Get in the Performance Flow

Do you want to be five times more productive at work? Better yet, do you want the people who report to you to be five times more productive? Well, theoretically, it is achievable.

Back in 2013, when McKinsey & Company asked executives how much more productive they and their subordinates were at their peak than on average, the most cited answer was 500 per cent—but unfortunately, this peak performance occurred less than 10 per cent of the time. Since then, research in this area has advanced considerably. Working at five times the old performance level is now increasingly possible if you learn to exploit a performance phenomenon known as “flow.” (Conveniently, being in the state of flow is not only exponentially more productive, it also feels great!)

What is flow? The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines it as being “so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Many of you have experienced this feeling outside of the workplace, such as while playing sports, dancing, playing music, cooking, or doing martial art. You may even have experienced it at work when working on certain memorable projects. The challenge facing organizations today is to create the conditions for the flow state to be achieved on a more managed and systematic basis.

ACHIEVING A FLOW STATE WORKING ALONE

To achieve a state of flow, you must organize yourself to satisfy the following nine conditions:

1: Be fully present. According to William O’Brien, the former CEO of Hanover Insurance Company, you must be in a good space “internally” (i.e., mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically) to produce top-notch work—and, possibly, to enter a state of flow.

Robert Cooper, one of the individuals behind the concept of emotional intelligence, introduced the idea that you have three brains: your head, your heart, and your gut. In fact, your entire body can be an incredible source of intelligence and insight—if you are listening. Taking advantage of your full body’s creative capacity can allow you to see old problems in a new light, to be more creative, and to make better decisions.

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, two new flow gurus, claim that the conscious mind is strong but limited in what it can achieve. The subconscious, on the other hand, is far more powerful and efficient. It can process vast amounts of data in a short time. When you are fully present and in a state of flow (or “ecstasis”), your conscious mind takes a break and your subconscious takes over.

In today’s fast-paced, technology-laced work environment, just being fully present, in the moment, working on whatever you are supposed to be doing, represents a great challenge.

You don’t order anyone to do their best. You couldn’t order Beethoven to write the Ninth Symphony. He’s got to want to do it.

2: Work in a rich environment and free of distractions. It is possible to be productive in any environment—whether in an office, crowded restaurant, or on a train. In fact, many people, aware of their own work preferences, recognize that they can produce certain types of work better in a crowded, noisy place than in a quiet, closed-door office environment. The ideal environment depends on the task and the person. However, the most important factor is that the given environment enables you to maintain laser-like focus on your task. You must be able to shut out distracting noise, texts, email, or co-workers. Research has shown that most workers experience over 87 interruptions per day and take an average of 23 minutes to regain concentration, which makes it almost impossible to reach a state of flow.

3: Have a clear, meaningful, and challenging intention or goal. In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi states, “Intentions are the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered…. They arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something…. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention towards some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others.”

It is difficult to achieve a state of flow without clear intention, interest, or passion about your work. Simply put, you need to care about what you are trying to do. Whether you are trying to develop a new product, process, or service, you need a clear, meaningful vision of what success looks like. For example, earning money for shareholders (unless you are one of them) is not likely to be meaningful.

4: Follow the “3 per cent rule.” To access flow, the challenge you face must be a stretch—something you are not sure you can achieve but really, really want to.

Your task or challenge cannot be unachievable or overwhelming. On the other hand, it should not be too easy, or it will lead to boredom rather than flow. It has been estimated that the ideal challenge should be 3 per cent greater than your known capability to deliver. Measuring exactly a 3 per cent rise can be difficult, but the idea is that the challenge should be slightly higher than you can confidently deliver. You know you are there when you feel excited, but nervous, about the challenge—like tackling a black-diamond ski run when you have only ever mastered the blue.

5: Do your homework; be well prepared. Before you tackle the black-diamond ski run, learn to ski. Doing something difficult without being prepared is demotivating, rather than flow-inducing. It may even discourage you from ever trying to do that activity again. Prerequisites to experiencing flow include having done the hard work, being prepared, and having struggled with a specific situation.

