Why Michael Jackson flashmobs made me emotional

This morning I was moved to tears watching these two flash mobs dancing to Michael Jackson. This had nothing to do with the music of Michael Jackson – it happens almost every time I watch a video of a flash mob. Why?

There is something about people working together on something complicated without overt direction that seems to trigger profound feelings. Its like it is a basic human instinct, or at least potential, that kicks in when we experience it or even simply watch it happening. What a shame that we have been conditioned to think that without intervention the world starts to fall apart

I am currently reading Kevin Kelly’s wonderful book Out Of Control in which he describes the actions of swarms of bees or flocks of birds in which there is no predetermined plan or particular leader but a group of individual creatures working within certain parameters can achieve complex operations on a vast scale without any apparent organisation. He then talked of an experiment conducted in a large auditorium where participants were given flags which could be turned either red or green and then asked to conduct relatively complex tasks such as play a game of Pong by making their choice of red or green behave like pixels on a large screen. After a couple of more simple tasks the group managed to replicate a flight simulator and “fly” a virtual plane successfully.

When I spoke at Reboot in Denmark recently I decided to do something a little different at the beginning of my keynote. When I was introduced by Thomas to an audience of approximately 300 people I didn’t appear on stage but was in fact sitting alongside them in the audience two thirds of the way back in the hall. This alone was enough to disconcert the audience but when I began speaking, equipped as I was with a wireless microphone, they became even more agitated – some to the point of visible annoyance. My first words were to suggest that the feeling of discomfort that they were experiencing was likely to be very similar to the extreme discomfort that people are likely to feel when their manager doesn’t do what they expect but instead appears alongside them acting very more like one of them than adopting familiar command and control behaviors. People have been trained to expect certain structures and behaviour and pulling those away without explanation or alternative structures in place can be very disconcerting.

This is why when I am working with clients I work with them as individuals and their attitudes, expectations and willingness to engage with others in a common purpose. There is , as far as I’m concerned, no “endgame”. I am confident that if each of them operates with respect, tolerance, autonomy and fully engaged energy then as a group they will get where they need to get to. This is also what some clients, and certainly their bosses, find disconcerting. They feel the need of a plan and predicted outcomes.

Frankly an awful lot of management consultancy over the last few decades has been sold on the myth that life is that predictable. That if you apply McKinsey formula x,y, or z then outcomes can be predicted. I think this is less and less easy to pull off these days as things get more complicated and setting people up with the skills, attitudes, and insights to deal with whatever happens next and collectively work, in their respective Flash Mobs, towards a positive outcome seems a far more robust approach to adopt.

6 thoughts on “Why Michael Jackson flashmobs made me emotional”

  1. I’m glad it’s not just me. I watch these and it does not matter whether it’s ‘professional’ ie organised by someone for promotion/advertising, semi-professional – organised by someone like Improv Everywhere or just completely random I get emotional. It’s about a group of people doing something unexpected together, no matter what it is and getting joy out of it. It’s that joy I think gets communicated


  2. It’s not just flash mobs. It’s parades, marching bands (adult or children), displays, amateur perfrormances of singing and dancing (particularly children) – although that might be something to do with how bad they are!I think the emotion is partly witnessing the evidence of all the effort, and the pleasure that the participants have at working together, but also a feeling of empathy, sharing and imagining their nerves, fear, excitement and pride. Double daft.


  3. I think it’s about the sudden unleashing of something different from the norm – as you watch, you realise – hey all these people are dying for something unexpected and extraordinary to happen just like me. It’s a real buzz watching "one nutter" turn into the majority of people in a crowd. The balance of ones own perception of what’s "normal" in that situation shifts right in front of your eyes. I love it.


  4. Not machines …It’s about a group of people doing something unexpected together, no matter what it is and getting joy out of it. It’s that joy I think gets communicatedWhat Rachel said.


  5. Thanks Euan, it’s rare to get the opportunity for men to share what makes them tearful, thanks for taking a frist step. For me there is something powerful in the celebration of what people can do when they work together. There is real sense of joy, union, equality and community. I also feel tearful when watching amazing perfromances, music, athletics, dance accompanied by the shared sense of amazement from the crowd. It’s a powerful, shared sense of connection – a rebuttal to the existentialist misery that we are essentially alone in the world. It can be different; and we can look to each other rather than authority. ‘Love is work made visible’ Ghibran.


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