Jam Your Way to Creativity, Community and Transcendence

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“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)

Upon reading that for the first time in 2007, I—along with several of my fellow doctoral classmates at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte—concluded that the author was probably—no, most certainly—high. 

Such sentences, we thought at the time, were likely only constructed under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. 

But before long, Eric Eisenberg’s article, “Jamming: Transcendence through organizing,” became one of my favorites. (Special thanks to Cliff Scott, the scholar who assigned it to us.) It’s an essay that uses the activity of musicians jamming, or improvising, as a way to make us think differently about how people relate with each other. 

The “Jamming” article has a number of key insights about how we humans organize. But I think some of the most basic and relevant ones have to do with how leaders might think about the conditions under which their people are likely to “jam” in a way that brings them together to be creative. 

Given that most executives whom I talk with seem to like creativity and innovation, here are some of the take-away points from “Jamming.” 

First, jamming tends to have four characteristics. 

Jamming is transcendent, meaning that it allows people to become part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger “something” is just the small circle of others in the jam. 

Jamming embraces diversity, meaning that people need to have different sets of skill and knowledge that complement each other in order for it to work well. 

Jamming is fragile, meaning that it’s temporary and rare. Forcing it to happen probably doesn’t work. 

Jamming can be risky, meaning that the participants are by definition venturing into the unknown when they improvise, and they must have a sense of comfort with the vulnerability that such an experience requires. 

Second, Eisenberg observed that jamming requires four conditions. 

  1. Skill: Those involved in a jam session must have a high level of proficiency in their given craft to even have a chance at contributing effectively. 
  2. Structure: Although improvisation can seem highly unstructured, it’s not. Basic rules of music apply, and these rules can help the participants know where to improvise and where not to improvise. Basic rules of engineering and science certainly still apply in the realm of research and development. 
  3. Setting: Jamming often occurs in places that are allow people to feel separated from daily life, making them more likely to discard their normal way of doing things in favor uninhibited collaboration. Because this is primarily based upon skill, not personality, jamming often—if not primarily—occurs among strangers. 
  4. Surrender: Those who seek control will likely not do well in a jam session, and trying to force a highly creative, transcendent experience rarely works well. 

For leaders in organizations who see value in “jamming” experiences because of the creativity that they can foster, Eisenberg offers some thoughts: 

“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. At the same time, jamming requires careful selection of participants, especially relative to skill levels, so that poor performers unable to work within themselves do not limit the rest of the group.” (p. 158, italics are the author's)

In short, jamming thrives when leaders give highly skilled people the freedom to take risks together.  

Similar to the notion of “jamming” are the connections among play, trust and creativity. 

As Tim Brown of IDEO explains in his TED talk below, being creative requires us to be uninhibited and vulnerable. 

It requires us to be willing to engage in playful activity without fear of judgment. If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to watch this insightful and humorous talk. 

Sometimes, perhaps, we need to be a little bit more like children—even at work. 

So, is your organization one that helps people “jam” and be creative? What do you think leaders can do to help teams unleash their creativity? 

Reference
Eisenberg, E. M. (1990). Jamming transcendence through organizing. Communication Research, 17(2), 139-164.

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.