Work Like Jazz To Create Flow

When I get space to listen to music on my own terms, i.e. without my kids demanding to listen to Hamilton or Frozen, I tend to default to feel good pop music like Coldplay and U2.

These pop rock bands have a gift for creating expansive sonic space that lifts the spirit and resolves with major-chord-confidence.

This undeniable feeling of resolution, even if only for a few moments, is just what my anxious soul needs…a taste of satisfying closure.

Miles Davis & John Coltrane

Jazz, on the other hand, is a style of music that I am learning to appreciate. The song structures aren’t as easily mappable for my pop-attuned ears.

Jazz musicians have the ability to listen and respond to each other, creating space for something to emerge. Nothing is prescribed.

Jazz is more like a dance.

Jazz music ebbs and flows. There is a shared intution among jazz members as they create fertile ground for improvisation. They sense when the song evolves and changes course, and they share leadership.

However, the closure is not aways forthright.

Living without closure

In our work life, closure and satisfaction are rare. This causes us to move through the world with underlying anxiety and dissastisfaction that, if we are honest with ourselves, will never be completed resolved.

When we let this inner discontentment drive our behaviors we unconsciously demand others to resolve it for us, which quickly undermines any ability to collaborate effectively or empower others, and it erodes any chance to increase collective potential.

This “pop rock” way of operating demands an immediate resolution. Give me the hook within 30 seconds or else…

It is a characteristic of the command and control, hierachical leadership style of a bygone era where managers demand results from prescribed objectives without much awareness or regard to the human implications or dynamics.

Unfortunately this is still extremely pervasive in modern day business which is chock full of performance reviews and pyramid-shaped org charts.

The Emerging Paradigm

The good news is there is an emerging paradigm, a new way of working that resembles an improvisational jazz ensemble, and it is forming in the midst of massive change.

We live in an age of profound disruption where something is ending and dying, and something else is wanting to be born. What’s ending and dying is a civilization that’s built on the mindset of maximum me. -Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT

Again, this is good news for all of us because it’s a movement beyond our current ego-centric culture towards an eco-centric approach that fundamentally honors all of life in it’s complexity, our nested environments, and is grounded in a deep hope for a better future.

So what does it look like?

Well, it can’t be simplified into an org design chart or succinctly defined as a step-by-step process. That’s why the word emerging is being used. We are in a state of in between where we need to pay attention, and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.

Change is the new normal.

This emerging business paradigm is a future state that we are co-creating in an environment of constant flux. The new way of working embraces change as the status quo instead of resisting and controlling it.

With this in mind it is imperative to develop new leaders who embody broadened awareness, increased empathy, and expanded consciousness with the goal of transforming society; our work cultures included.

We need to let go of old patterns of working that have collectively lead to undesirable outcomes — socially, economically and spiritually — and let come the emerging patterns that will illuminate our desired future.

In other words, the emerging paradigm requires us to practice ways of being in between because that’s where all the transformative energy resides. The in between is both between what was and what is to come as well as what the great philospher, Martin Buber would call between I and Thou, where the Other in a relationship is not separated by discrete bounds. I like to say,

Relationship is the juice.

Everything that we desire in our collective future has to do with the interrelatedness and dynamism of in between. For us to succeed we need to give language and materiality to relationship itself.

Jazz is a well-suited metaphor

This emerging paradigm requires business leaders to double down on relationship as currency and hone skills similar to those of a jazz musicians who are adept at:

Sensing and responding to what’s happening in the moment,
Leading and letting go with flow, and
Opening to the emerging sounds and energy flow of the room.

This, of course, takes practice, humility, skill development, and intentional conditioning. The thing that I love about this is that shared-leadership is embedded in the process. If we could emulate a jazz ensemble in our work environments we would create cultures of empowerment and shared responsibility where something could emerge at any moment.

Wouldn’t that be exciting?!?

Let me clarify something. This is not some anarchical way of operating where anything goes at any time, or some hippy, West Coast business version of Woodstock.

On the contrary, in order for this emerging paradigm to flourish, a common purpose and agreed upon values must exist within the organization to direct the collective movement. Furthermore, the purpose must be greater than the business itself, inclusive of an eco-system of stakeholders.

Within this framework of ever broadening circles of responsibility and cognition, people are able to fully live into their particular roles, which become more meaningful over time within the context of the purposeful organization.

Chad the nanny was on to something

Maybe Chad the nanny from Jerry Maguire was on to something when he awkwardly told Jerry,

Miles Davis and Jon Coltrane, Stockholm, 1963 — Two masters of Freedom playing at time before their art was corrupted by a zillion cocktail lounge performers who destroyed the legacy of the only true American Art form — Jazz

Chad was right, Davis and Coltrane were masters of freedom. They played Jazz as an expressive art form and were masters at improvisation, letting the music flow and become.

