Jamming: creating conditions for enterprise innovation

An orchestra is a bit like a well run company. All of the elements of the orchestra – the strings, the brass, the percussion – are able to come together with a visible, engaged leader to make something better than the sum of its parts.

But in the modern world, is it enough? The orchestra plays beautiful, complex music – but while they may do it brilliantly, it is still old music performed just as thousands of orchestras have done before.

To maintain competitive advantage, companies need to innovate. If banks, for example, want to be around in 20 years they need to create new and different products to complete with a host of startups.

In other words, they need to do more of this…

Musicians, jamming

Pic: travellingwithoutmoving/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Jamming is the activity of getting a few musicians together in an informal setting to do their thing, simply to see what happens. There’s a fluid coordination there, with people working together as equals. From this collaboration exciting new sounds can emerge.

Regardless of the output, the process of jamming is also a rewarding one for participants. Jamming is fun; doing it helps people to become better musicians. When they play something magic happens for the individuals, and for the group, and potentially for the wider world too.

I first became interested in the concept of Jamming last year, when I read an essay by academic Eric M Eisenberg, Jamming: transcendence through organising.

“Jamming experiences are worthy of study because they are an often ecstatic way of balancing autonomy and interdependence in organizing. As such, they offer a different route, other than reciprocal disclosure, to community.” (Eisenberg, 1999, p. 139)

It struck me that Eisenberg’s description of jamming as an organisational approach is also a perfect description of the balance we need to achieve inside organisations if we are to help employees be productive, rewarded, engaged and innovative.

Researchers overwhelmingly agree engaged employees drive innovation. Engaged employees are empowered to find ways to innovate, whether that’s developing new products, improving the customer experience, or finding more efficient ways to do things.

And, in a neat circle, innovation also drives employee engagement. Help employees innovate and they become more engaged, which makes them even more likely to innovate, and so on.

Organisations bring in Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs), ideation programmes and the like in order to deliver this virtuous circle. But few use them successfully to drive innovation because they’re focused on stopping things going wrong – not helping them go right.

Leveraging collaboration tools inside the firewall can transform communications and engagement, providing a means to break down silos and help people work better together. But concerns around risk can prevent them driving real benefits from collaboration tools – particularly in regulated industries like banking.

On the one hand, they need to ensure policies, systems and processes minimise any risks of compliance failure. On the other, too many rules create a culture of fear and inhibit people from taking the risks necessary for innovation.

For most organisations that balance tips in favour of minimising risk. And not without reason, as the financial and reputational costs of failure are huge.

But in this post I’ll argue that if organisations want to build the kind of successful innovation culture that’s essential to their future growth, they need to create the right conditions for jamming.

What is jamming?

Eisenberg noted jamming has four key characteristics:

  • Jamming is transcendent. It allows people to become part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing is just the group itself
  • Jamming embraces diversity. For it to succeed participants need to have different skillsets and knowledge that complement each other
  • Jamming is fragile. It is rare and temporary. No one can force it to happen, and participants need to go into it with an open mind about the outcome
  • Jamming is risky. When people improvise they are, by definition, venturing into the unknown. They must accept and embrace the vulnerability that comes with the potential for failure.

These characteristics don’t come about by themselves. Jamming requires a number of preconditions – skill, setting, structure and surrender.

“To facilitate jamming experiences, an organization must create a structure for surrender, within which risk is rewarded, not punished, and work groups are kept sufficiently autonomous to ensure the development and survival of novel ideas.” (Eisenberg, 1999)

In other words, jamming thrives when leaders give highly skilled people the freedom to take risks together in pursuit of common goal.

Enterprise Social Networks and innovation programmes could provide an ideal basis on which organisations can provide the conditions for jamming, if done well. Let’s look at each of these preconditions, and consider at how they can exist within the enterprise.

Skill

Once you have a reasonable level of competence you can really get stuck into – and start to enjoy – a task. We sometimes talk about being in the zone when someone is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus and enjoyment in an activity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this as a state of flow – a highly focused and creative mental state.

Video games have perfected this flow concept, becoming more complex as the player progresses and learns. Winding your way through Dark Souls III provides both experiences of failure (from which you can learn), but also more rewarding moments of success, giving a sense of achievement. Once the player has developed sufficient understanding of the environment and controls, they can get ‘in the zone’ and really enjoy playing while being neither over- nor under-challenged.

The same is true in most collaborative contexts at work. For a group to work together effectively everyone involved needs to be unselfconscious enough about their own mastery to get on with the task. Collaboration requires a minimal level of skill at the task in hand.

So to create the conditions for jamming, organisations need to help people reflect on the skills they have and what they can bring to collaboration. This could be through your performance process, through connecting the ESN to your learning and development platform, or providing other ways for people to identify their own skill and knowledge levels.

In the context of the large enterprise – where people are collaborating as virtual or dispersed teams, it also requires a minimum level of skill at collaborating itself.

