How Barbara Soalheiro creates space by bringing people together around the table
Happyplaces Stories (video)
When I visited Brazil in 2014, I also used the opportunity to meet and film people there. To learn about differences and similarities because of backgrounds, cultures and situation. I filmed four people when I was there. Ardriano Silva, Gabriel Borges, Elohim Barros and Barbara.
During our lunch in a typical Brazilian ‘Kilo’ restaurant, she told me everything about herself and her initiative. Barbara runs an initiative called Mesa&Cadeira, Portugese for ‘table and chair’. It is her mission is to help professionals and companies solve extraordinary challenges in a short period of time. She does that by organising processes in which carefully selected professionals sit around the same table to work together on a mission, with a very simple formula: there is one brilliant leader at the head, working together with a diverse group of talented professionals on just one one project and a very limited timeframe to come up with a high quality prototype. In this process, all of the relevant decisions about the new project are made by the group, as a team. This means that when a Mesa is over, there is a tangible prototype, ready to be tested, and a list of objectives and next steps.
I’ve never been prepared to do what I do. I never pre-learned to do something. And I think Mesa&Cadeira is born from this idea that you actually only learn something by doing it. Sometimes I say that Mesa was born because of love. And I think it is always like that with things that we really care about. The story is, that I was invited to work at Fabrica, the Benetton communication research centre in Italy. And my then-boyfriend, now my husband, he thought what everyone who has got a partner of someone that is going to work abroad thinks, which is: I’m going to use this opportunity to study something, to do a course. He started looking for courses to take. In Italy or anywhere in Europe. And in the end he couldn’t find anything that felt more exciting to do than the work he was doing at the time. He is also a magazine editor, and I also used to work as a magazine editor for a long time. Working with magazines is a really fun job. Being in a magazine office is, I don’t know, you meet all sorts of different people. You have this this which is tangible every two weeks or every month in case of the magazine he worked for. You really create something and that is super powerful. I didn’t want him to exchange that, that thing in which he found a lot of pleasure, for sitting in a classroom and listening to someone talking about perfect examples or hypothetical situations. So this was the first seed that that was planted for Mesa&Cadeira. So we lived apart for about two years. And the idea of Mesa grew when I was at Fabrica.
Fabrica is an environment with really different people. From different parts of the world, with completely different backgrounds. I used to live with a girl who was a documentary maker in Afghanistan. She made documentaries about women violence. Her garage had been blown up. You know, it’s this kind of people, with completely different realities than mine. From a Japanese programmer, who was a genius to an English creative director who… You know, all these different people. So, whatever project you’re in, the outcome will always be outstanding. If you get those people together, the result can never be something dull or mediocre. Mesa takes a lot from that as well. You have to get together a group that is really diverse.
It’s funny, because at Fabrica, this really unique place where I’m really in love with, I had the happiest two years of my life. It was working in an environment that was super chaotic, dramatic and intense. There were no rules. There isn’t a really clear idea why you are there. Some people hate it. It made some people leave because they couldn’t function in an environment like that. But it gave me the opportunity to just do whatever I wanted. And by doing whatever I wanted, to learn how ot do it.
We were invited to create the website for Colors magazine. The editorial team was in charge of it. And it was funny because we did not think of inviting anyone from the interactive team, and Fabrica has an interactive department, to think with us. We were thinking about the interactive guys as the executors. We would have the idea, they would execute it. Eventually there was one guy from Brazil who came over from the interactive department. And we became really good friends. We were talking one day, outside working hours, where he said that he thought that the website should be a platform. Where we would share the theme of the next magazine and ask people to send contributions. Now, it sounds a bit obvious, but back then collaborative platforms weren’t common. It made so much sense. And I learned from that, that teams should not be only multi-diverse like in background and experience, but also multidisciplinary with the right skills to come up with something great. And I had never done a website, but did it and that was great. We also launched the first augmented reality magazine in the world, but I had never worked with technology before. So Fabrica gave me more of that. A place where I can do things that I have never done before but could learn how to do things by doing them.
