Can business teams "jam"?

Dark Stage Jam bands—known for their extended musical improvisations—have become quite the rage in recent years, thanks to major music festivals across the states that have catered to their devoted fan base. (Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Connecticut and the All Good Music Festival in Legend Valley, Ohio are two of the big ones.)

Credit the Grateful Dead for popularizing the style, starting in the 60s (though jazz players were already jamming for half a century). In their thirty years together the Dead were known to never perform a song the same way twice. Phish has been the standard-bearer since the Dead’s breakup, but there are now dozens of first-rate groups that are labeled jam bands (accurately or not), including Widespread Panic.

The improvisation phenomenon in recent years has become a serious study. Some professors (like Keith Sawyer in books such as Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration) use improv theatre and jazz to draw conclusions about creative collaboration. The top jazz musicians improvise with more skill than jam bands, but the dynamics are the same: musicians must listen carefully to one another and change direction rapidly in response to each other's cues.

It’s certainly worth taking a closer look at the art of jamming/improvising to see if we can dig out some useful lessons for business teams, especially those who need to continually experiment and innovate—as a group—in response to market changes.

First of all there’s this question: how do musicians—and improv actors—make such split-second adjustments as if operating with “one mind”? To the casual listener or observer these changes appear to be scripted in advance.

Many experts attribute this to at least three factors...

    1. The players’ mastery of the conventions of their "idiom.” There are standard jazz/blues/country/rock riffs in music; there are standard gestures and moves in improv. When one player or actor enters into one of these patterns, the others quickly recognize them and join in.

    2. An agreement that what one player initiates will be accepted and then enhanced by partners. This is sometimes called the “yes and…” rule. What one player/actor begins is the building block upon which others add their part until a structure appears. An initial "offering" is rarely declined or rejected.

    3. An aligned group awareness that has players participate at the peak of their ability in an ever-changing "flow" of performance. This is the famous term of art by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, popularized in his famous work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The musicians and actors engaged in jamming or improvising are committed to a goal larger than themselves: an extraordinary TEAM performance.

When I spent a few days with the Grateful Dead decades ago (my band briefly shared a crash pad with them in New Jersey and got to jam with them) I could see that they were fully practiced in the above principles of improv. When one of them—Jerry Garcia or Phil Lesh for instance—initiated a new rhythm, the others immediately shifted gears and starting working with it. Even their two percussionists—Bill Kreutzmann and Micky Hart—altered their drumming patterns, which doesn't happen with most jam bands. This was textbook flow.

But the next question is: what can organizations and business teams learn from this? The answer may lie in the three factors cited above.

To be continued in my next post. In the meantime, what say you?

For an earlier post on the Grateful Dead, check here.

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  1. I've had a tiny handful of experiences like that, in music and in business. Your three points are stupendous clues for those who want to improve.

    Worst musicians I ever played with were technically brilliant but had no clue about #2 and #3. Same with business: #1, alone, is more dangerous than helpful. And a deep commitment to #3 even allows occasionally breaking #2.

    One of my favorite posts of yours; it feels like a launching pad for bigger things.

  2. it feels like a ploy to get us to read the next post.

    but flow is a cool thing and applies to all kinds of teams including athletic and business ones.

  3. I like to talk about the book Flow because I never have to worry about spelling Mihaly's last name right. Who's gonna correct me?

  4. John,
    Great post! I enjoyed our conversations about the subject and you have captured them with your points 1.2 and 3!

    It occurs to me that this would be tough for most businesses, as they operate on much longer time scales. However, with modern hosted software as a service business, the features could be modified in near real time in response to some easy to measure feedback, such as clicking on a button (to access a feature, for example).

    In our MVP coaching at the MD idea Lab, we often direct developers to test the waters for a new concept by just placing a button on their web site that would launch such a feature, but instead of investing the time to build the feature to find out if anyone is interested, just put up the button, and start an email list of those who click on it. If no one clicks, modify the terms or tag line until people do. This is level 0 market testing!

    With a large concern (Facebook?), a team could engage around a table, and brainstorm on these sorts of features for a few hours while the clicks poured in and hone in on the sweet spots!

    I would love to set up some trials of this soon!

    John Hayes
    VP PM at the MD idea Lab, john(at)mdidealab(dot)com

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