Group Flow

jazz20bandRenowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the optimal experience as being in the Flow state. In this state, the individual is totally immersed in the activity they are performing, they are focused on it totally, fully concentrating on the task at hand. Self-consciousness is lost and time seems to stand still or go by unnoticed.

To achieve this state of Flow, the skill of the individual and the challenge posed by the task are high (but not so high as to be unachievable), the goal is purposeful and there is clarity in what you are trying to achieve and progress towards it is received immediately and constantly.

Henrik Forsgård extends this in his TEDTalk Group Flow[1], where he draws comparisons to a Jazz Ensemble on how Flow is achieved within a team environment.

To achieve Group Flow, the skill levels of the teams individuals need to be similar, they need to understand each others abilities, position and motivations and know that their teammates are interested in what they are doing. They need social feedback on an affective (emotional) level that helps develop rapport and build trust within the team and, just like individual flow, they need clear goals, immediate feedback on progress and a challenge that matches their collective skill level.

When Group Flow is achieved the self becomes suspended and extends to the group; the emotional state of the individuals becomes contagious and spreads through the group; the group develops a collective sense of purpose, believing they now belong to something greater and they start to institutionalise the ceremonies / rituals that they used to develop rapport and the Group Flow experience.

Satisfying these conditions brings individuals together in a joyful and purposeful endeavour. This is Group Flow.

Many of us have been in teams where Group Flow has been achieved and, having achieved it and the recognition it deserves, we have gone on to institutionalise the approach by describing our practices, artefacts and ceremonies in the belief that other teams would follow our rituals in order to attain the holy grail of optimum performance through Group Flow within their team / organisation.

When we institutionalize these practices and ceremonies we are attempting to shape the activities and team structures to foster flow whilst removing the impediments that obstruct it.

If we look to Scrum or XP we see a number of practices, ceremonies, artifacts and roles that have this intent but lack the rituals that are needed to develop rapport and hence truly develop Group Flow.

It is these rituals that are overlooked and for obvious reasons.

For example, which activity is more likely to develop rapport in a team:

  1. Daily Stand-up
  2. Retrospective
  3. Having a Scary-Mask day at the office

I’d argue the first two are there for synchronization and continuous improvement but the third will help build rapport within the team more effectively. This generates affective social feedback.

And this is why it’s difficult and perhaps another reason why there are so many reports that Agile didn’t quite do what it said on the tin. In no Agile process framework have I come across the Scary-Mask day ritual, or the wear odd-shoes day activity for that matter (though that may have been an accident that sparked an epidemic). They are intrinsic to the team and cannot be institutionalized.

So let’s assume you have achieved Individual Flow and this has been extended to the team and the characteristics of Group Flow can clearly be observed.

Job done!

However, the balance in achieving Flow is intrinsically fragile for the individual and the group.

For the individual and a team, if skills begin to exceed challenges, which they will surely do as the individual and team becomes more experienced, then boredom sets in and Flow is lost.

For Group Flow, the institutionalisation of the practices leads us to become focused on the process rather than on team rapport, the practices become repeatable rather than engaging and team mojo begins to wain. In a one year project of 2-week iterations, that’s 26 Sprint Planning sessions, 26 retrospectives, 26 Sprint Demos and 220+ Daily Stand-Ups. Just how many do you need to do for them to become repetitive and dull?

Once boredom arrives, Flow is lost.

We therefore need to provide individuals with a series of graded challenges, able to accommodate a person’s continued and deepening enjoyment as skills grow[2].

We also need to set the team a vision for perfection they can continually strive for where all practices become subservient to that vision.

And we need to wear scary masks now and again.


[2] Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2005, Chapter 7, The Concept of Flow, Jeanne Nakamura & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


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