I always knew that tables are one of my favourite places. Mesa means table in Portugese. A table is a place where you share food and drinks with your friends, as a place of pleasure. But it is also a place of commitment. A place where you sign contracts, have brainstorms, where you produce stuff. So I remember thinking: this is perfect. I want to create something that is called Mesa. I have been a person who loves inviting my friends over for good food and sharing a big table. I have a twelve person table in my appartment. It is really important to me, this idea of sharing the same table. So Mesa is born from that: sharing the same table, and picking carefully the people who are sitting around this table. And we will make sure that in every group there are all these skills we need to deliver that specific project. And, we make sure that the people come from as different backgrounds as possible. That automatically makes the experience really interesting for everyone.
We did the first Mesa in October 2011. It was great, it was a first prototype of what we wanted to do. People experienced it as something really unique. The first was was really a prototype. But it wasn’t yet exactly what Mesa should be. A Mesa should always result in one prototype and the first prototype delivered four different projects. And we didn’t really make it to the prototype phase. We just had the ideas and presentations. I knew then that it wasn’t quite there yet but the experience had been really powerful to people. There were creative directors from ad agencies, digital ad agencies that for the first time had worked from the beginning to the end, from conceiving to showing the result to the world, sitting side by side with the coder. And that makes a lot of difference. That already gave people a broader perspective on how work should be done. But also when we started doing the ‘real’ Mesa, prototyping stuff and really coming out in five or six days with something real and tangible, something that you show. I always say, at a Mesa we don’t want people to tell their husbands and wives about what they did. They have to show it to them. It is always the next step of an idea or presentation. An outcome of a Mesa can never be just a presentation. And once you start doing it, the feeling people get, of doing stuff and creating stuff, is magical. It is really, really empowering. It is the same feeling you get from when you bake a cake for the first time. The cake wasn’t there. You just have flower, eggs en sugar. And then you take it out of the oven and then it’s a cake. If you have ever baked a cake, you know that feeling. It is really powerful. We started ging that to people more and more and I realised how interesting it was. And also the combination of having every single skill you need there, or when we work with companies, every single department is there, is really powerful. Usually it can take up to six months to accomplish something we accomplish in six days, because they sit in different parts of the company, they don’t really understand where the ideas come from, and at a Mesa you go from conceiving the problem on the first day, so you have to conceive, develop and launch in the timeframe of five or six days. And when you do that side by side with everyone that is involved, that is just really powerful.
Part of what we do is trying to understanding how things are made. And that breaks this idea that there is a certain path that you have tot follow. Participants get a bettter understanding that it can be easier then they thought, more in their hands than they thought it would be. They get a better understanding that everything there is has been created. And is everything there is, is created, then I can create something that is completely new. Or that someone hasn’t told me to do before.
But also one other thing, the idea of collaboration, at a Mesa happens in a very natural way. Because we don’t ask them to collaborate. We don’t say that it is a collaborative process. It’s not. But we make sure everyone around that table has a same goal. So what we do is that we make sure that everyone cares enough about that goal. And when you have a real common objective, something that everyone that is involved really cares about, you achieve the best circumstance for collaborative work. It’s not asking for people to be collaborative, we don’t even go into that, but it is about involving them in the situation that we all need to do this, we only have a couple of days, so you don’t really have time to bullshit, to be very ego-centric. It was very interesting when we started working with companies, bringing decisionmakers like presidents, owners of companies to the table, how the format didn’t allow them the space for their ego’s. At the beginning I worried about this, that possibly their ego’s might stand in the way of accomplishing something. You just have to deliver a project in a small amount of time so if you then have a good idea, people will naturally engage in it to make it a reality. But there isn’t even time to be just the boss and to act from your regular position. That causes that people then finally understand what collaboration is about. It is not about being nice, it is not about doing goog to the world, it is about finding the perfect match between your self-motivation and a collective, shared motivation.