6: The consequences (of success or failure) are high. Whether skiing down a black-diamond run or making your first presentation to the board, the consequences are high. If they are too high, you will be overwhelmed; if they are too easy, you will be bored. The consequences must be motivating enough to make you focus, concentrate, and give your all.

7: Feedback is immediate. Skiing down a perilous mountainside gives immediate (sometimes painful) feedback. You’ll know when you veer off track. In the boardroom, if your presentation is not being well received, you will be promptly informed. Having immediate feedback and making necessary adjustments keeps you on the edge and geared toward the flow experience.

8: Think selflessness and release—it’s not all about you. Achieving a state of flow is directly proportionate to your degree of focus on the material and your participants, rather than your own performance; doing that will probably leave you unfocused, self-conscious, and far from the state of flow. Stop worrying about yourself and let go.

9: You have recovered from your last flow experience. Although effective and desirable, a state of flow cannot exist continually without you experiencing burn-out. Despite different endurance capacities, everyone eventually reaches their limit. Take time to recover from a state of flow—rest, sleep, eat, and exercise so that you will be ready and able to seize the next opportunity to achieve flow.

These nine conditions may not guarantee success in achieving flow every time, but they will surely lead to a much better quality of work and life. Whether you have complete control over your work environment or you work for a micro-managing boss, take any opportunity to set these conditions by working from home, turning off your cellphone, closing your office door, sprucing up your workspace, setting yourself a daily mini-challenge, or simply eating well, taking breaks, and getting proper sleep.

ACHIEVING A FLOW STATE WORKING IN TEAMS

If you are a team leader, your main task is to create the optimum work environment for each of your team members so that they can be highly productive, while also maintaining a high level of individual and team well-being. According to the American industrialist J. Irwin Miller, “The truth of the matter in business is that you don’t do anything by yourself. You have to create an atmosphere in which people want to give their best. You don’t order anyone to do their best. You couldn’t order Beethoven to write the Ninth Symphony. He’s got to want to do it. And, so the head of a business (or a team leader) is an enabler rather than a doer.”

In addition to working toward achieving individual flow, a prerequisite for achieving team flow is that team members be aware of their “real-time” relationships with their counterparts in what is known as the “social field.” Kurt Lewin defines the social field as “the dynamic energy of life space that interacts with human consciousness,” whereas Arawana Hayashi describes it as the “structure of relationships among individuals, groups, organizations and systems at any given moment that give rise to collective behaviors.”

When two team members work together, their work space—their social field—is filled with (apparently empty) space and energy. Although this dynamic energy may not be easily perceived by a casual observer, science would assert that, on a molecular or atomic level, there is only energy and connection in both the flesh and bones of the human beings and also in the wood, plastic, metal, dust, and air that fill the empty space around their bodies. Although our eyes might tell us otherwise, there is no separation between the visibly separate solid objects; there are only different densities of energy and connection.

A third person entering the room may simply see the two people, or may be able to sense the social field and the effect their entry has had on it. Depending on the two individuals’ perceptions of the existing social field prior to the third person’s entry, they might welcome the entry of the third person—or not. According to Hayashi, the third person’s entrance means that the interpersonal dynamics and possibilities have now changed and different collective behaviours and outcomes are now possible, while other behaviours are no longer possible. The social field is now different. The challenge now for each of the three people is to sense this new social field and to try to influence it positively to address the topic of the meeting or task at hand.

Therefore, your job as a team leader is to influence your team’s social field so that it can be the catalyst that helps the team achieve a state of flow. This represents a huge challenge. It means being aware of, and sensitive to, your own body’s physical messaging along with the emotions you are personally experiencing. It also means being aware of what is happening among the team and its members in terms of tangible, measurable progress toward a deliverable and the ever-morphing social field containing them. This hugely important capability cannot be acquired by taking a technical skills course or by building and analyzing a spreadsheet. The social field is invisible to the eye and non-quantifiable. It needs to be sensed and experienced.

