Getting Teams and People into the State of Flow
Discover how TameFlow, a novel combination of existing approaches, practices, and schools of thought, enables individuals and teams to achieve a state of flow.
Steve Tendon: Managing Director at Tameflow Consulting Limited.
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How can we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Steve Tendon: You have three big points there. The first one, every voice matters, is something you normally don’t find out there in workplaces. You typically have the “Hippo” syndrome where the highest-paid guy will simply dictate out of authority what does and what doesn’t matter, which always results in a lot of frustration. Seldom will people be happy at work in this type of environment. And I am using that word to be happy deliberately. Why? Because as you probably know, I am obsessed with performance and high-performing organizations.
I always come back to this, unless people are happy you will not get there.
So, what can you do in order to make everybody’s voice matter? Part of being happy is to have a voice that matters. So, what can you do in order to make everybody’s voice matter? It might seem a bit overused as an ideal, but I really think that the most important aspect is that you must figure out a way to give the organization as a whole a common purpose. I’m not talking about fancy vision and mission statements, which take up poster space on the walls. There is pretty much just lip service to those statements. Of course, there are some exceptional companies that mean what they really say.
When I talk about purpose, I refer to a deeper connection between the individuals of such a nature that it really affects the way of thinking, the ideals, and the decision-making of people working together. There might seem to be some contradictions here because we don’t want to wind up in a situation where you have the phenomenon of groupthink where everyone is conforming just because it’s the path of least resistance. It’s the opposite. It’s really to make a place where there are all sorts of diversity. Especially diversities of ideas where you have a thriving ecology of ideas.
A place where there is safety and everyone feels comfortable saying what they have on their mind without a feeling of getting any sort of punishment or retaliation.
You might be the last hire of the company or the most junior person or even the humble janitor, but if you see that what you propose gets resonance by the rest of the company and maybe even acted upon, you then feel that you can make a real difference. Then I think you’re moving towards the second part of your question—you start thriving. You like to be in that place. You’re happy to be at work because you see that you can contribute. You’re not only going to work because of the salary you will get at the end of the month but also because you feel that you are being part of a social body that is going in your direction as well.
I stress this from another point of view because most companies that engage in setting goals, missions, and visions naturally do it from a perspective of business objectives. There is nothing absolutely wrong with that. Companies are structured for that very precise reason. They are there to provide a service or a product and get paid for it.
However, most companies do not make any sort of effort to make space for personal ambition or supporting individuals in the pursuit of purpose in life.
Companies seldom try to make an effort in understanding what the single individual might aspire to and what their objectives in life are. That support is simply not there. It’s even so bad that if you go into a company and ask people why they are there, they will reply in terms that are politically correct and conforming to the expectations of the business. They will be very uncomfortable revealing what is really on their mind and agenda. I think a company that can find that sort of double-duty is the place to aim. On one side, you aim at being the best company in the marketplace—so that you can thrive as a business—while at the same time being the best company for the employees is really the biggest challenge of all.
How do we get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Steve: I think full attention and best performance are quite related. Performance always has some connotation of productivity. You indeed want to achieve more in less time and this could also be framed in such a way for an individual that could create more personal time because you need less time to actually do the work. We are seeing some instances of these cases so-called Results Only Working Enterprises. I believe that is a good way of thinking about performance where we start to disconnect the outcomes, outputs, and results from the actual time or even from the means which you might employ to achieve them.
In fact, I think that in order to achieve the best performance you must focus in a very sharp way. I am a great fan of the Theory of Constraints (TOC) for many reasons even though most conventional wisdom around the Theory of Constraints seems related to the manufacturing floor and other domains where it has been applied. I like to give a psychological twist to TOC. Today we know that multitasking is killing the attention of all of us. Just try to do some work on your keyboard when you have all the feeds from Facebook, Twitter, and who knows what else. Your attention is simply just not there. We are extremely susceptible to distractions.
I think trying to figure out how to focus on the work is an exercise every individual needs to engage in. But I think that is not only the way to frame attention.
The major culprit is the dispersal of attention of the business in its own right. Why? Because there are many conventional management practices, which actually encourage multitasking.
These practices, in turn, encourage the need to give attention to all and everything all the time without any means or mechanism of prioritizing and deciding what really matters.
Many management practices encourage multitasking. These practices, in turn, encourage the need to give attention to all and everything all the time without any means or mechanism of prioritizing and deciding what really matters.
