As a society, and as organizations, we are struggling with complex challenges with no easy solutions. So called “generative conversations,” in which multiple perspectives are integrated to kindle new solutions, are a powerful way to address these challenges. The Swedish bank SEB reported breakthroughs and new opportunities after implementing structured generative conversations to make progress on complex business problems. In this article, Wharton scientists Vera Ludwig and Elizabeth Johnson, Wharton professor Michael Platt, and SEB’s Per Hugander describe neuroscientific insights that may explain how generative conversations enhance creative idea generation and lead to novel, impactful solutions. They also explain how Hugander introduced a surprising element — jazz — to facilitate these conversations.  

From the climate crisis, to automation and digital transformation, to widespread cultural and political polarization, multiple complex challenges stand between ourselves and a desirable — even livable — future. Navigating these challenges requires innovative thinking and collective action on an unprecedented scale, in both the public and private sector.

To solve these issues, so-called “generative conversations” may be key: Here, people with different perspectives come together and integrate their unique experiences, skills, and knowledge to explore the issue and illuminate productive ways to move forward.

In business contexts, generative conversations enable the inclusion of new individuals and their specific competencies into teams and decision-making processes. They also allow for effective collaboration on important strategic challenges across traditional organizational silos — an issue many organizations struggle with, resulting in inertia, slow progress, and sometimes, outright failure to achieve strategic goals.

Successful generative conversations can occur naturally, but rarely do in the organizational context. All too often, individuals focus extensively on bringing forward their own opinion, rush to conclusions, and fail to see the topic from other stakeholders’ perspectives. In this article, we present simple yet effective facilitation techniques used by Strategic Advisor Per Hugander at Swedish bank SEB in a large-scale intervention to increase the likelihood of fruitful generative conversations. We also share insights from neuroscience that explain how clarity and solutions may be the result of a structured process that allows participants to increase creativity and idea generation.

Facilitated generative conversations, often referred to as “jazz sessions” by participants, built a reputation for creating clarity and new paths forward.

The SEB intervention resulted in progress on challenges teams had been stuck on for a long time, better and quicker decisions, increased market share, and other positive outcomes. The facilitated generative conversations, often referred to as “jazz sessions” by participants, built a reputation for creating clarity and new paths forward. When explaining how two teams got past long-standing challenges and went on to become strong profit drivers for SEB, Kristian Skovmand, Head of Investment Banking, said, “Our jazz sessions are often referred to as the turning point.”

Play by the Jazz Rules

In today’s high-paced world, we are often tempted to solve things quickly. However, when it comes to complex challenges, much can be gained by investing in and taking a break from problem-solving to prioritize exploring the challenge. This makes generative conversations more likely to occur: It not only feeds more high-quality information into the decision process and reduces the risk of overemphasizing the most obvious information, it also ensures that we use our brain in the most effective way.

Hugander uses jazz to vividly illustrate an explorative approach to conversations. He starts by playing a scripted big band jazz tune that relies on predictability and execution: musicians focus on delivering their scripted, pre-rehearsed contributions, and, if it does not go according to plan, the musicians start over until everyone gets it right. Then Hugander plays “So What” from Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue, the highest-selling jazz album of all time. Remarkably, “So What” was recorded in one take, with no scripts or notes. Davis only provided some brief instructions and a clear structure in terms of who would play the lead at what time and for how long. Mistakes were incorporated as part of the process and whatever emerged was faithfully recorded on the album.

Hugander instructs participants of generative conversations to adopt a similar “first take” attitude towards their dialogue, adhering to some simple rules from improvisational jazz. Specifically, [1] listen more, play less, [2] build on each other and [3] contribute to what is about to emerge — as opposed to playing a technically advanced pre-planned solo.

The aim is not to solve the challenge outright, but to explore it through a structured conversation. By doing so, new ideas and a way forward will gradually emerge. The key is to stay away from solving and instead “switch on” one’s curiosity and keep the jazz rules in mind when exploring the topic.

