Team flow – The Magic of Collaboration
Inspired by The Rolling Stones
Michael Makowski, MSc
Institute of Business Administration
Hogeschool Utrecht (University of Applied Sciences), Utrecht
This paper is about the conceptual framework of team flow and the action research project at the
Hogeschool Utrecht (University of Applied Sciences) which has been launched recently.
Have you ever linked the performance of The Rolling Stones – as a longstanding successful music
business - to concepts of leadership and collaboration? By doing so, you can discover critical
success factors for a new quality in collaboration, called team flow.
The key elements of the team flow concept are
- authentic communication
- complementary qualities and habits
- shared leadership
- sharing a common passion
- synergetic identity
These elements find further ground in the U-Theory by Scharmer, the concept of team roles by
Belbin, the shared leadership approach by Pearce, and others.
You will probably have heard of the theory of Czíkszentmihályi, “that people are most happy
when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity
at hand and the situation. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation where the
person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing” (Czikszentmihalyi 1999).
For collaboration, this means highly motivated persons co-creating a state of team flow through
communicating authentically, sharing leadership and a common passion. Team flow is a concept
for generative collaboration, a kind of collaboration focused on innovation and co-creativity. This
concept promotes entrepreneurship and fundamental change.
In the above-mentioned research project, the main object is the impact of team flow on the
innovation capabilities of teams. This project has started with several pilots implementing relevant
conditions for team flow, such as shared leadership and authentic communication.
In a world of high complexity and dynamics with the associated need for innovation and change, a
collaboration concept that goes beyond effectivity and efficiency seems called for. At the same
time, it is clear that the understanding of how conditions for team flow can be achieved is lagging
far behind (Pearce/Conger 2003).
The goal of this conference presentation is to present and share the main aspects of this team flow
concept, in order to obtain relevant notions of how to apply this concept in teams.
The concept brings an innovative and challenging approach to collaboration and leadership, in turn
leading to co-creativity and synergy in teams.
Keywords: Shared leadership, Innovation, Flow, Co-Creativity
This paper describes an exploration tour on outstanding collaboration. Ask someone to name
extraordinarily successful people, and you’ll end up with lots of names. But if you ask about
excellent teams, chances are you’ll be faced with silence. Perhaps a sports team will be mentioned,
but you can’t expect much more. This is not surprising, if you just take a look at literature. There
are thousands of success stories about great people, but just a few about high performance teams.
Research on the success factors of famous people has a long tradition, ever since Napoleon Hill in
the 1930s. Research on successful collaboration in teams, by contrast, has just begun.
Years of wondering what really makes the difference between a well-functioning team –
performing its tasks well – and a high-performance team producing extraordinary results and
synergy, one day resulted in a remarkable eye-opener. Reading the biography of John Lennon, I
realised that the story of The Beatles is not only a story of pop music. It is a story of an amazing
collaboration, too. Four adolescents, not really highly talented in music matters, launched a
revolution in the music business. Their success could not be explained through the musical genius
of the Fab Four, but through their kind of collaboration. I started studying all the Beatles material I
could find. At a certain point I became curious about The Rolling Stones, too. They started at
about the same time and under the same conditions, and I discovered the same aspects of
successful collaboration. But there is also one big difference: the story of The Beatles ended in
1970, while The Rolling Stones are still making music – in 2008. The manager of The Beatles –
Brian Epstein, who was not only the business brain but had an important leadership role within the
band, died in 1967. After his death, The Beatles were confronted with a couple of serious conflicts,
which finally led to the end of this music legend. The Rolling Stones – by contrast – survived the
change of management and the death of Stones-founder Brian Jones in the late sixties, were able to
handle the drug problems of Keith Richards and jet-set ambitions of Mick Jagger in the seventies,
as well as every other crisis, and they still play an important role in the international music
business today. The intensive study of books and video material of 40 years of The Rolling Stones
ultimately resulted in this Team Flow model.