TOC has many tools to address the above challenges.
If you start looking at what really matters and start reasoning with the tools of TOC, you will see at the end of the day that most people are wasting a lot of effort doing work that is not really necessary.
The whole idea behind TOC is that you should synchronize all activities around the constraints of your business. If you have that idea quite clear then you will also discover that all other parts of the business—those that are not the constraint by definition—will have more capacity. They will have an excess capacity as the definition goes in TOC. Well, that excess capacity is wonderful because it means you can actually give time to people to reflect and improve. You can give time to people to study things or go to conferences or enhance their own well-being without actually affecting the final business and business performance.
As a matter of fact, your business performance will probably improve because these people are just so much better equipped to do what they’re actually supposed to do. Performance and attention go hand and hand. Individuals can do a lot to direct their own attention. However, I believe that the business has the greatest responsibility. And speaking of responsibility, we must not forget that the people in an organization that have the least attention are actually executives and managers. This is because they need to deal with all possible bits and pieces and moving parts, which happen inside and outside the organization. They have to pay attention to the market, competitors, the regulatory environment, politics, and so many other things. So in this discourse of how can we give the employee the capability to use full attention and best performance, let’s start with executives. They are the ones in terms of the attention that are the real constraint. We need to find ways of conducting business that allow executives to focus on things that really matter. If executives get into that frame of reference and mindset, then it will just trickle down. In fact, that happens with any kind of cultural background bias or belief. Whatever happens at the top will invariably trickle down to the rest of the organization.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Steve: I’d probably refer back to Henry Ford who would say that “People just want to have a faster horse but didn’t know they wanted to have an automobile.” I think people in companies are so accustomed to the straitjacket that the corporate environment imposes on them that they are not even capable of imagining what they would want and long for in that setting.
When you ask people what they aspire for and ask why they are coming to work, they will always give you some reply that is politically correct, which conforms to some sort of expectation of how you should behave and talk in the workplace.
But if you really dig deep, at the end of the day it’s always because I need some money because I need to do this or I want to do that. Maybe you have urgent needs like caring for kids or elderly parents or you have aspirations to travel or you want to do some art class—whatever it might be. It is very different from the official reason why you come to work. If you were able to create a working environment where people would feel what they are doing there is much better aligned with their own objectives in life, I think they would want to go in that direction.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Steve: Ask why do you come to work every day and really dig into it. Don’t settle for the politically correct response. The essence of that question should become a cultural norm that the leadership should adopt and adhere to at all levels. But don’t just ask this question but follow up on it to try to cater to the needs of the individual in as much as is possible in the business competitive environment. Figure out how to use the inner forces that each one of us has or the things we care about so that driver goes in the direction of where you want to go with the company. Align people and the company in one direction.
Ask why do you come to work every day and really dig into it. Don’t settle for the politically correct response.
This is something I work with very much in TameFlow. It’s what I call the Unity of Purpose Pattern, which goes hand in hand with the Community of Trust pattern. Those two patterns are really foundational not only to get high-performing organizations but also to make for a thriving human environment. I’d suggest there’s not one specific question management should ask. They should have a whole chest box full of questions. The intent of any one of those questions should be: are we building a unity of purpose? Are we nurturing a community of trust? How can we improve on that?
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Steve: Why are you coming to work today? If top leaders start asking those questions and really mean it and work in that direction to create a community of profound values and a unity of purpose, then the expectation becomes such that the employees would no longer feel uncomfortable asking tough questions to their leaders.
If at some point the leaders are behaving in ways that go counter to these profound values of unity of purpose and community of trust, then employees should feel free to call them to order. They should ask them what are you doing now and does this make sense? Is this consistent with what you’ve been teaching so far? I think that has some good effects as well.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Steve: I’d probably have to ask that myself! (laughing) In the context of a working environment, we want to be members of this social body of individuals that somehow share the same destiny—or at least a piece of that destiny. The important question or questions might be framed with respect to what we’ve been reasoning about up until now. If these ideas of creating a unity of purpose and a community of trust get anchored in the organization, then at any point in your day whatever you do or decide, then maybe the guiding principle should be am I going towards or against those two founding patterns? If I sense that I’m going against them, then I might “pull the line” as they say at Toyota when something goes bad. In essence, rather than asking a question, it becomes more of getting into a habit of self-reflective introspection on whatever it is you’re doing at any moment you’re in during the day. When something doesn’t make sense. When you see a red light blinking at you. Don’t let it blink, take action. Ask the question am I going towards or against our founding patterns?
