Collective Flow State: From the Who to Your Team

In December, I attended a rock concert by the Who at Barclays Center here in New York. In the middle of one of their classic songs, "Teenage Wasteland," lead singer Roger Daltry, stopped singing, stepped back from the front of the stage and looked around the arena in amazement. Everyone in the standing-room-only audience of 18,000 was singing, standing, swaying, and singing the song together. All were lost in the moment, thinking of nothing but the present . . .

I had goosebumps. That experience is what I call a collective flow state.

Bill Russell, one of the greatest basketball players in history, was talking to a group of us at a JPMorgan Leadership offsite meeting. He described a playoff game where, for five minutes, the court "opened up" to him: somehow he knew where every player was (including those who were behind his back) and exactly what moves he needed to make. Even more mysterious, all of Russell's teammates felt exactly the same. They scored more points during those five minutes than ever before. Leaving the court in victory, they turned to one another and said, "We have to figure out how to do that again!"

Another collective flow state.

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first to research flow states and has written several books on the subject. He defines flow state as being completely present and fully immersed in a task. We all have experienced it at one time or another. Usually the moment we notice it is when we lose it (just like when I try to remember one of my dreams). It's a joyful, productive state that people long to experience as often as possible.

However, I'd suggest we devote more study to the notion of Collective Flow States. I think they have the potential of helping sports teams, orchestras, business units, academic teams, and maybe even families work better and accomplish more.

I've witnessed some activities that seem enhance the potential of groups to experience Collective Flow States:

• Share minds and spirits as you share a meal. I wrote recently about Jeffersonian Dinners--gatherings of 12-15 people including group conversation focused on a meaningful theme. A flowing conversation occurs in which everyone listens and everyone participates--sometimes producing a collective flow state.

• Take people out of their everyday routine. After several days at Outward Bound working on challenging tasks together, teams at my old firm, JPMorgan Partners, found themselves a closer-knit, more boundaryless group. Similarly, MIT Professors Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer have described the productivity leaps experienced by groups after tackling similar "stretch, group challenges" when used in the middle of their normal work assignments.

• Experience "being present" with others. The more you "feel" the collective flow state, the better you can model it for others. Like many other people, I can report that my meditation practice feels different and much deeper when it happens in a room with others.

• Become deeply conscious of others. At Berklee College of Music, where I am on the board, students learn not only to perform well but also to listen to, be aware of, and connect with the audience--an experience the great jazz clarinet player Anat Cohen calls "spiritual." It takes musicians with managed egos and refined listening skills to be aware of the audience while they are letting go in an improvisation.

• Train your mind to be more present. Harvard professor Dan Gilbert has found that aimless thoughts occupy our minds 46.9% of the time. If you can teach yourself to be more present by reducing the wandering thoughts, you'll be more likely to be able to listen to others, connect with others, and have a collective flow. Work in mind training is being done at all the major universities and by a number of for-profit companies (including some I've invested in--check out and if you have an interest).

In a world where collective problem-solving has been hampered by conflict, dissension, confusion, and mutual incomprehension, any experience that can enable people in groups to work, create, and achieve more effectively and joyfully together seems to be profoundly necessary--and important.

Have you experienced what I'm calling a collective flow state? How did it happen? Have you found any practical methods for re-attaining that state? Share your observations and help launch a dialogue on this neglected topic.