2. The Rolling Stones as role-model
As the starting point, there was the challenging question:
What is the difference between well-functioning teams and high-performance teams?
As I see it, high-performance teams do not just perform better, but they also reach a higher level of
collaboration and achieve outstanding results. These teams demonstrate synergy, and their manner
of collaboration is some kind of magic.
Originally, the sources of inspiration in this search for synergy and magic in collaboration were
Russell’s ‘Global Brain’, Sheldrake’s ‘morphogenetic fields’ and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of
‘Flow’. But the final breakthrough in the development of this Team Flow concept was the
discovery of the collaboration patterns of the Rolling Stones. They formed a strong role model for
a high performance team.
To explore these collaboration patterns in detail, I used the modelling technique associated with
NLP (neurolinguistic programming). A modelling project generally focuses on a single person, and
through observing, analysing and imitating successful behaviour (patterns), you can learn from this
person and take on new behaviour (Dilts 1998).
In my modelling project - reading several biographies of The Rolling Stones and examining video
material - I identified five key elements in their collaboration:
- Authentic communication
From the start, The Rolling Stones had that image of rough and tough boys, a bit ill-mannered
and very authentic. What is known about their internal relationship can be described as direct
Mick even succeeded in getting into conflict with Charlie (Watts). He talked about him without
any respect, calling him 'my fucking drummer'. Charlie’s reaction came fast: 'Don't ever call
me your drummer again, you're my fucking singer', and he gave Mick a rock-hard slap in his
- Shared leadership
You might be under the impression that Mick Jagger is the leader of The Rolling Stones, but he
Mick Jagger: It is more easy to have beside you – at the place of the driver – somebody else
who can drive, too, while you are doing your own things.
He can be seen as the business leader. In musical terms he shares the leadership with Keith
Richards, writing the songs and directing the arrangements. On stage, the triangle Charlie
Watts, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are in control, while Ronnie Wood is responsible for
the group dynamics.
In over 40 years of Rolling Stones history, there have been different constellations of
leadership, yet it seems that the transitions occurred almost naturally. In the beginning, founder
Brian Jones claimed the role of leader. Musically he could fulfil this role, but not in business
matters. That was when Andrew Loog Oldham entered the scene as their manager, leading The
Rolling Stones to their international breakthrough. With their growing success and the drug
problems of Brian, Andrew moved to the background and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
took over (Booth 1984).
- Complementary qualities
Diversity in personalities leads to different qualities and habits. To have different qualities in a
team is an important requirement for excellent collaboration, but it is not enough. What the
Rolling Stones show is the complementarity of their qualities. They complement each other by
appreciating the capabilities and habits of the other band members.
Keith Richards: If I get something accomplished within the Stones, everybody has to be
Bill Wyman: Technically and artistically we are not excellent musicians. We just have a very
good mix of people in the band.
The first spark of creativity was lit by the spontaneous interaction between Brian and his
Gibson-guitar and Keith on his Hofner. They did not play as ‘lead’ and ‘subordinate’ rhythm
guitar, but as a duet.
- A Shared Passion
The founders of the Rolling Stones connected with each other through their shared passion for
blues music. All of them were somehow attracted by the Chicago-based rhythm and blues,
which was ‘imported’ in England by Alexis Korner and his Earling Jazz Club. Even in recent
interviews, the Rolling Stones refer to the rhythm and blues as their roots (Wyman/Havers
The Rolling Stones were not just being faithful to their favourite 'Chicago blues'; it wasn’t for
lack of better music or other ideas. They were driven by their shared passion and conviction
that this was music of their own. And all of them agreed.
