Synching Team Mindsets through Creative Invention

The health newsletter of Dr. Weil has an interesting piece on how musician’s brain waves synchronize when they play songs together (“Musicians’ Brain Waves Are Also in Tune“). A researcher at the Max Planck Institute looked at electrical activity in the brains of pairs of guitarists and found that two regions of the mind show high degrees of brainwave synchronization when they play an improvised song together.

I’m a jazz/rock musician (guitar, drums, keys, a bit of bass and vocals) who long ago decided I’d be more productive applying my creativity to business collaboration and marketing. In other words, I wasn’t even close to the brilliance some of my friends displayed as musicians, and opted for a business career plus a classic-rock band of mid-life guys in in my basement instead. But I’ve been continually fascinated by replicating the creative environment and satisfaction of music in business environments.

“In the Groove”

A takeaway from the study, in my opinion, is that creative, right-brain thinking creates an alignment of invention and emotion that makes it fun for people to work together and to create new, breakthrough ideas. I’ve only dabbled in classical music and the fine arts, but my hunch is that the more real-time improvisational the art, and the less structured the roles, the greater potential for mental alignment. Jazz works this way, group improvisational comedy, probably dance, and even high-performance tennis doubles.

Happy Hours as Invention Opportunities

A way to leverage this is to find a time each week for people to set aside their pressing to-do’s, and just brainstorm about business opportunities. In one of my businesses, we made this the Friday afternoon pizza hour. The really good ideas for business improvements and new products came also exclusively via these sessions – it was the only time where people had permission to think outside their roles, stop worrying about their obligations or speaking out of turn, and pose a zany theory to see where it led. One person was assigned to capture the notes (today I would commit them live to a Wiki, chat board, or feature-request log, and if you’re really ambitious in a distributed company, you could try having people contribute in a Twitter feed). The drinks usually associated with happy hours are completely optional (and probably not permissible in many businesses). Jelly beans work fine.

Team Productivity Enhancers – What Works…

Three other discussion threads in the same vein:

- I’ve read reports comparing team productivity in two scenarios. In both, a team is given an important business challenge to resolve. In scenario one, a team is told to go off individually, spend an hour or more researching the issue and coming up with ideas, and bringing them to the table at the next meeting. In scenario two, the team is asked to work on the problem only in group meetings. The findings about which created greater results were, that while the individually-prepared team gave “good” responses to the problem more consistently, the team only interacting in groups created breakthrough solutions that addressed more fundamental issues or new opportunities. They were able to think beyond the initial problem and invent a vision. This didn’t occur 100% of the time, so you are taking a bit of a chance with group brainstorming, but where you are creating new ideas without a driving deadline, this approach is much more effective.

- There has been a lot of talk about how Google gives their employees 20% free time to brainstorm and create/test new inventions (see the NY Times and Fast Company). Empowering people to not only create ideas, but to develop them is powerful. And, it’s relatively easy in the software industry, where the cost of pilot production and posting something to the Web is small. However, based on experience at another major West Coast software corporation, it can get out of hand. Too many individuals can start posting too many ideas for the company to manage; creating redundant projects and unsanctioned competition between divisions and executives; and spinning off lots of unprofitable activities. A few techniques allow you to balance innovation, entrepreneurship and directional control in these situations:

  1. First, document all ideas somewhere. The mere fact that someone’s idea is being recorded gives the mind positive reinforcement, and individuals/teams start taking more time to explore more ideas.
  2. Second, have a prioritization process for the ideas. I think it’s too much for any individual to have complete discretion to pursue any ideas. The best approach is to have the inventor/evangelist need to demonstrate the business case for the idea before spending more than a few hours on it. This teaches engineers and other technical types to think about ROI as a prime organizational driver. The education takes time but is well worth it for organizational productivity – again, aligning people in the same mindset. For other companies with a more time-pressed or hierarchical style, I’ve experienced monthly meetings for the entire department (or if small enough, the entire company) where the best ideas submitted that month are highlighted, the creator is given a small award/reward, and management commits to reporting back in 4 weeks on exactly what they will do with the idea.

- Third, there’s an interesting trend toward crowd-sourcing invention, where the vast resources of talented people on the internet are encouraged to contribute en masse to projects, ranging from highly-technical R&D and licensing projects (e.g. the company Nine Sigma), to online resources such as Wikipedia type databases of cost-saving solutions for small businesses. There’s the potential to rethink business invention and the consulting industry through crowd-sourcing. A colleague of mine, David Gusick, is pursuing this path at Extreme Collaboration.

“Have a Nice Day” – By Creating Something with Others

If all of the above is time much to absorb for your hectic business day, I leave you with this “stop and smell the roses” thought from Dr. Weil in his newsletter blurb above: “To my mind, [the Max Planck Institute] study highlights one of the great joys of playing music, one voiced by many musicians: a sense of self-transcendence. Playing music together creates a rare chance to step outside of ourselves and our small concerns and join our minds wholeheartedly with others in creating something no individual could make alone. Seen in this light, creating beautiful music is simply a wonderful byproduct of a larger reward – connecting deeply with other human beings.”

When the worlds of business and music collide.

When the worlds of business and music collide.