Let’s talk about a paradigm-shifting idea when it comes to flow.
Flow is not just a solo activity!
Flow is also an altered state of consciousness meant to be experienced together.
Why is “together” such an effective strategy?
For starters, the obvious...
Humans are a social species.
We’re competitive, cooperative, sexually attracted, and all the rest.
These are all exceptionally powerful motivators.
As a result, when other people are present, we pay more attention to the present.
Companionship drives focus into the now — it’s arguably the simplest flow hack in the world.
And the not-so-obvious thing?
Well, that’s where Keith Sawyer comes into our story.
A professor of psychology, education, and business at the Washington University in St. Louis, Sawyer got interested in this question via the group dynamics of improvisational jazz.
That’s when he first noticed it.
“When you play in ensembles there’s a shift that can occur,” Keith says. “It’s an incredible sensation.”
“The group finds its groove. Creativity goes through the roof. Performance soars.”
“Suddenly everyone can anticipate what the other person is going to do before they do it. It’s an emergent property; a whole is greater than the sum of its parts effect.”
In 1990, Keith Sawyer began a University of Chicago doctoral program in psychology under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
His fascination with group dynamics soon led him to the literature on high performance, where he discovered a problem:
“All the studies that had been run on high performance were about solo performers. There was this huge gap in what led to high performance in groups. Almost no one had done work on the topic.”
Yet Sawyer’s partnership with Csikszentmihalyi proved fortuitous.
In his 1990 book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi described a peculiar phenomenon that arose in groups:
“Surgeons say that during a difficult operation they have the sensation that the entire operating team is a single organism, moved by the same purpose; they describe it as a ‘ballet’ in which the individual is subordinated to the group performance and all involved share in the feeling of harmony and power.”
Csikszentmihalyi suspected this feeling was the by-product of individual members of the group being in the flow.
Sawyer thought something more dynamic was going on.
In Group Genius, he explains it this way:
“My years of playing piano in jazz ensembles convinced me that what happened in any one person’s mind could never explain what made one night’s performance shine and another a dud.
At any second during a performance, an almost invisible musical exchange could take the piece in a new direction; later, no one could remember who was responsible for what. In jazz, the group has the ideas, not the individual musicians.”
Sawyer took a field biologist’s approach to decode this dynamic: heading out into the world to videotape incredible creative groups engaged in the improvisational performance.
His studies ran the gamut, from improv-theater performers to earthquake-relief workers.
After fifteen years of research, Sawyer realized that Csikszentmihalyi hadn’t taken things far enough.
“When performance peaks in groups,” he says, “this isn’t just about individuals in flow — it’s the group entering the state together, a collective merger of action and awareness, a ‘group flow.’”
Everywhere people gather, group flow can arise.
If you’ve ever sung with a church choir, played in a band, played a team sport, taken part in a play, taken part in a brainstorming session, gone dancing, gone to a rock concert, joined a startup, joined a drum circle, done improvisational anything — those highlight moments forever seared in your memory: that too is group flow in action.
And forget the highlights.
Ever been so sucked into a great conversation that hours passed like seconds?
Csikszentmihalyi discovered the most commonly reported instances of flow are those of group flow showing up when people are having a conversation — especially, for reasons we’ll get to if those conversations happen at work.
And wherever group flow shows up, it leaves its mark.
The same pleasure chemicals behind individual flow also arrive with the group variation — only we seem to like them more.
In comparison studies run by St. Bonaventure University psychologist Charles Walker, “solitary flow” was measured against “coactive flow” (this comes from individual activities done in groups, like surfers sharing a break) was measured against “interactive flow” (where interaction is inherent to the activity, like rock climbing with a partner).
Walker discovered that the more social an activity, the higher “flow enjoyment” — the level of joy experienced in flow — was for participants.
Higher enjoyment correlates to higher motivation, of course, but these same chemicals also enhance performance and improve social bonding.
As a result, in group flow, spontaneity, cooperation, communication, creativity, productivity, and overall performance all go through the roof.
“In a study of more than 300 professionals at a strategy consulting firm, a government agency, and a petrochemical company,” writes Sawyer, “… the people who participated in group flow were the highest performers.”
And the better news: Group flow - like every flow experience - is eminently hackable.