- A Synergetic Identity
As you look at the different band members, it is very obvious that they are not just different,
but very, very different. Introvert Bill Wyman (after 1991 Daryl Jones) alongside extrovert
Mick Jagger, solid Charlie Watts next to crazy Keith Richards, and in between the clownesque
Ronnie Wood. Everyone has a strong personality of his own and at the same time is part of the
Bill Wyman: People say that I stand on stage just dreaming away…but not everybody loves
‘jumping around’ on stage. This demonstrates the almost magical capacity of the band to
recognise and to accept the limits of the different band members, and not to violate them.
Mick Jagger: I believe that the acting helps me – personally – to take distance from my ego. It
is the best therapy.
To transfer these elements to teams in practice, it is necessary to add two other aspects:
- the establishment of a relational field
- belief management.
It is not possible to model the special relationship The Rolling Stones had and have towards each
other, but focusing on the relational aspects within a team leads to opportunities for change and
helps develop relationships within teams.
The successful collaboration of the Rolling Stones is based on certain beliefs that the band
members had (and still have). To make this collaboration model applicable to other teams, it is
necessary to make beliefs explicit and to make it possible to change and integrate conflicting
beliefs within a team.
3. The Team Flow Concept
This Team Flow Concept – modeled after the collaboration patterns of The Rolling Stones – with
its five key elements plus the two additional elements is grounded in various theoretical
3.1. Authentic communication
Communication is the exchange of information. In the most simple model, there is a sender who
sends information and a receiver who receives the information and sends back a response
(feedback). A more complex model is shown below in figure 1. It shows the communication
process within a person communicating with his environment. This figure shows that
communication is about interpretation. Although we operate in the same environment, our
perception and our communication about things and persons in this environment differs. Based on
different references, values, memories etc., we build up different internal representations or
interpretations which lead to different feelings and reactions. Imagine a glass of water, filled
halfway. Some people will call this glass of water half full, while others will say that it’s half
empty. These different interpretations make a big difference in communication.
The map is not the territory (Korzybski 2001)
Environment / Context
Sending the Receiving the
behaviour Perception filter
Gedrag Comparing the external
- internal and external
leads to - memories
leads to determines
The internal representation
To develop authentic communication, it is necessary to be aware of the perception filter as this
filter determines the authenticity of communication. Figure 2 offers a notion of what the perception
filter of the Rolling Stones (probably) looks like.
You can say everything,
Perception filter express emotions directly
Strong Comparing the external without harming the
internal world with relationship. Disputes and
references - internal and conflicts are permitted.
Positive - values
memories - memories
of the past Clear group
and shared standards and
experiences shared values
For a closer look at communication in teams, the Theory U (Scharmer 2007) offers some
interesting views. To archive a generative dialogue as a precondition for the flow stage, which
Scharmer calls Presencing, teams have to pass through different stages of communication. Starting
with ‘talking nice’, at a certain moment the team will enter a fase of ‘talking tough’. It is important
to push on to achieve the ‘reflective dialogue’, to ultimately finish in a ‘generative dialogue’
Generative Dialogue Reflective Dialogue
Presencing, Flow Inquiry
Time: slowing down I change my view
Space: Boundaries empathic listening
collapse (from within the other self)
Listening to future self other = you Primacy
Of the Rule generating rule reflecting Of the
Talking nice Talking tough
Downloading debate, clash
Polite, cautious I am my point of view
Figure 3 the Past
3.2. Shared leadership
There is a fundamental difference between the concept of shared leadership and other concepts of
leadership. While the main paradigm in leadership is centred around the leader and his habits and
capabilities, shared leadership is about the interaction within a group of peers. Leadership can be
examined as a social process, as something that happens between people. It is not so much
something that leaders do, but more what arises in social relations. It does not depend on one
person, but on the way members of a team together deal with certain situations.
Shared leadership means that leadership tasks have been distributed. In different situations
different persons take the lead, but ideals or ideas can also be leading. In this understanding,
leadership is not linked to a certain person but is the result of (inter-)actions (see table 1).
