Flash Mobs Have More to Teach About Managing Teams Than Any Textbook
The intricacy and spontaneous organization of flash mobs epitomizes what modern workplaces strive for.
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The groups materialize in a moment's notice – from busy Times Square in New York to supermarkets, public streets and even prisons. The resulting YouTube videos have captivated millions of viewers, who can't get enough of "Frozen Grand Central" and the "No Pants Light Rail Ride."
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a "flash mob" is "a large public gathering at which people perform an unusual or seemingly random act and then disperse, typically organized by means of the Internet or social media." The individual members might perform an elaborately choreographed dance or simply adopt a frozen pose for several minutes. They have serenaded shoppers in malls (as I once did with 1,000 of my closest friends), danced before weary holiday travelers in airports and cheered for better pay for retail workers.
Are there work-related lessons we can learn from these gatherings? Consider that, with a flash mob, there is a common cause (the final performance). Also, within a flash mob, each participant has a special role or contribution to bring to the group. Team members are united from disparate locations and collaborate for one point in time. The individual parts become a whole through teamwork and partnership. When the performance is complete, participants disperse, shifting from "team member" back to "individual."
These characteristics of the flash mob experience can be applied to the nimble and collaborative modern workplace, a real-time, multi-generational and ever-changing environment. When we say "modern" workplace, we mean one that is democratic, celebrating and encouraging employee participation. This active employee participation drives innovation. A successful flash mob, similarly, is dependent on the ability of team members to adapt, communicate, create and collaborate effectively to produce a specific result.
Let's compare a flash mob's final performance to a work team's final deliverable —specifically the process of getting from a group of individual contributors to a cohesive "in sync" team.
First, it is important to understand the purpose of the flash mob. Is it to inspire observers or to simply amuse? Similarly, in the workplace, we must define the "end goal" of a project. Perhaps it's rolling out a new product version to four new markets over a nine-month period. Every participant must understand and be invested in the final result.
This involves setting project expectations. Each team member should understand their role and responsibilities and be empowered to ask questions and make suggestions. Also, team members should understand their contribution is integral for a successful end result.
Secondly, think of the flash mob and the modern workplace as ecosystems centered around connection and communication. Within a flash mob, participants need clear instructions about interaction, timing and more. Similarly, in the workplace, team members should report their project progress/status in real-time to share successes and roadblocks. This awareness and alignment is critical to working toward project completion. Also, a successful flash mob requires rehearsal and preparation, with each person knowing their role. The same rules apply in the workplace, where each team member must prepare and complete their part of the larger initiative.
Thirdly, a flash mob encourages creativity and brainstorming as well as transparency and trust. Participants share ideas about fine-tuning a performance, whether it is an interactive dance or series of frozen poses. At the end of the day, participants must "let go," trusting that fellow team members will accurately perform their roles within the larger group. Meanwhile, in the democratic workplace, employees are encouraged to ask "Why?" or "Why not?" Team members asking questions and listening to one another to mine the best ideas drive an innovative project result.
And fourthly – and perhaps most important – flash mob participants must execute against a performance concept to turn the original idea into a reality. Even the most precisely choreographed plans are useless without a method of translating those notes from the page into a real-world performance. Similarly, in the workplace, brainstorming is only the first step. What's needed is the ability to go from idea creation to execution.
Once a performance or project is complete, participants then disperse, taking their individual talents to the next project. This "temporary engagement" is a basic tenet of the flash mob experience and the agile workplace team as well.
A nimble, modern, real-time company, like a flash mob, is powered by high-performance teams that thrive on participation, alignment and awareness. Participation involves employees having access to all relevant information and context they need to get their work done. These empowered employees feel like they are part of a democracy and feel personally invested in their work. Alignment is an employee's understanding where they are going, both as an individual worker and within the larger team. Just as flash mob participants understand their role within the larger performance, employees understand how their individual assignments contribute to overall project and company objectives. Awareness, meanwhile, encompasses self-awareness and team-level awareness of strengths and weaknesses. This 360-degree awareness helps both workers and larger teams overcome roadblocks and challenges.
When workers are aware, aligned and empowered to fully participate – even if it means "moving fast and breaking things" – in a democratic workplace, the result is an innovative and brilliant performance.