First, people need to know need to know how to use the tools provided (such as Office 365 or Jive) so this doesn’t present a barrier to collaboration.

But they also need to adapt working practices so they enable collaborative working in virtual teams – from managing linguistic and cultural differences to being able to motivate others when separated by distance.  Martin White’s paper on Managing Virtual Teams sets out some of these challenges.

To make the most of collaboration tools, organisations need to upskill their people on both the technical and cultural practices of virtual teams.

Jamming requires participants’ skill levels to be comparable. Professional footballers rarely enjoy playing with amateurs, because their inferior skills stop them scoring. A band jamming is only as good as the weakest member; a poor bassist will let the rest of the band down.

But that doesn’t mean they have to be the same. People need to have different sets of skill and knowledge that complement each other in order for it to work well. A football team needs a good striker as well as a good goalkeeper.

To create the conditions for innovation and collaboration at work, organisations must help people of comparable and complementary skills to come together.

A good people directory and people profiles that feature skills experience could support this. In the future this could be developed further to use AI to match people with comparable and complementary skills and interests and proactively suggest who they could work with toward a particular challenge.

Structure

As I said above, too many rules and too much governance close down the possibilities for innovation. Excessive structure represses creativity.

Yet structure can be liberating. Contradictions arise only where some things are inflexible. Necessity is the mother of invention. So in the workplace there are defined roles and rules – from what job you do to how you book a meeting room – but at the same time people are given freedom to approach their work as they choose.

When musicians jam they don’t make a random noise. Instead, they work within established conventions of their chosen musical genre and riff from there. So 90% of what they do is predictable; it’s the 10% that’s unpredictable that makes it all exciting.

Organisations have formal rules and processes that everyone needs to work within. In addition there will be informal ones like behavioural norms and communication conventions.

When groups form to work together, they might also wish to set their own rules of engagement – for example decide who will do what and how long they will spend on the work.  This helps people to understand what is expected of them, enabling them to feel comfortable enough to work with others.

People prefer to play by the rules. But those rules must allow enough flex and autonomy in the structure for people to be able to self-direct and take some risks.

Setting

Jamming happens best when people step away from normal life, so those involved can approach the task as equals, based on skill alone.

Eisenberg talks about the behavioural coordination that happens in jamming as being characterised by minimal disclosure. That is, that it’s because people know so little about the other participants that they perform so well.

In other words, jamming is easier with strangers. People who already know and work with one another have to work to set aside their established interactions and ways of doing things. With entirely new people it’s much harder to fall into established patterns and habits.

At work we have little reason to work with complete strangers – and are unlikely to have the time to do so. So organisations need to more proactively bring together strangers and give them the time, space and permission to try something new.

Intrapreneurial work teams need to be sheltered from normal organisational constraints and rewarded for their efforts. For innovation and creativity to happen organisations need to think differently about employee performance and reward so that seemingly unfocused collaboration is considered a valuable use of staff time – regardless of what it delivers.

Surrender

By definition jamming isn’t something that can be forced, and has no predefined outcome. To jam successfully everyone involved needs to accept a loss of some control.

That’s not to say successful jamming is entirely dependent on luck. Good preparation and innate skill are important, and it’s absolutely critical to approach this kind of unstructured collaboration with the right attitude.

That means being willing to cede control and feel comfortable with uncertainty.  This concept of surrender is particularly common in Eastern philosophy. My yoga teacher, for example, often talks about surrendering into a pose. That means just accepting that it might feel a bit odd or uncomfortable, and being ok with that.

As kids we are creative all the time; as we grow older we stop being creative as we fear being judged by our peers. To innovate we have to expose a little bit of ourselves and accept that vulnerability.

To really get value from ESNs as ways to drive innovation and new ideas, people need to surrender and accept that it might feel strange. To accept the risk that nothing might come of it in order to create the possibility that it will.

But to drive innovation, organisations need to surrender too. They need to be open to people finding new and innovative ways to use to solve problems, and in so doing deliver tangible value.

They need to accept that not every unstructured collaboration will result in something exciting, but by encouraging it they create conditions for great things to happen in time.

Structure for surrender – and innovation

To identify and develop new and innovative ideas, organisations need to provide a structure for surrender.

Enterprise Social Networks are in many ways ideal tools to do that. They enable people to identify others with comparable but complementary skills, using people search and facilitating connections. They provide a setting in which these self-organising groups can collaborate without any baggage. The organisations they support provide familiar rules and structure in which collaboration can take place.

But to take collaboration up to the next level – to really jam – means organisations need to pivot their approach, and create an environment in which risk is rewarded, not punished, and collaborating groups are given the autonomy to develop their ideas.

It’s clear collaboration presents a governance challenge for organisations; the more tightly they prescribe how a tool should be used, the more they close down the possibilities for innovation and engagement.

To enable innovation organisations need to focus less on managing risk and more on driving value. On creating the conditions for jamming so they can reap the benefits of serendipity.

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