Classic and shared leadership compared
Classic leadership Shared leadership
Displayed by a person’s position in a group or Identified by the quality of people’s interactions
hierarchy rather than their position
Leadership evaluated by whether the leader Leadership evaluated by how people work
solves problems together
Leaders provide solutions and answers All work to enhance the process and to make it
Distinct differences between leaders and People are independent; all are active
followers: character, skill, etc. participants in the process of leadership
Communication is often formal Communication is crucial with an emphasis on
Often relies on secrecy, deception and payoffs Values democratic processes, honesty and
shared ethics; seeks the common good
Table 1 (Rosi, 1997)
To implement and develop shared leadership, it is necessary to have an attitude displaying these
- ownership (individually and as a team)
In other words, it is necessary for team members to learn to take responsibility, to be pro-active
and to share information and ideas easily. For – formal and informal – leaders, the challenge is to
learn to step aside, to share responsibility and to follow. Decentralising leadership means
decentralising ownership, too. Although the team has collective ownership, it is important to
ensure that this collective ownership is divided in personal ownership parts. A common pitfall in
teamwork with a collective responsibility is that no-one feels‘ responsible personally. Shared
leadership requires explicit individual ownership (Pearce/Conger 2003), which enforces
3.3. Complementary qualities
It was Belbin who first made clear that one of the critical success factors in team performance is
diversity. He developed the team role model. The basic assumption of this model is that every
team needs nine team roles. Each role has certain strengths, but allowable weaknesses too. Table 2
shows a summary of the team roles and the characteristics.
Team Role Strengths Allowable Weakness
Plant Creative, unorthodox Ignores incidentals
Enterprising, develops contacts Over-optimistic
Co-ordinator Good chairperson, clarifies goals Manipulative
Shaper Challenging, dynamic Provocative
Monitor Evaluator Discerning, judges accurately Slow moving
Team Worker Cooperative, diplomatic Indecisive
Implementer Efficient, disciplined Inflexible
Conscientious, painstaking Reluctant to delegate
Specialist Single minded, seeker of knowledge Contributes on a narrow front
Table 2 (Belbin 1998)
According to the basic philosophy, each person can cover two or three roles (on average) and
should focus on his or her strengths. In a team with complementary roles, the weak aspects will be
compensated through collaboration, resulting in peak performance. All it requires is to stimulate
each other in the specific strong habits and to accept the differences within the team (Belbin 1998).
Only accepting the differences in the team doesn’t seem sufficient to achieving team flow. Team
members have to value and appreciate the different capabilites in order to maximise the
This appreciation aspect can be deduced from the model of core qualities (Ofman 2006). In this
model, core qualities (strongly developed capabilities) are related to their pitfalls, challenges and
allergies. If you compare two persons in terms of their core qualities, you can establish that the
pitfall (too much of the core quality) of one person could be the allergy of the other. See the
example below in figure 6:
Core quality Pitfall
e.g. patience e.g. to be passive
Core quality Pitfall/Allergy Challenge
e.g. pro-active e.g. hyperactive e.g. to be active
e.g. to be passive e.g. stay calm
Figure 6 (Ofman 2006)
In other words: a very patient person who tends toward the pitfall of passiveness is challenged to
be active. Too much of ‘to be active’ means hyperactive, which is his allergy. At the same time,
‘hyperactivity’ is the pitfall of a pro-active person. This person can learn most from somebody
whose core quality is simply to be pro-active. In how collaboration usually proceeds, these two
persons would try to avoid each other. To come to generative collaboration, however, these
persons need to appreciate each other’s qualities and so to learn from each other.
3.4. Shared passion
Those who are passionate don’t give up easily. They go ‘the extra mile’ and they are driven. Every
organisation that is able to create conditions where passion is nourished at different levels in the
organisation will succeed. Yet passion alone is not enough: it is the combination of passion and
knowledge that makes the difference. Passion is one of the strongest sources of entrepreneurship,
Passion is personal intensity. It is an underlying force that fuels our strongest emotions. In other
words: passion is natural, dynamic, empowering and unconditional. On the other hand, passion can
lead to addiction or to a tunnel vision, preventing people from collaborating with others. As
passion comes from the heart, there is the risk of neglecting reason (the head), simply following
your passion instead. Another option is to start from your heart and to use reason to determine the
best strategy to channel your passions towards extraordinary results (Chang 2001). Within this
heart-head-combination, it is easier to merge individual passions with a shared passion in a team.
