Many years back, at the start of a large project, we quickly realized that we were facing a critical problem that, if not fixed, would kill the project. To address this, we gathered all the essential stakeholders in a large conference room to figure out how to fix the problem. The meeting quickly became chaotic as people passionately debated and disagreed about everything from project tasks to development methodologies. Ideas bounced and swirled chaotically around the room, flashing randomly like fireflies in the forest. Tension in the room continued to rise, but the meeting facilitators did not stop to rein in the chaos. Instead, they only gave light mental nudges of "what if" or "what about" statements that intensified the swirl of debate and ideas. And then, surprisingly, the room fell calm as the group synergized on a path forward. A feeling of euphoria hung over the room. It was truly magical.
This was not the first time I saw this pattern occur at work. In fact, I have seen the magic of synchronicity happen many times. However, these cases left me wondering how and why teams reach a critical level of coupling that enables large groups of people to come together and accomplish monumental things. Is there an environment, process, or rules that could allow the magic to happen more often?
Selfishly, as a change agent working to help transform teams, figuring the magic out would simplify my life. After all, getting people to pull together is perhaps the most challenging part of a change agent's job. So let me share with you what I have learned about ways to synchronize groups of people.
Fireflies and Humans
The Smoky Mountain National Park in the United States is known for its spectacular light show of fireflies flashing in unison. Their light can be seen for miles. You might first think that one firefly is leading others to blink, but that is not what is happening. Instead, they are synchronizing each other's internal clock to trigger a flash at the same rate and time. The process is that when a non-lit firefly sees a nearby flash, it nudges its internal clock forward. The nudge continues until a pair, then a small group, then many groups sync until the entire swarm hits a critical threshold, and they all start flashing simultaneously. The cool thing is that humans have similar behaviors as well.
In human systems, we couple to survive. Synchrony allows us to accomplish more together than we could alone. Interpersonal synchrony is one of our many behavioral strategies to form affiliations with others. Combine that with a strong human desire to bring order to things, and we start to have a formula for the magic we want to create.
First step: End the Us-Verses-Them Narrative
The human brain is hardwired to be tribal. As a result, human beings are more likely to be generous when in a group of family members, friends, or direct coworkers. In addition, groups cultivate shared norms about fairness and kindness, making people more likely to cooperate and more likely to synchronize.
This tribal nature is both an advantage and a hindrance when motivating people in the same direction. The way people talk about others--both internally and externally--is an excellent indicator of how well a team is doing. If the dominant descriptor is "us" or "we," then greater workforce cohesion contributes to success. If not, then our first step is to address that.
My approach to getting a group to "us" is to set the stage by acknowledging the similarities and values of the group and why we're here. Kicking off a working session with a few top-level goals or values can help in a company setting. The most important thing is to establish a rule that we will all uphold a "we" perspective and that anybody is empowered to call it out when this isn't happening.
Next: Embrace The Chaos
In almost all situations where people are far from agreement or alignment on something, we are most likely in a chaotic place. So we need to learn how to harness the chaos to our advantage.
The best ideas can come from how we maneuver in chaos when it comes to creative inspiration. Different possibilities are continuously being explored in this stimulating environment, and unconventional solutions are welcomed. The trick is to not let the chaos collapse too soon or we may miss something genuinely transformative.
It should be noted that not all chaotic situations benefit from leaving them in chaos. Of course, when human safety is at risk, it is essential to stabilize the problem quickly. But when dealing with the situation I called out in my opening, our goal is to create enough stability to experiment with lots of ideas.
My go-to toolkit here is creating safe-to-fail probes and experiments to surround the problem space, but other ideation techniques work as well. The goal is to get as many diverse ideas on the table to experiment with as possible. Although some ideas may seem reasonable, naïve, outlandish, bold, etcetera, our goal is to get ideas swirling around the team by looking at the issues from many perspectives.
Catalyze: Stir Ideas Around The Room
The term “nudge” refers to a slight shift or change that facilitates interpersonal synchronization. Like in my opening example, leaders were not forcing the debate to end or making a decision for the group prematurely. On the contrary, their what-if and what-about questions were intended to nudge the team to keep discussion and the swirl of ideas going.
The goal is to give more opportunities for individuals to contribute, embrace, and catalyze around the ideas of their peers. Then, as ideas start to slow, people will begin to hit a critical threshold—the team synchronizes, and a dominant idea is chosen. Like the fireflies, the team is now blinking in unison.
What Have We Achieved?
Well, many things. Synchronization is crucial for team productivity. When people synchronize and move together to make a project successful, they have higher productivity. We also have increased ownership because the team contributed to helping the idea become a solution. We also depend on the bond between everyone who contributed to the process, perhaps even creating a new tribe made up of people who normally don't get a chance to work together. This process can also lead to fewer communication issues and conflicts.
Lastly, we tapped into the team's diversity and innovation. Multiple ideas came to the table, and we used our organizational brain to solve seemingly intangible problems. This enables teams to move together as one, opening up opportunities to create solutions and making our teams better in the process. This is something truly transformative.
Do you want to learn more? Take a look at Dave Snowden’s work on Safe-to-fail probes. Also, if you want to see an excellent video on the broader magic of synchronization, then take a look at Veritasim’s video “The Surprising Secret of Synchronization.”