Neuroscience shows that when we explore a challenge, the so-called “default mode network” is engaged. Activating this network provokes divergent thinking and creative idea generation. Disengaging from problem-solving and task execution is key to activating the brain’s “innovation engine.” This is why new, often better, ideas pop into your head while taking a coffee break or going for a walk.

The key is to stay away from solving and instead “switch on” one’s curiosity and keep the jazz rules in mind when exploring the topic.

As previously discussed in our article, “Perspective Taking: a brain hack that can help you make better decisions,” perspective taking can be one effective way to engage the default mode network and to adopt a more explorative approach to conversations: Everyone shares their view, one-by-one, while others listen and imagine seeing the topic from the sharer’s perspective. Research has shown that perspective-taking may be key to unlocking the potential of diversity for generating novel and useful ideas.

Structured Dialogues: “Where the Magic Happens”

A concrete approach to facilitate generative conversations is the use of structured dialogues, where the amount of time that each participant speaks and listens is exactly defined. According to Nabil Gharib, Head of Depositary Services at SEB, “This is where the magic happens” — but in reality it is not magic at all. Instead, it is a simple structure that enables participants to shift between [1] listening to what is emerging and [2] contributing to the emerging process.

In one highly effective dialogue structure that Hugander uses, he instructs two of the participants to engage in a conversation, sharing their perspectives and exploring important aspects of the challenge. The other participants sit on the side, engaging in intense listening and sense-making without engaging verbally. In order to stay focused, participants are instructed to write down new ideas that occur. After four minutes the conversation stops and two other participants continue the conversation where the two others left off, adding their perspectives, ideas, and knowledge to what has come before.

Just like in modular jazz improvisation, the structure and order is clear, everyone knows when to focus on sense-making and when it is their time to contribute, and for how long. Through the use of this technique, many participants experience increased clarity and come up with novel ideas.

The proposed similarity to musical improvisation might give us clues as to what happens in the brain during these dialogues. As mentioned above, typically brain regions associated with cognitive control diminish their activity when we start exploring a topic and when the default mode network activates. However, neuroscience research has revealed that when musicians improvise within a constrained structure, the default mode network and the cognitive control network may co-activate. Simultaneously activating these networks — which typically oppose each other — has also been linked with high creative ability. This type of unusual co-activation of brain networks may be one reason why structured dialogues are so useful for generating new solutions.

Your brain on jazz is open-minded, fluid, and free to see things from multiple perspectives.

Another reason for the perceived clarity could be that the participants know exactly during what part of the conversation they will be asked to contribute. In normal conversations, we are often caught between talking, listening, planning responses, thinking, and sense-making. The brain is thus occupied with various co-occurring processes such as auditory processing, motor planning, and memory. Neuroscientific research shows that when we do multiple tasks simultaneously, it is hard to do any of them well. By taking away the need to instantly respond to what is being said, participants are free to engage in deeper sense-making during large parts of the dialogue.

Short breaks for reflection can also help participants focus on sense-making by taking away the need to listen and respond to others. Reflection breaks can help relax heightened physiological arousal that may be triggered by intense group conversations, and allow teams to refocus on what remains to be solved in order to move forward. Hence it is no surprise when the conversation restarts at a higher level after a reflection break.

Improvisational jazz is similar to the exchange of information during conversation, and both are examples of complex social interactions where individuals must contribute to a joint task. Coordinated action and teamwork are amongst the most exciting frontiers of cognitive neuroscience. Knowledge concerning the complex neurobiological processes during social interactions is still emerging, and it is possible that similar processes are at play in both generative conversations and jazz ensemble improvisations.

Putting It All Together

Surprisingly, jazz may be an important tool for business success. Your brain on jazz is open-minded, fluid, and free to see things from multiple perspectives. By combining a mindset of exploration, reflection breaks, and structured dialogues in which participants alternate between speaking and listening, teams can improvise to reach breakthrough solutions to complex challenges.

Although this hypothesis has not yet been tested neurobiologically, we believe practicing generative conversations like those implemented by Hugander at SEB is like learning to improvise jazz. Over time, our brains may become better at listening to others, building on what was heard, and thereby opening up new pathways of thought. Echoing the title of an earlier Davis album, we can think of this process as the Birth of the Cool.