Team members who are strongly focused on their own passion will have almost no attention for
the passion of others. The combination with reason and intelligence, which implies an attempt to
establish an effective strategy for the outlet of the passion, could be organised as a dialogue
between the team members. This attempt could be widened to establish the common ground of the
passions of the different team members, thus resulting in a strong shared passion.
In the case of The Rolling Stones, the shared passion was the point at which they met: the Chicago
Blues Music. They realised the heart-head-combination described above through the different band
members. While Brian Jones and Keith Richards contributed their passion in a most authentic
manner, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Andrew Loog Oldham provided for
reasonable ways of putting this into practice.
3.5. Synergetic identity
To map the identity of a person or a team psychologically, Dilts has developed a model of logical
levels. This model is based on the research of Bateson (Dilts 1996,2004).
1. Identity who am I? role, mission
2. Beliefs what do I believe? motivation, reasons
3. Capabilities what I am capable of? perception, direction
4. Behaviour what do I do? action and reaction
5. Context where? when? with whom? opportunities, threats
This model is useful in order to explore the forces which can change an identity or resist a change.
The basic assumption is that changes at a lower level, e.g. context or behaviour, can lead to
changes at higher levels. But this is not guaranteed. Changes at a higher level have more impact on
an individual’s or team’s capacity to change. A change at the identity level will consequently lead
to a change in beliefs, capabilities etc. (Dilts 1996).
An outline of the logical levels projected on The Rolling Stones is offered in figure 7.
Within The Rolling Stones there is a
balance between the strong
individual identities and the identity identity
of the band.
There is a strong belief that The
Rolling Stones are much bigger than
the sum of the parts (the band
direct and confronting. The
capability to handle
conflicts and become
stronger for it.
behaviour going beyond limits.
Rock music context
and life style
The remarkable thing about The Rolling Stones is that the shift of identity from the individuals to a
team did not lead to a dominating team identity. A dominating team identity means the loss of
personal identities. Every individual that is part of a dominating team identity has to be
subordinate. This is what you see in many organisations and sport teams. The most obvious form
of subordination is called ‘groupthink’ (Janis 1972) and refers to the group pressure that doesn’t
allow deviation from group values. The opposite can be seen in a team with a synergetic team
identity, of which The Rolling Stones are an example. Here you have a balance between strong
personal identities and a solid team identity. Everyone within the team is able ‘to be himself’ in the
most authentic way, while at the same time he is part of the team identity.
3.6. Relational field
Collaboration means ‘to work together’. There are different kinds of collaboration and very
different contexts in which people work together. A simple distinction is based on the quality of
- weak collaboration: the performance of the team is less than the sum of the indivual
performances of the team members
- average collaboration: the performance of the team is as good as the individual
- high performance collaboration: the result is synergy – the whole is bigger than the
sum of the parts.
Besides the quality of collaboration, it makes a big difference whether a team has to work on a
clear project with very specific targets or if something new needs to be created or a major change
or breakthrough has to be accomplished. This is the difference between effective collaboration and
generative collaboration. Working on precisely defined projects needs a strong task orientation,
while a focus on creativity, innovation and change requires finding a balance between task and
relationship orientation. This requires extra attention for what is called a relational field (Dilts
A metaphor for generative collaboration is what happens when two hydrogen atoms combine with
one oxygen atom. The result is surprising: you get water. And water is neither e.g. hydrogen nor
oxygen, it is something completely different.
