“Group flow is a peak experience, a group performing at its top level of ability. In a study of over 300 professionals three companies — a strategy consulting firm, a government agency, and a petrochemical company — Rob Cross and Andrew Parker discovered that the people who participated in group flow were the highest performers. In situations of rapid change, it’s more important than ever for a group to be able to merge action and awareness, to adjust immediately by improvising. In group flow, activity becomes spontaneous and the group acts without thinking about it first.” (Keith Sawyer 'Group Genius')
Lack of creativity and innovative developments. Performance limited by calcified and entrenched belief systems
There are levels of coordination achieved by high performance teams that exceed what is possible through improvement in the mechanics of organization. In other words: roles, responsibilities and clearly designed operational processes will only take you so far.
The idea of flow states is by now fairly common currency, since Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s ground breaking work on the subject.
Keith Sawyer who spent time working with Csíkszentmihályi, took the idea into a new dimension by investigating and describing states of “Group Flow”. As well as being a researcher and management consultant he is an accomplished jazz musician and much of his thinking about group flow clearly reflects this.
This is from pages 43–44 of Sawyer’s book, “Group Genius”.
“Group flow is a peak experience, a group performing at its top level of ability. In a study of over 300 professionals three companies — a strategy consulting firm, a government agency, and a petrochemical company — Rob Cross and Andrew Parker discovered that the people who participated in group flow were the highest performers. In situations of rapid change, it’s more important than ever for a group to be able to merge action and awareness, to adjust immediately by improvising. In group flow, activity becomes spontaneous and the group acts without thinking about it first.”
This is a worthy and exhaustive piece of work and Sawyer lists conditions which accompany group flow:
“to foster improvised innovation, the conditions for group flow must be created.Genius groups tend to emerge in contexts where 10 key flow-enabling conditions are found”
He goes on to list and expand on the 10 conditions.
That’s great but (to my mind somewhat ironically) the framing is highly intellectual, even reductionist. Sawyer clearly knows the need for sensing and intuition as required elements for both individual and group flow, not least from his own Jazz experiences, yet delivers something rather like a formal recipe.
Iain McGilchrist in “The Master and his Emissary” has an interesting way of describing the difference between this and how a musician might describe being “in the pocket”. He describes the left hemisphere of the brain as being very much concerned with WHAT whilst the right hemisphere is concerned with the HOW — the sense of the quality of experience. The argument is considerably more subtle and extensive than this synopsis, but this is the gist.1
So why would being in ‘group flow’ or ‘in the pocket’ be important to the performance of an organization? Let’s revisit the quote above:
“In a study of over 300 professionals three companies — a strategy consulting firm, a government agency, and a petrochemical company — Rob Cross and Andrew Parker discovered that the people who participated in group flow were the highest performers.”
Let’s look at an example of group flow and the experience of an individual within it. In this case a professional session musician. This is not about the 10 preconditions for group flow to occur (what) and everything to do with qualitative descriptions (how) individuals can achieve a state of flow within a larger group or organization.
I want to note that the phenomenon of flow predates both analytical works (Sawyer and Csíkszentmihályi) by decades if not millennia, though the particular articulation of it in the language of management science is certainly new. But let’s remember here how enormously language molds the reality of experience.
Here’s session guitarist Ron Zabrocki from an article in “Guitar World”:
“Many years ago, I got my first pro session call. A&R Studio, NYC. Full band and six horn players. Some sight reading, mostly rhythm playing.
I did OK. Everyone seemed happy, and I was relieved to just survive! At the end, packing up my gear, the horn guys start talking to me, saying they dug my playing but I could use some help playing “in the pocket.”
There really was no way they could truly explain it to me except by picking up my guitar and showing me. The groove the horn player laid out was deep and authoritative. It showed command and confidence. It was like hearing an English accent after hearing a New York suburb accent your whole life. I got it.
So what is the pocket and how can you learn it? You can’t learn it without hearing and feeling it. You can’t understand it in a vacuum. It exists and shows its teeth and beauty while playing live with other musicians. Once you learn it, your life will never be the same.
Esoteric? Maybe. But still very real. Here’s another description. Ever see a pro basketball player handle a ball? The bounce is firm. With authority. Command. How about a pro quarterback? His pass is perfect. Spiral. Placed where he wants it.
The pocket is like that to me. It is an understanding of exactly what you can do on your instrument. It is perfect timing. You do not step on other players’ shoes. You know where you live, and it is good and right and groovin”.
What’s really interesting here is that this description is entirely about the experience, about ‘how’ not ‘what’ preconditions were in place. The description is also riddled with qualitative metaphors that speak to our unconscious in the language it understands rather than in the terms of juxtapositions of ‘things’, typically a function of the intellect.
So what might it mean for an organization or a team to be ‘in the pocket’? Well let’s go back to Zabrocki’s description: “It is perfect timing. You do not step on other players’ shoes. You know where you live, and it is good and right and groovin”.
Let’s put our business leadership hats back on for a second. This is about your teams achieving a level of proficiency and coordination that is likely unmatched by your competition. This is about people being confident in their role and also part of something that is breaking through barriers and achieving new levels of success.
I don’t think this state can be achieved by a mechanistic and intellectualized process of implementing 10 prerequisite conditions. On the contrary, it requires establishing and nurturing a relationship with that part of the mind that is concerned with the feel of flow and with metaphor and images. It is about members of your teams becoming an integral part of something larger.
Here’s drummer John Reilly quoted in the same article:
“They tend to think of it (the pocket) as something they have to search for; in other words, it’s out there somewhere. When, in fact, it’s inside of their very soul, searching for a way to express itself. No, it’s not in your monitor mix, my friend. It’s not anywhere outside of you”.
There is no question when a team or group of people are in this state, many describe it as the thing they live and strive for.
I want to stress the following point. It is not some mystical state. It is about nurturing those parts of ourselves that integrate and harmonize rather than deconstruct and re-assemble.
I believe that breakthrough levels of team and organizational coordination depend on enhancing individual and collective abilities to work “in the pocket”. When that happens, intellectual analysis will likely show that the 10 conditions for group flow are present, but correlation does not equal causation.
This is why we have developed Liminal Coaching to work with metaphor, images and daydream states in coaching for improved performance.
We are pleased to offer you a free MP3 to experience Liminal Coaching for yourself.
1 Note that deeply evidenced studies — including neuroscience findings — of differences in hemisphere brain functions should not be confused with or dismissed alongside the populist myth that people are predominantly right or left brain types. Nor does the significant focus of particular functions in particular parts of the brain imply that other regions are not involved in a given activity. Taking a car journey involves the whole vehicle but an engine is still an engine.
The use of metaphor, imagery and daydream states properly structured should enhance creative flow in individuials and groups
- Persuading staff that self maintenance is not a luxury but a performance booster.
Mike Parker www.liminalcoaching.co.uk