The Key to a Creative Collaboration

What do good Jazz, good basketball, good improv and good sex all have in common?

The state of collaborative flow.

Jazz musicians, sports teams, improv theatre artists and good sex partners all know how to be “in flow” with each other—which is key to a creative collaboration.

The notion of being in flow has existed for thousands of years, although the term itself was first identified and studied by positive psychologist Csikszentmihalyi in 1975.

Being in flow can also be referred to as being in the zone. It is essentially a mental state in which a person or group of people are fully immersed in the performance of an activity with energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment of the process.

There might be times when you have the good fortune of finding yourself in a state of flow, whether on your own or as part of a collaboration. A collaborative flow is essentially the best form of collaboration that one could take part in.

The good news is that you can learn to deliberately bring about that desired state of flow by understanding the three key elements required for the state of flow to take place:

  1. The challenge must be high
  2. The participants must be intrinsically motivated in engaging in the challenge
  3. Their skill level must match the level of challenge.

For example, if you join a soccer game with professional players, but your skill level does not match theirs, instead of getting into flow, you are most likely to feel anxious or overwhelmed. If your skill level is higher than that of the others, you are likely to feel under-challenged and somewhat bored after a short time of playing.

So, if you are performing an activity and want to reach the state of flow, take a step back and gauge whether you need to increase the challenge or increase your skill level.

The same strategies that apply in the privacy of your room will apply in a collaborative workplace environment as well. You want to ensure that everyone’s skill level matches the challenge at hand. Skill level can be increased by providing safe opportunities for learning and experimentation when the consequences for failing are low.

If the skill level is already high, you need to increase the level of the challenge.

For the state of flow to be maintained, it is important to ensure there is constant feedback and that failure is not punished but rather appreciated as the perfect source of feedback. That feedback is almost immediate and often involves close listening for verbal and non-verbal cues. This is something we commonly do when we are engaged in any form of play. As Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it shapes the brain and invigorates the soul, proves though his research: When we are engaged in any form of play we learn to collaborate, and to re-adjust our social behavior based on the feedback we get from both verbal and non-verbal cues.

Other elements that are not essential to achieving the state of flow but are good practice for any collaboration, are as follows:

  • In any collaborative setting, everyone involved should be seen as an equal. Any existing or imposed hierarchy should be set aside for the duration of the collaboration.
  • There should be high levels of trust and a healthy sense of self-worth in relationship to other group members.
  • Lastly, there should be a common objective that everyone is equally committed to and motivated to accomplish.

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