What is TameFlow?
Steve: TameFlow is a collection of many approaches that I’ve cherry-picked from many domains. What is probably unique in TameFlow is it’s not really any kind of innovation or innovative thinking, but it’s the novel combination of existing approaches, practices, and schools of thought.
It’s not coincidental that I’ve been insisting so much on the two founding patterns of Unity of Purpose and Community of Trust because those are really at the core of TameFlow.
The name of my approach, TameFlow, is also not coincidental. We might be familiar with flow in the sense that we know about the “workflow” in an operational sense. When you have flow, you have a sense of things moving. When things are moving, they have a direction. And when they have a direction, you have the opportunity of making them go in the same direction, so it’s another incarnation of Unity of Purpose.
But for me, flow is much more than that. One thing that I take from the Theory of Constraints (TOC) is throughput accounting. You might know that throughput accounting was Eli Goldratt’s reply to conventional cost accounting thinking in terms of making management decisions. While the intent of TOC is obviously that of creating greater throughput in the financial sense of impacting the bottom line; what I see is that throughput accounting is an excellent tool for breaking down silos. When you have cost accounting and you start looking into cost centers and profit centers, you have all these efficiency measures. Well, at the end of the day you have these silos which are really fighting one another! Even the conventional budgeting processes are basically people – in the same company! – fighting one another for the same limited resources.
When you start moving over to throughput accounting, you have the indirect effect on top of the one that Goldratt was concerned about, which is to have a much greater impact on the bottom line. Well, you have this other effect with TOC when bits and pieces of the company are not fighting each other. It starts to take away hidden agendas. You start to make things much more visible. You can start discussing what really matters.
Another flow that I work with is the flow of information or basically feedback loops. What matters in relation to Unity of Purpose and Community of Trust is that these feedback loops are as tight and fast as possible. We all know how disgruntled we become when we are just waiting for something to happen. Whenever there is a delay, that brings about a lot of irritation especially if the delay is somehow received at the management level.
For example, “I told you to do this! Why haven’t you done it yet?” That’s a classical one. If you create a situation where the reason why you have not done it yet is communicated as soon as it’s noticed, then you are preventing these kinds of reactions and giving the opportunity to whoever is in charge to take action. This is very much close to agile thinking where you try to make things more transparent and have information flowing up and down, left and right, freely inside the organization.
The last thing that relates to this word I use, the flow, is actually the most important one for me. It’s the psychological flow. It goes back to happiness and two ideas from a famous Hungarian psychologist by the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi studied for many years the science of what makes people happy. What he discovered is that it’s this sense of doing something challenging but not too challenging. It’s important that you’re still able to do the work, but you’re being stretched to get it done. It’s this very, very narrow so-called “flow channel.” When you are in this state you are so focused on what you’re doing that time just flies by and things become intuitive and happen almost like magic.
When you are in this state you are so focused on what you’re doing that time just flies by and things become intuitive and happen almost like magic.
That’s what you see athletes and artists doing all the time. Maybe it’s a virtuoso musician who plays something astounding. Or think of an extreme sports athlete who does all sorts of incredible feats. Well, those people are in flow. That’s a flow state. And when you are in a flow state, you are in that sense of satisfaction, of enjoyment, of happiness.
In TameFlow, I try to bring about that flow for both the individual and the workplace. How can we make the work environment and the organizational work such that it actually induces flow? One of the things we try to avoid is of course interruptions and give focus on things. But on top of that, I also try to bring about the more difficult kind of flow, which is the team flow. That’s when you have a whole group of people who are all at the same time in that magic kind of state. I think the only way that layman can relate to this is by looking at a sports team—especially the greatest sports teams of all time.
No matter which sport you look at whether it’s football, ice hockey, etc., you will always find these teams that perform in an outstanding way. Team members move to the right place at the right time and do the most amazing things. They could do it even if they were blindfolded because they know exactly where the other team members are and what they’re doing. The whole issue of coordination and synchronization signaling has been tuned to such a level that you don’t even see it. The team works almost by magic.
That is the ultimate goal of TameFlow—getting teams and individuals to that level. That is where the hyper-performance state kicks in and that’s when with a few people you can really deliver things like an organization that is 10 or even 50 times larger. It doesn’t happen often, but it is possible.