Can business teams "jam"? (Part two)

KC_CRW_5395 Picking up where we left off in a post a week ago, the jamming phenomenon in rock has some interesting applications to business.

After all, successful business teams need to be agile and adaptable—able to shift direction rapidly to adjust to external market changes or internal restructuring (reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, etc.). Such is life in the innovation economy. Shifting direction—suddenly and quickly—is exactly what bands are doing when they’re jamming/improvising.

So how can business team members do that? Well, let’s look at three of the factors—mentioned in my last post—that allow musicians to quickly alter their direction as a group. The first two are pretty straight ahead.

1. Good musical players have mastered the conventions (i.e. riffs, patterns) of their idiom. Musicians have a body of shared practices—a common language—that they’ve acquired from frequent performance with each other or from deep familiarity with the musical style that they’re engaged in—e.g., rock or blues. If I’m participating in a jam session with musicians I don’t know, I can usually predict within seconds where the group is headed after a member initiates a new melodic, chordal, or rhythmic pattern—as long as I’m familiar with the musical idiom.

That same kind of familiarity is available in business for team members who work together long enough or who share practices from working in the same field or discipline. In both cases, there are unspoken assumptions that are shared, allowing members to work quickly together. For instance, many development teams have formally or informally adopted the “agile software” philosophy which emphasizes rapid delivery of useful product, adaptive rather than predictive planning, daily communication between business people and developers, etc.

2. There’s a tacit agreement among jam band members that when players initiate a new musical pattern it will be accepted and enhanced by the other players (especially if it’s immediately “endorsed” by at least one other player). Musicians who jam effectively—though many don’t, unfortunately—are listening carefully to each other and building on each other’s ideas, at least until the musical idea is worn out and someone else offers a new one.

In business, a well-designed, well-facilitated brainstorming session works in a similar way, whereby team members will respond to a new idea not by preemptively evaluating it but by experimenting with it, enhancing it, building on it—before passing judgment on its utility. (We can discuss the details of brainstorming—a practice that is getting unjustly pilloried these days—on another occasion.) Even outside of formal brainstorming sessions, a good business team knows how to run with a new idea and “play” with it, no matter who initiates it. (And a “new idea” is often an expansion of a previous idea, whether realized or not.) This is simple in concept, but it requires team members to have the social intelligence to put aside their personal agenda and support others’ initiatives.

3. There’s an aligned group awareness that has musicians participate at the peak of their ability in an ever-changing “flow” of performance. The members are united by virtue of having the same goal—usually to provide an outstanding show for their audience. When members are stretching themselves in pursuit of a shared goal—and when conditions #1 and #2 above are met—their sense of “I” often disappears and a “collective mind” seems to take over, as many artists and performers have described. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously written about this in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

This applies just as well to a business team united in a common goal—a goal that’s clear to team members and considered challenging but achievable. This is when a team becomes greater than the sum of its parts. But because this flow is, in part, a psychological state—an experience—it’s more difficult to establish and ensure. It's relatively easy, however, to identify a major inhibitor to it.

Because team members need to react spontaneously, top-down control is anathema to the improvisational process. Especially to design and development teams. They need the freedom to rapidly respond to changes in their environment—inside and outside their organization. This doesn’t preclude management laying out the goal in advance. But too much centralized, long-term planning in pursuit of that goal can choke off agility.

Keith Sawyer nails it in his book, Group Genius, “Many studies have found that team autonomy is the top predictor of group performance.” You can’t micro-manage improvisation—or innovation for that matter.

Hard to do justice to this topic—and to the larger subject of group innovation—in a short post. Consider this a tiny scratch on the surface of the outer layer of a very large onion.


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4 Comments

    1. Yeah, I wanted to get past #1 & #2 quickly to address #3, but based on what you said I just made a few changes to the post.

      Re #1, if the team is clicking on all cylinders it’s probably already using shared practices. If the team isn’t clicking, then the team needs to get educated (quickly) in an appropriate methodology to use together. Depending on what kind of team it is and what the problems are, that could be an approach to project management or leadership or basic communication—or any number of things.

      Re #2, if team members don't practice this, an intervention may be necessary. Members may need to learn the principles of deep listening, for instance, or brainstorming. (I suggest reviewing the principles of brainstorming as practiced by the innovation & design firm, IDEO. Check out The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley.)

      Re #3, this requires a book to do justice to. Csikszentmihalyi has already written one (Flow)—a classic—and I’ve written one (Business Lessons From Rock)—though mine isn’t available for purchase just yet. (If you have to choose between these two, pick the one by the author whose name is easier to pronounce.)

      To get a team to operate in high performance flow, you can start by tackling the obvious impediments—top-down control, inflexible planning, fear-driven management, lack of diversity, and avoidance of conflict, to name a few.

      If I have to peel off more of this onion it will make me cry.

  1. I wonder if there's an anolgy between jamming and R&D? Musicians throw around ideas, develop them, reject them, find a good one but still move on and play for the love of playing. However, the difference between musical jamming and business jamming seems to be that business jamming must have an output: something that's makeable, repeatable, sellable and profitable. So in response to the question, 'Can business teams “jam”?' maybe the answer is, 'Good ones can but really good ones turn a jam into a profitable product / service.'

    1. In the early days of the Grateful Dead (the only time I saw them up close) the guys used to just screw around (jam) on riffs they found interesting until they got an idea for a song. So a lot of their jamming in rehearsals was in service of an output/product: an actual song. Now that I think about it, a lot of bands I've watched in rehearsal created songs this way,

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