Connect People • Strengthen Leaders • Embrace the Future


Group Flow

June 27, 2013 by Deborah Gilburg

“So I think we’ve a plan forming – you’re gonna love this, it involves blindfolds…” Joseph was interrupted at that moment by an announcement that required our attention. Reluctantly, the 8 of us turned away to attend to the speaker at the front of the room.

We were having dinner together on Day 2 of a 3-day training program. The dinner was held at the conference center where we were meeting, in honor of the program participants. Prior to Joseph’s declaration, he had been talking with three people who were part of our facilitation team about the next day. We had planned an outdoor excursion to help participants internalize what they had been learning about leadership, but the weather report did not bode well.

Jon and I had been talking with two other men, Tim and Dave, who’d joined us at our table. They were not associated with our group, but were here on other business and had been invited to join the dinner party by our client. After the announcements all of us turned back to Joseph, including Tim and Dave.

“Go on,” encouraged Dave. “You were talking about blindfolds.”

We were all ears as Joseph excitedly explained the plan he and the others had started to cook up. It was risky, yet it held a certain ritualistic allure. We all dug in, asking questions, voicing concerns, and refining Joseph’s idea to address those concerns. In the end, we had an intriguing, reasonable, indoor Plan B that included some help at a key moment from both Dave and Tim, who agreed to be on hand at that time if need be.

The experience floored me. I was surprised by the complete engagement of the two men we had just met, as well as Joseph’s keenness to include them without question in the planning and the implementation of the process. With a modicum of understanding of our program (and of us), they were able to improvise and collaborate with us to develop the Plan B process. It felt almost effortless, as we riffed off each other’s ideas, eventually landing on an innovative outcome that met the goal. It was a collective creation, solidifying into an inventive plan that frankly, none of us could have conceived of alone.

This conversation brought to mind a term coined by psychologist, educator and author Keith Sawyer: group flow. Group flow refers to a high functioning, collective state of mind within a team or group that leads to creative and innovative outcomes. Sawyer’s idea was an adaptation of the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who used the term flow to describe a particular state of heightened consciousness in creative individuals.

In his seminal book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Sawyer upends popular myths about individual creativity and the “lone genius,” revealing the true “collaborative” story behind several well-known innovations. Drawing from many years of studying jazz bands, improvisational theater troupes and the science of creativity, he illuminates the structural rules and conditions that undergird seemingly effortless ingenuity.

Sawyer identifies ten conditions that enable group flow, and thus, heighten creativity and collaboration in teams. This, of course, leads to more innovative and effective problem solving, skills that are becoming more and more necessary in our changing, complex and uncertain workplaces. I witnessed several of these conditions at play in our effort to develop Plan B and will share a few examples, but I highly recommend you read the book!

 Understanding the Group’s Goal

Sawyer notes that group flow is heightened by different conditions, depending on the goal of the group. When a goal is well understood and explicitly stated, it becomes a problem-solving creative task — i.e. “we need to develop a meaningful, indoor process for self reflection that can effectively replace an outdoor hike to a beautiful location.” In this case, group flow is enhanced when there is communal knowledge, shared assumptions and a compelling mission or purpose. These elements were already present on our facilitation team, and we were quickly able to include Tim and Dave in the task at hand.

Alternatively, when the goal is directly related to the performance itself—like developing a novel product or idea, or creating a collective understanding of the scope of a problem—group flow is more possible when the group establishes a goal that provides focus for the team (like a good, meaningful question) but leaves enough space for problem-finding creativity to emerge.

Close Listening

Typically, people spend too much time planning their own actions and not enough time listening to and observing others. Collaborative ideas require that team members pay close attention to what is emerging, not just to their own perspective. Because we needed a Plan B that would by its indoor nature be vastly different from Plan A, we were curious and had few preconceived notions – just Joseph’s idea, which he was willing to let us play with. Tim and Dave did not know enough to push for an idea, and were able to observe our interactions and ask questions that helped us to clarify what we were thinking.

Equal Participation and Inclusion

Group Flow is more likely when participants contribute equally, and feel their contributions are valued. Where there is unequal power and authority within a group, flow is sapped, unless participating supervisors/managers grant autonomy and authority to the group’s emergent process. Groups that are too homogenous in their perspectives are also at risk of blocking creative flow. Recognizing when a team is “breathing its own exhaust,” and mixing things up to include more diverse membership can re-invigorate a discussion and increase group flow.

As the lead facilitator, Joseph could have pushed to keep his idea in its original form, rejecting the changes that we developed. Instead, he chose to let the idea transition through the collaborative process. And by including Tim and Dave in the discussion, whose lack of insider knowledge gave them a unique perspective, we were able to identify and address important concerns that may not have occurred to us. 

A balance of tensions:

Creativity often emerges within the tensions created by paradox when we can resist embracing one side over the other. Operating in and holding such tensions in balance can heighten group flow and lead to innovative outcomes. Creative teams benefit from balancing:

o  Convention & novelty

o  Structure & Improvisation

o  Critical, analytical mindset & diverging, outside-the-box mindset

o  Listening to others & sharing an idea

o  Good guidelines for ensuring inclusion of diverse perspectives, group cohesion and forward momentum


In addition to what was listed above, our group had to hold the tension between having the plan locked down and being flexible if the weather held. It meant being ready for two possible scenarios. This tension did not resolve itself until shortly after lunch the following day, when weather updates confirmed that thunderstorms would not be in the area until late that afternoon.

So we never did implement Plan B – which aligns with another condition of group flow — there is always great potential for failure or an idea never getting off the ground. As Sawyer observes, by nature, innovation is inefficient. We need to be prepared to learn from mishaps, respond to changing conditions, redesign, and try again. We chose to stick with Plan A given the favorable weather, but if such a challenge ever presents itself again, we’ll be ready!