Dr. Charles Limb, researcher and musician, wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians in an fMRI to find out.

See his Ted Talk here: Charles Limb’s Ted Talk: Your Brain on Improv

His first study involved looking at the neurological activity of a musician while playing something that’s memorized vs. something that’s improvised. Limb’s hypothesis from this research study claims that:

In order to be creative you have to have a weird disassociation in your frontal lobe so that you’re not inhibited, so that your willing to make mistakes, so that you’re not constantly shutting down new generative impulses.

His second study involved looking at the neurological activity of a musician while communicating and improvising with another musician. This study showed the language areas of the brain lighting up.

These are areas of the brain thought to be involved in expressive communication.

This is quite interesting because the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area that is quieting during musical improvisation, is the primary area of cognitive awareness.

So in order to be creative, communicative, and improvisational, we must quiet the part of the brain that over analyzes and over thinks and let generative impulses come forth.

When this happens we stop demanding or expecting. We become fully present, fully embodying ourselves and in mutual reciprocal exchange with others and our surroundings.

So how do we quiet our prefrontal cortex and enter flow states?

Flow State

Best selling author, Steven Kotler, has has been studying the optimization of consiousness through flow states for many years. He describes flow like this:

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.
It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain conditions are met.

He says there are 17 pre-conditional triggers that lead to more flow. They come in four varieties: psychological, environmental, social, and creative. These flow triggers are circumstances that speed entrance into the flow state.

For example, a psychological trigger is immediate feedback.

As a focusing mechanism, immediate feedback is something of an extension of clear goals. Clear goals tell us what we’re doing; immediate feedback tells us how to do it better.
If we know how to improve performance in real time, the mind doesn’t go off in search for clues of betterment, we can keep ourselves fully present and fully focused, and thus much more likely to be in flow.

This is why performance reviews shouldn’t exist. They don’t work and completely undermine real time flow by creating high stress moments of direct feedback that actually cause decreased performance.

Kotler’s flow work, much of which is performed on high performing action sports athletes, has very similar neurological findings to Limbs. Kotler says:

In flow, parts of the brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing down, shutting down. The technical term for this is transient, meaning temporary, hypo frontality. Hypo — H — Y — P — O — it’s the opposite of hyper means to slow down, to shut down, to deactivate. And frontality is the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that houses your higher cognitive functions, your sense of morality, your sense of will, your sense of self.

What I find extremely fascinating is this statement:

As flow produces one of the most potent neurochemical cocktails around, the state has a massive impact on our ability to acquire new skills and knowledge.

This is particularly important as we consider our environment of rapid and accelerating change.

Flow Science provides us with a neurological understanding of what’s required of us to thrive in this emerging business paradigm. Adapting quickly and gaining new skills and knowledge is paramount.

Create a culture of improvisation

As I mentioned earlier, Jazz is not first on my Spotify playlist. It’s certainly not anywhere on Billboards Hot 100, and I don’t expect it ever will be.

When I get my ten minutes alone in the car on my way to Trader Joes for the second time in a week, I want a quick fix of feel good. I want Adele to set fire to the Seattle rain and boost my soul!

This is not going to change anytime soon either. I promise!

However, learning to listen Jazz, from its complex chord structures to its improvisational framework, has expanded my understanding and apprecation for an evolutionary way of being.

Jazz presents a very good example for designing working conditions that create flow, more-so than pop music.

I see Jazz as a practice, something that is constantly worked on, always evolving. There is no resolution or closure. However, when it’s embodied, it creates freedom and flow, both of which are desirable and necessary to flourish in the emerging business paradigm.

I see pop as a milestone moment, something that is achieved. It has a verse, a chorus, and a bridge that pierce the heart strings and create sonic magic in three and a half minutes or less.

As a songwriter who writes mostly pop rock songs, I know how difficult it is to create those milestones. When I do have a moment of inspiration and clarity and a new song comes forth, it is more often than not when I have been practicing like jazz…long enough to quiet my prefrontal cortex and get into a flow state. Having a glass of red wine often assists in the process as well.

Jazz gives us an improvisational framework that we can emulate in our work lives that will help us thrive in spite of our inner discontentment caused by a lack of closure and a hyper-focus on outcomes.

By creating a culure of improvisation we will allow others to bring forth their own unique gifts instead of demanding immediate results.

The hit song (or business) may or may not come, but it’s not the point. The point is being present, open and willing to allow the desired future to emerge.

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Related Links:

Video of Miles Davis and Jon Coltrane’s 1960 Stockholm Concert: