Planned spontaneity: a productive oxymoron

If you’ve ever seen a jazz ensemble perform, you might have noticed a key difference from the way a string quartet or an orchestra performs. Or rather, you might notice what’s missing: Sheet music. A conductor. A rigid structure. Jazz is unique in that it gives musicians the liberty to improvise. But having that freedom results in more than just a swingin’ tune.

John Hopkins study found that when jazz musicians improvise, the region of their brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex begins to slow down in activity. This area of the brain is linked to highly planned actions and self-censoring, like choosing what to say on a first date or a job interview. Their research suggests that this cerebral deceleration can lower a person’s inhibitions and allow for more creativity and free flowing thoughts.

In other words, jazz provides an environment where spontaneous ideas can come to life. But this insight isn’t limited to music; instituting a culture that promotes spontaneity can have tremendous implications for teams looking for better results.

Why Spontaneity Matters

It is clear why benchmarks are important for your team. They help ensure each member stays on track while working towards a singular goal. The value of spontaneity, however, is less clear, since it is often associated with thrill seekers, adventurers, and explorers; the type of people who aren’t commonly thought of as ideal employees. This assumption might be incorrect.

In order for your team to grow, it is essential that your co-workers aren’t just falling in line with every instruction that’s given to them on a regular basis. Try seeing what works and what doesn’t for the team instead, and give them recommendations on different approaches to consider.

Cerebral deceleration can lower a person’s inhibitions and allow for more creativity and free flowing thoughts.

Spontaneity is essential to foster better teamwork because it provides an opportunity to unearth unfiltered ideas and experiment with new processes. This lets teams achieve outcomes that wouldn’t have been possible if the same procedures were followed consistently without deviation.

Striking a better balance between impromptu exercises and goal-oriented work can help staff feel empowered to try new things. It comes down to having an established process in place to ensure the right balance is achieved so fewer missteps happen along the way.

80/20 Spontaneity Rule

One approach to integrate spontaneity into your workflow, is with the 80/20 rule. Spend 80% of your time on pre-planned work and the other 20% of your time at work on unplanned exercises and generative thinking.

You’ve likely heard this rule applied to other circumstances in the workplace, and the idea of moving away from goal-oriented work might make you nervous. That’s why 80/20 is a good split.

Understandably, more time needs to be spent on what absolutely needs to get done as it aligns with the plans and goals set in place for your particular team. Without any structure nothing would get accomplished and it’d be a highly ineffective exercise.

But in a 40-hour week, 20% of your time only represents eight hours, which can be broken up into two hours a day for four days of the week.

You can spend this time with moments of free thinking like going on an unplanned walking meeting with a co-worker, brainstorming how you can improve a campaign that another department is focusing on, or even exercising with your team to bond and share ideas.

Companies like Google and 3M allow employees time dedicated to being spontaneous, but with purpose. This isn’t an excuse to have a dance party in the middle of the workday; it’s giving your employees freedom to work on a new side project, collaborate with a different department, shadow what others are doing at the company, and continue to align their interests with your company’s goals.

Spontaneity Requires Autonomy, Collaboration and Availability

Before you can implement this 80/20 framework, it is essential that your company fosters autonomy, collaboration and availability. Otherwise, there could be difficulties straying from your daily responsibilities—and tension if leadership hasn’t bought in.

It requires trust in your team, allowing them to be autonomous and accountable for their own time and tasks. You’ve hired a team member for a reason, so it’s important to provide them with the support they need, specifically, the authority to take time out of their day to be a little more agile.

Another goal is to do less of the same thing that your team has already been doing. This is helped by collaboration. In other words: don’t go it alone. Sync this time for freethinking to collaborate on projects or discover processes other teams are using. By experiencing the working styles of others, learning about new ideas and approaches, and collaborating with a diverse team, you’re far more likely to come up with a compelling idea that can be executed effectively.

A 2011 study found that teams with a 50/50 split of men and women performed better on a business related task; a diverse team can have tremendous impact on your team and make spontaneous moments more productive.

Availability is the final requirement to ensure spontaneity is an option for your team. First, buy-in from leadership allows an employee to make time for this type of freethinking without being penalized or criticized.

Once you’ve got the approval of leadership, it comes down to making time available on your own calendar to prioritize work on the projects that aren’t necessarily planned or a part of your particular role. To make yourself available, schedule this time on your calendar and be purpose driven about this unstructured time.

Thinking about the types of things you’d like to achieve, while avoiding being too specific, will help you avoid decision fatigue and make your time dedicated to be spontaneous more effective. Planning, even very loosely, will make you more available to think in a new way.

Much like in our jazz ensemble, finding moments of genuine brilliance through spontaneity requires dedication to a culture of collaboration and autonomy. But if you’re willing to take a chance with your team, the results might be music to your ears.


Brian Honigman is a content marketing consultant and CEO of Honigman Media. He’s a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Entrepreneur and others. Follow him for more hype-free business tips @BrianHonigman.

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