Collective Flow – The Rhythm of Creative Collaboration

If I only had a dollar for every time an Agile team member complained about not having time free of distractions so that they could completely focus on getting their work done…

In the article Flow: The Secret of Creativity, High Performance, and Happiness, we explored Flow from the perspective of the individual and discussed several ways to more easily access this state of consciousness and thereby reap the benefits of higher levels of performance, mastery, creativity, and happiness. I get it: What the individual team members are looking for are ample opportunities to get into individual flow (distraction-free hyperfocus and creativity).

But the nature of our world today tends to involve highly collaborative endeavors. The complex problems we are called on to solve frequently require working with others and engaging in frequent and intense creative collaboration. Stealing away time for distraction-free focus to enter the individual flow state isn’t always easy.

This raises the question:

Can a team or a group collaborate and still achieve flow collectively?

Watching an orchestra or a jazz ensemble, admiring a pair of dancers moving as one across the dance floor, observing a team of rowers synchronize the movement of the oars as they cut through the water, we see the answer: Flow for a team or group is the rhythm they create together.

When each individual spontaneously adapts to operate at the same frequency of the group, while still offering the best of themselves, magic happens in the collective. Each is able to feed off of the focus, energy, and creativity of the others; and each is intentional about creating the space for the others to succeed. The entire group operates as a single synchronized organism – all driven by the same shared purpose toward the same shared goal.

But what about Agile teams? Can your team experience collective flow and have a similar experience of focused energy and creativity together?

” Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

– Agile Manifesto

I believe when the writers of the Agile manifesto referred to sustainable development or maintaining a constant pace indefinitely, they were referring to collective flow – the rhythm that an interdisciplinary group of people can achieve together.

So, how do teams achieve this rhythm? What does a team have to do to achieve collective flow?

Collective flow happens when each member is deeply aware and connected to a collective endeavor – the single shared goal to which they are each contributing.

A team that wants to achieve flow should have a shared goal that the entire team is committed to and work towards.

Collective flow happens when all are engaged in a compelling activity that has meaning or enjoyment for each individual in the collective.

A team that wants to achieve flow should make their collaborative sessions purposeful and enjoyable.

Collective flow happens when each member understands their individual contribution to the collective and takes responsibility to develop their competence towards mastery so they can participate fully and equally in the collective.

A team that wants to achieve flow ensures that each team member understands the value of their contribution.
A team that wants to achieve flow ensures opportunities where each member can participate more fully and equally.

Collective flow happens when each member appreciates the qualities of the others in the contribution they make to the collective.

A team that wants to achieve flow appreciates each other's contribution.

Collective flow happens when there is an intense focus on achieving a rhythm by being fully present and sensing and adjusting to maintain that rhythm.

A team that wants to achieve flow encourages everyone to be fully present.
A team that wants to achieve flow incorporates feedback mechanisms so each member can sense and adjust to the team’s rhythm.

Collective flow is achieved more easily where the outcome is consequential or risky.

A team that wants to achieve flow works towards meaningful and bold outcomes 

What is beautiful about collective flow is that each team member is in their own flow state while also contributing to the rhythm of the collective. And flow is contagious; people feed off of the focus of others. (So it pays to be responsible for your own flow, to be fully present, and to sense and adjust to the rhythm of the collective.)

Flow is contagious; people feed off of the focus of others

The rhythm of collective flow is created as teams optimize their time between periods of high focus and productivity together (synchronous flow) and periods for individual focus and mastery (asynchronous flow). Ultimately, it requires team members to participate fully and enthusiastically as creative collaborators.

When teams optimize their time by moving into periods of high focus and productivity together, they end up working like a beautifully synchronized crew team. They probably move about as quickly, too.

– Liz Funk

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