Belonging is the sum of the parts: Lessons on maths and collaboration from the writers of The Simpsons 

It’s one of the most common challenges in corporate culture: cross-discipline collaboration.

It’s depressingly common for experts to Belong exclusively to their specialist team, blocking any integration with the wider business.

How do you get them to work together so the sum of the parts really is greater?

Commitment to separateness?

This week I have been running a series of workshops in Germany with a company of mostly scientists, all dedicated and well-meaning, but experts in particular areas.

Sure enough, the challenge of getting specialists to work together came up loud and clear, with two recurring themes:  

“Ko-operation” and “Kommunication” (luckily the translation to English is straightforward).

Though the teams have achieved great innovations, how much more potential is restrained?

With another client, two small teams – both in digital development – were intent on defining their separateness:

“No, we’re COMPLETELY different! They’re FRONT end development and we’re BACK end!”

Thereby reducing their specialist expertise to two ends of a pantomime horse.

It is this ring-fencing that is the problem: Belonging is reduced to such a small level that collaboration is almost impossible.

“Ah, but we’re SPECIALISTS – the others just don’t understand what we do.”

Far from the whole being greater, too often the parts are fighting so hard in factions that they can’t even see the sum.

Insights from the Simpsons writers

What a joy then, last Friday evening, to join a special event at The Science Museum  on The Mathematical Secrets of The Simpsons.

It revealed secrets not only of mindblowing maths and humour – but also of easy collaboration.

Our host, Simon Singh, recently published a book (The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets) full of the hidden-maths written into episodes of The Simpsons

He held a genial conversation with two of the writers who provide covert nerdiness: Al Jean and David X Cohen. Both are brilliant mathematicians (Harvard and Berkeley, PhDs in maths so complex that it would befuddle even Lisa Simpson) who are also funny, wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, then graduated to writing comedy-show scripts.

The audience was entranced, right from Simon Singh checking our capacity for both maths and humour with his Mathematickle Test. We passed, so he was happy to share. To uncover the maths secrets he has found in The Simpsons and Futurama you must read Mr Singh’s excellent book, and article in The Guardian. (Valuable pre-lecture cramming for a non-mathematician:  perfect numbers, narcissistic numbers, Mersenne prime numbers…)

Cross-discipline exchange was a fascinating theme. The writing team includes several gifted mathematicians (David X Cohen found he was not the first Simpsons writer to have a paper on post-PhD maths research published in ‘Discrete Applied Mathematics’) as well as non-nerds.

Yet clearly there’s no ‘us and them’ split in the writing team, or with the other creative disciplines.

The secret maths gags are very funny, the tributes to mathematicians and physicists are irreverent hero-worship. Turns out the maths-comedy subculture runs deep: in the audience a chap outed himself as a “Chartered Accountant and Stand-up Comedian” (perhaps not a boast he makes to clients?).

All of us were bowled over by Al Jean and David X Cohen’s disarming mix of super-cleverness and feet-on-the-ground humility.
No arrogant smartypants, no superior comedy-elite, no BigShot PrimeTimeWriter Divas.

On the contrary: there was understatement, informality, and sheer pleasure that people got the jokes that they had hidden in there.

All great ingredients for good collaboration.

And the most critical one: egos are subordinate to content.

How do you manage collaboration between such refined specialisms?

Cross-discipline collaboration remains a holy-grail for many companies.

As with our German client, and the digital Front-and-Back-Enders, business success and individual motivation hang on integration.

Yet it’s harder to fathom even than the taxicab number that recurs in both Futurama and the Simpsons

How has The Simpsons team mixed its cocktail of disciplines and heritage – writers, mathematicians, physicists, comedians, animators, producers – into such potent force, with apparently fluidity?

They’ve avoided the silos (even barbed-wire) between departments, open derision between experts, abject refusal to exchange ideas…

All those problems that – in so many companies – get in way of Belonging, causing mass frustration and wasting months and years of business time; leaving motivation, innovation and profit (both fiscal and cultural) running down the drain.

But pay attention to Al Jean, David X Cohen and The Simpsons and Futurama teams, and the answers are in plain sight:

Secret formula for collaboration

  • Respect throughout, regardless of status or giftedness
  • Mutual support between teams
  • Easy exchange between experts
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously, however brilliant you are
  • Do take your colleagues seriously, recognise how brilliant they are
  • Appreciation and reward are based on your contribution to the whole not on isolated expertise
  • No-one’s more special on their own than the collective brainpower

And above all, the generosity of spirit that says: “This knowledge (or this gag) is much more useful if it’s shared”.

(Thank you to Simon, Al and David for, in the same spirit, signing the book for 9-year old Arthur: he’s chuffed to bits to be called a ‘fellow nerd’ and to be encouraged with pride in maths-geekiness.)

And the winning bit of evidence behind this formula is the duration of the collaboration of Al Jean, David X Cohen and The Simpsons team: 25 years, and still writing and laughing together.

So take note, all those businesses of experts who can’t work together properly.

Listen up, all you micro-teams with your closed-minded separatism.

And pay attention to the detail:

There is clever maths and cross-discipline collaboration – all hidden in Bart’s shorts.


Would you like to get your specialists collaborating easily?

Do you have a whole lot of experts working in isolation?

Talk to us about how to create a sense of Belonging.