3.7. Belief management
To accomplish something with a team, beliefs and personal values are very important. A
conviction concerning a certain vision of the future and a belief in opportunities and one’s own
capacities are key aspects in creating something new. Just as a belief system (mindset or paradigm)
has a great impact on an individual’s capabilities and behaviour, this also applies to teams and
organisations. In other words: fundamental differences in personal beliefs within a team can
hamper collaboration. Different beliefs can lead to different perceptions and miscommunication,
conflicts concerning the approach to solving problems, and different judgements. Managing beliefs
means identifying the relevant beliefs of the team members, aligning divergent convictions and
reconciling contradictory mindsets (Dilts 1990).
Having conceptualised the collaboration patterns of The Rolling Stones within a theoretical
framework, the next step was to develop a blueprint for implementing this team flow concept in a
Greater complexity and increasingly dynamic and innovative environments a growing need for the
autonomy of highly skilled employees, are characteristic for many knowledge intensive
organisations. Other requirements are an adaptive capacity of people and organisation (to
accommodate change and innovation) and a stronger customer orientation. Traditional leadership
and organisational concepts seem ever less suitable for an effective organisational performance (de
Geus 1997). This context poses a major challenge for implementing the team flow concept, which
is suited to the above-mentioned requirements.
In the competence centre Organizing Innovation of the Hogeschool Utrecht (University of Applied
Sciences), one of the research fields is ‘shared leadership’, with the team flow concept as
underlying research frame. In this centre we are investigating the relationship between ‘shared
leadership’ and the innovation capacities of teams. In this context, a couple of pilot projects are
being carried out.
One of these pilot projects will take place at Achmea insurance company. Achmea is one of the
biggest financial services companies in The Netherlands with about 22.000 employees. Within
Achmea’s division of social security, a project on culture change has begun. One of the concerns
of this culture change project is leadership. To increase the innovation capabilities of Achmea
professionals, part of this project is to implement shared leadership. A team of 16 financial
professionals will join this action research project.
This project addresses these two research questions:
1. How can shared leadership be implemented effectively?
To answer this question, it is necessary to give a precise definition of what shared
leadership is, to identify the relevant conditons and critical success factors for
implementation, and to examine the collaboration patterns of the team.
2. What is the impact of shared leadership on the innovation capabilities of the team?
This requires knowledge of instruments to measure and influence innovation capabilities,
as well as showing explicitly the relationship between shared leadership and innovation
Having described shared leadership within the conceptual framework, I wish to offer a brief
explanation of innovation. Each renewal or change that results in an improvement is called
innovation. In business operation, innovation is about doing things better to achieve higher
turnover and profits. Within the innovation process it is possible to distinguish (de Jong/Kerste
- idea generation
Although it is commonly held that, for innovation, you need a single genial mind that acquires a
break-through idea in a single flash of enlightenment, recent research in fact shows that most
innovations are the result of
- a multi-disciplinary group process
- a process that can be planned and facilitated
- something that affects the entire organisation. (Sawyer 2007)
The programme of this action research project is as follows:
1. Start with mapping the behaviour, skills and beliefs related to leadership and innovation of
the team members (questionnaires, in-depth interviews)
2. A workshop to experience the team flow with an emphasis on shared leadership
3. The team members will be encouraged to develop their own implementation path of shared
leadership (making a personal development plan and a team development plan)
4. Peer supervision and team coaching during four months
5. A mid-evaluation after six months
6. A final evaluation after one year.
This project is scheduled to start in September 2008. During the conference I will present the first
outcomes of the implementation.
In search of synergy and high performance in collaboration within teams, the discovery of the
magical collaboration of The Rolling Stones has resulted in the Team Flow Concept. The
conceptual framework is built on the modelling technique of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP),
the U-Theory of Scharmer, the shared-leadership approach of Pearce and others, Belbin’s team
role model and Ofman’s model of core qualities. This concept will be implemented in a pilot
project at the Achmea insurance company.
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