New management tools—such as the use of empathy walks, social presencing theatre, deep democracy conversations, increased use of poetry and storytelling, graphic facilitation techniques, and meditation and visioning—can all serve to enable leaders and their teams to make social fields more visible, tangible, and meaningful to all. After all, if you cannot feel and sense what you are personally experiencing—both in your own body and as part of the social field—it is very hard to shape and influence the social field to help it become a fertile field for the emergence of the flow state for your team.

How do you create such an environment for your team? There are six steps you can take. In addition to the nine conditions discussed above for an individual’s opportunity to achieve a flow state, the following six important considerations must also be in place:

1: Know each team member’s current capabilities and the corresponding assignment of tasks. For example, consider a group of three team members where one is very capable and fully experienced, another has some experience, and the third is fresh out of school. For this group, a specific task might be boring or demeaning for the experienced employee and yet overwhelming for the new employee. However, the task may represent the perfect challenge to achieve a flow state for the employee with some experience. Ideally, you will assign tasks to your team members that represent the perfect level of challenge for each member to reach flow.

2: The team has a high level of decision-making autonomy and an entrepreneurial culture. Team members must feel that success or failure is firmly in their own hands. Consulting with superiors before each decision relinquishes their control, empowerment, and entrepreneurship. Micromanagement kills flow.

3: The team has unity and each member has a vested interest. As the team leader, you must instil the understanding that the team can only win if everyone contributes and works together, giving and receiving support and relying on all members to deliver.

4: Communication and conversations must be at level 4. Using strong “level 4” conversation, team members speak with honesty, integrity, coherence, a positive tone, and clear body language, recognizing that everyone else’s truth is equally valid and valuable, and respecting the other team members’ points of view. Tough issues are not avoided but addressed in a healthy, non-toxic way. Level 4 conversations challenge existing strategic assumptions and favour the emergence of new, undiscovered insights.

5: Avoid the practice of “absencing.” The term “absencing” refers to team members who are somehow “stuck” (i.e., inflexible, closed, or preoccupied) with something other than the task at hand, making it impossible for the team to reach the flow state. It is the opposite of being fully present. Even one team member absencing can undermine the ability of a tightly knit team to reach a state of flow. Team members must be fully present physically, emotionally, and intellectually to avoid having a destructive effect on the team’s performance.

6: Each team member must be aware of and be managing the team’s social field. The essence of what is known as “authentic leadership” requires an acute level of one’s presence and awareness of others. This is aligned with the ancient Sufi saying that states, “You think that because you understand ‘one’ that you must therefore understand ‘two’ because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand ‘and.’”

Any member of any team can influence and shape the social field by a gesture, an offer to help, a bored sigh of frustration, a smile, a declaration, a question, or even a joke. A team member who is authentic can sense the correct action to make at all times, whereas one who is “absencing” exhibits behaviours that leave others frustrated.

Some of the conditions for individual and team flow can be put in place by taking concrete action. However, the most important elements are being present, being authentic, gaining increased awareness, and subtly managing and influencing the social field, which are more “states of being” than actions. These outcomes emerge from increased self-knowledge and self-development, hard work, and a new approach to leadership and self-management.

Although it may seem like a lot of effort to mould a team that can achieve flow, the potential outcome is enormous. Theoretically, a team that can work in the flow state at all times can be five times more productive, according to McKinsey & Company. Realistically, however, a team achieving a state of flow only half the time would still increase the team’s output considerably. More importantly, team members would be thankful and feel great! In many ways, experiences and accomplishments at work can begin to compare with the “highs” you experience outside work when engaging in flow-inducing activities.

According to Greylock Partners venture capitalist James Slavet, the percentage of time that employees spend in a flow state is the most important management metric for building great and innovative teams. Unfortunately, most organizations and their leaders are simply unaware of the potential and possibilities that the flow state offers, never mind trying to measure and track it. For those organizations and their leaders, the above two sets of conditions can serve as a roadmap to get there.

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