel, something new. Well, the process becomes secondary to the environment in which the ideas can be knocked about.
“I’m interested in whether you could get artificial intelligence to write jokes. I think to a certain point you could get them to, but it’s really very difficult. It’s because there’s that flash of inspiration to connect two things, or that observes in a slightly unusual way. I think it’s very difficult to program data or machines to do that.
And so what’s most important as businesses become data-obsessed is to hold onto the jewel that is original thinking and creativity and play. More and more we are being pushed down the path of ‘data says if you do it like this’ – you’ve just got to be open enough to be creating in other ways.”
And it’s clear that for David the flashes of inspiration, or the askew observations come from a result of fostering a group that is connected and trusting, and is willing to play.
David’s company That Lot can be found at http://www.thatlot.co.uk/
Matt is currently writing a book about the importance of play in work. You can find out more here: https://vimeo.com/194773566 and here: https://mmitii.mattballantine.com/category/projects/play-book/