What Can We Learn From Jazz Improvisers To Increase Flow For Teams/Ensembles

Steven Kotler-The Flow Research Collective

In Stealing Fire, I wrote about the fact that when Navy SEALs enter the chaos of combat they rely on an unusual form of teamwork. What was once a group of individual soldiers becomes a tight, seamless unit, a fluid machine.

In peak performance research, this experience is known as “group flow.” It was first discovered by University of North Carolina psychologist Keith Sawyer (a student of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and fully described in his book Group Genius. Sawyer spent almost 15 years studying group flow in improv jazz musicians and improv comedy troupes, along the way discover that, just as individual flow states have triggers (that is, pre-conditions that produce more flow), group flow also has triggers. ⁣⁣

Here’s the rundown:⁣

  1. Serious Concentration: It’s vital that everyone in the group has their maximum attention tuned in to the here and now. No distractions.⁣
  2. Shared, Clear Goals: This is a balancing act. You need enough focus so the team knows when they are close to a solution. Equally, you need to leave things open enough for creativity to emerge.⁣
  3. Good Communication: It’s important that the conversation is always moving forward. Drawing on the most important rule of improv… “Yes, and…” goes a lot further than “No, but…”⁣
  4. Familiarity: This comes in the form of a common language and a communication style based on unspoken understandings.
  5. Equal participation (and skill level): Think of professional athletes playing with amateurs. The professionals will be bored and the amateurs frustrated.⁣
  6. Shared Risk: In particular, the risk of failure. There’s no creativity without failure, and there’s no Group Flow without the risk of failure.⁣
  7. Sense of Control: In the form of autonomy and competence. It’s about getting to choose your own challenges and having the necessary skills to achieve them.⁣
  8. Close Listening: This is about being fully engaged as well as the ability to always say yes.⁣

Leveraging these group flow triggers is key for organizations interested in increasing creativity, innovation, and productivity.⁣

This week’s living experiment: Analyze your own life through the lens of these triggers.

Ask yourself: How often do I experience group flow? When it shows up, which of these triggers tend to accompany it? When I want it to show up, how can I use these triggers to get more of it. Now run the experiment. Add a few of these triggers into your next few weeks, see what you discover….


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