5 Lessons in Collaboration From Phineas and Ferb

Credit: Phineas and Ferb wiki
Since we discovered that the full complement of Phineas and Ferb episodes are on Netflix, the Dude has been on a mission to watch them all. And he knows that I am a fan, so when there are no new shows on the Boxee, his go-to is always to ask if we can watch an episode. Aside from permanently having the theme song stuck in my head, I have been enjoying watching the two step-brothers come up with inventive ways to spend each day of their vacation, and how they collaborate with absolutely anyone who presents themselves to their creative building sessions.

Yes, Phineas and Ferb are basically running a maker fair in their backyard every day throughout the summer. And they are welcoming of anyone who wants to be a part of their community. They are not only creative and resourceful, but incredibly collaborative and have one of the most inspiring positive attitudes on TV.

I've been pointing out some of my observations to the Dude and realized that there are lessons to be taken from Phineas and Ferb for use in the workplace. Now, some of these are obvious:
  • Use your imagination to see possibility in the mundane.
  • Be resourceful.
  • Hack your surroundings (and your time).
  • Be your own catalyst: It's your job to keep yourself interested and motivated.
So obvious.
Kids get that.
But I also see something a little bit deeper: it's how they interact with their friends, it's how they respond to challenges, it's how they deal with dissension during their planning and building sessions.

And so, in the spirit of my favourite management book, Winnie the Pooh on Management (and my favourite philosophy books, The Tao of Pooh, The Te of Piglet), I present to you:

Phineas and Ferb on Collaboration
(aka 5 things I learned about collaboration from Phineas and Ferb)

1. Collaboration starts with listening and openness to possibilities.

The show formula begins with the brothers having a conversation among themselves (which usually means Phineas is talking and Ferb is listening) or chatting with friends (again, with Phineas chatting and Ferb listening). Within the conversation is usually some kernel of a problem or idea which serves as a catalyst for Phineas to shout: "Ferb! I know what we're going to do today!"

Phineas and Ferb are excellent listeners. They invite their friends to share their thoughts and suggestions, and then look carefully for opportunities where they might be able to find inspiration. They are the picture of perfect brainstorming: they listen carefully, never discount a single idea (that's often Buford's role), and accept everyone's contributions into the discussion. This usually leads to a spark of imagination that becomes they day's Big Idea (project). We all know that is how brainstorming is supposed to work, but how many of us can say that we are truly participative and open to all ideas when we participate in group idea jams?

See? There's something to be learned from these kids.

2. Success is borne of being inspired, not feeling threatened.

Phineas and Ferb don't work alone. Phineas and Ferb understand strength in numbers. They know that more minds, especially different minds, lead to a better solution. Sometimes they just want to test their solution with their friends, mostly they work with them to build their inventions. They never turn away an offer for help.

My favourite characteristic of the boys is that they are never threatened by anyone participating in their projects. They know that every new idea can somehow contribute to the overall experience. But even more than that, they are trusting of people: they never assume that anyone is out to cause harm, sabotage their efforts or steal their thunder. And that's not even a story line; it's as though the mere thought of it is absurd.

But it doesn't always work that way in the real world: people feel threatened all the time at work. "Why are they working on that? Don't they know we've been at it for days/weeks/months/years? They're going to go about it all wrong. Or they're going to get credit for my hard work!" And yet, if someone starts working on something that impacts your project, your portfolio or your "territory" (real or imagined), it doesn't require a call to arms. Rather than see them as a threat, consider the duplication an opportunity to put your heads together to get your work done better, faster and with assistance!

How Phineas and Ferb of you.

3. Trust everyone to contribute in their own way.

You'll be hard pressed to find a single episode of the show where Phineas and Ferb turn away offers of help. If extra hands present themselves, they are rewarded with responsibility over some component of the project and left to make it happen. Phineas and Ferb don't micromanage, they trust their helpers. And that trust in people's abilities seems to make them deliver.

Now, to be sure, not every job they hand out is the most important job, but no one is turned away from contributing. But everyone seems to be able to have a hand in putting together the final solution and equally feel a sense of accomplishment arising from seeing their contribution in the overall effort. No one is turned away, minimized or discounted.

In your projects, can you find a way to be inclusive to everyone who presents themselves? Sure, in some situations you might need a group of rockstar contributors to get the most pressing/ important components completed, given the pressures and deadlines looming overhead. But while those less available or less experienced volunteers may not have the expertise to contribute directly to the deliverable, they may have skills that can serve the project in another way: research, review, editing, sanity checks, coordinating broader consultations with other stakeholder groups... The key is taking the time to find out their interests and backgrounds, and mutually seek an opportunity to help them provide value (and get value from the experience.) It might not take as long as you think.

Can you take the time to help everyone find their place?

4. Everyone who asks something of you is presenting you with an opportunity to collaborate and do more.

There was an episode where the boys were bombarded with demands from their friends. Phineas and Ferb could have responded as most of us probably would:
  • be insulted by the demands that were being made of them by their friends, 
  • become overwhelmed by all of the potential work that was piling up in front of them, or
  • be intimidated by the unrealistic expectations that they were like robots capable of cranking out solutions for every one of their friends' whims.
This could have been quite the non-starter for anyone IRL. But Phineas jumped up and shouted that "today, we're taking requests!" They used the onslaught of questions as motivation to produce, thankful that part of their job had been completed for them: rather than having to wrack their own brains to figure out what to do that day, their friends supplied tons of ideas. And in return, they would see all those projects to fruition; as many as they could crank out by working together.

In the moment, it's easy to get overwhelmed by competing priorities and demands. But perhaps by taking a step back, you might see an opportunity to look at the situation differently. Can you pull those requesters together to help you fulfill all of their requests jointly? Imagine taking multiple clients or project teams and bringing them together to work on each other's jobs so that all of the high priorities have a chance of succeeding... it happens all the time in consulting firms and startups.

Why not where you work?

5. Pay it forward.

Phineas and Ferb are always paying it forward. They share all of their inventions with their friends and neighbours, they offer help without asking for retribution, they have no expectations when their friends show up: they inform them of what they are doing, and let them offer their help if they are interested. And they always have friends interested in helping out. Their generosity begets more generosity. Their fearlessness at building and invention begets more fearlessness. They live in a cycle of collaborative innovation from which everyone benefits.

I find it most interesting that despite the amount of support and assistance they get from their friends, they are the recognized leaders: their friends seek them out for collaborative opportunities. Even before they get started every day, their friends know that heading to their back yard is bound to result in a fantastic experience for all involved. Only the hard core show up: it's always the same gang who helps build. They are a reliable, trusted network of people that Phineas and Ferb have built by investing their time, encouragement and by providing them with opportunities to produce results. This group has a shared expectation of success that brings them back together again and again to work on new projects.

Do you have that kind of relationship with your team? Wouldn't you love to? Even if you don't have the level of influence in the workplace to make it happen (yet - keep at it!), you can build this type of network with people in other departments, organizations or interest groups. Imagine the possibility if you know that you can call on a trusted network, and that the results are always mind blowing, life changing. Isn't that something you would get up for in the morning?

All this from a kids' show?

I'm telling you, Phineas and Ferb isn't just a kids' show. It's a series of life lessons for us grown-ups. Next time your kids settle in for an episode, take a moment to stop what you're doing and check it out. Carefully watch how they work, their positive reaction to every challenge that presents itself, and the value they derive from their collaborative experiences. Ready? "There's a 104 days of summer vacation..."

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