Cognitive flows and Inter-personal communication

In a special issue (January 2019) entitled The Brain Science Behind Business, Harvard Business Review interviewed Uri Hasson of Princeton University. Professor Hasson (Princeton faculty of psychology and neuroscience) discovered a correlation between two different person’s brain waves and their understanding of one another:

“The more listeners understand what a speaker is saying, the more closely their brain responses mirror the speaker’s brain responses.  What’s more, while normally there was a slight delay in a listener’s response matching up with the speaker’s, in cases of extremely high comprehension, the delay nearly disappeared.  In listeners who scored highest on comprehension, brain responses sometimes preceded the speaker’s.”

Hasson describes the visceral feeling of ‘clicking’ that (sometimes) occurs when people talk with each other.  It is an indicator of conversational ‘brain coupling’ or cognitive pairing.  “It is the neural basis on which we understand each other … communication is a single act performed by two brains.”  When you’re not ‘in synch’ with someone, you can feel that the other is not getting what you are saying. .  When you’re ‘in synch’, you can almost finish his or her sentences.  Conversation – and understanding –flows.

Experiential flows and Optimal performance

I recall an earlier book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.  He published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience describing the state of consciousness during which we experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.   At the risk of oversimplifying, I summarize this state of mind as that which occurs when an individual lives or performs “in the now.”  Time often paradoxically collapses when we’re fully engaged with the present moment – we seem to accomplish activities intuitively or without wasted effort.  Time flows and we flow with it.

Csikszentmihaly (1990) correlates states of flow with optimal performance and experience.  His case studies of artists and sports figures ‘in the flow’ describe instances where their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual capacities  ‘come together’ and integrate.  All is ‘in synch’: operating without resistance, distraction or wasted energy.  We are ‘at our best.’

Value flows / Eliminating Value Gaps using the Integrated Value Process (IVP)

I write about flow because the concept underlines much of my research into, and writing / consulting on, business value.  In an earlier post, I noted that strategy aims to create a  competitive advantage. Numerous authors describe the process of ordering the firm’s internal and external activities, resources and actors to achieve this ‘fit’.  Lean supply labels this process “value stream management” whereby value flows uninterrupted across the value stream when the customer receives what he or she considers valuable.

In An Empirical Framework for Evaluating, Implementing and Managing a Value-based Supply Chain Strategy (PhD thesis accepted by the University of Bath School of Management — ProQuest publication number 3121355), I document interruptions in value flows across UK and US value streams.  I label these blockages ‘value gaps’ — the result of alternative definitions of value held by the firm’s stakeholders.  To avoid value gaps, I propose the Integrated Value Process (IVP).  IVP consists of (a) a framework describing how a firm can conceptualize, configure and implement its value-based strategy, (b) a high level “meta” definition of the term ‘value’ that maps to the framework, and (c) five “first principles” that drive the framework.  The framework enables companies to detect / eliminate / prevent value blockages (i.e. value gaps) across their value chains.  So value flows.

Organizational value flows / Holistic value management based on systems thinking

Based on Professor Hassan’s research, communication flows whenever two individuals’ respective brain responses mirror each other or are synchronized.  Understanding is predicated on inter-personal neural synchronization.   What constitutes understanding or knowledge?  Knowledge requires simultaneously integrating multiple distinct yet interlinked forms of intelligence.  Knowledge of a subject / topic is the product of four inputs: conceptual intelligence (theory), encoded intelligence (information), emotional intelligence (interpersonal / group communication), and experiential intelligence (personal stories / company cases).  One needs to integrate all four holistically.  The field of systems thinking prescribes such integrative thinking.

Take value, for example.  In order to understand value, one needs a robust theory of value (conceptual intelligence), a way of properly specifying value (encoded intelligence), an effective way to communicate value (emotional intelligence), and a way to decide which actions / activities to undertake (experiential intelligence).  One needs to integrate or synthesize all four areas to be effective – for value to flow.   Moreover, individuals across the organization need to do so simultaneously in order for value to flow across the organization and / or value stream.  Csikszentmihaly (1990) points to the optimal performance a company will achieve when value flows.   The Integrated Value Process (IVP) framework enables executives to manage value holistically across the entire system in order to achieve the flow of value.


About the author

Andrew Swan, PhD is a multidisciplinary and cross-functional integrator of strategy, processes, and information technology. His focus and expertise center on helping executives increase value creation and optimize value flows in business. Dr. Swan holds four degrees in Management, Accounting & Finance, Information & Knowledge Strategy, and Computer Science from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business,  the University of Bath School of Management, and Columbia University.

He frequently publishes articles on value chains, value streams / flows, and Integrative Value Management on his website Dr. Swan created the Integrated Value Process (IVP) Framework to help companies optimize the flow of goods & services, funds, and information across their respective value chains for multiple stakeholders. He can be reached at or at +1.773.633.7186.  He lives in Chicago.


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