Flow” is a simple concept that relates challenges to skills, with the understanding that the two are integrated and that they can dramatically affect performance. A good manager is aware of the relationship, and can structure the work environment to maximize results by keeping things in adjustment.

I expand on this in a long article on my website. You can find this and other performance-related articles and download them by clicking here. Or, you can simply click on the link below to download a pdf file directly. High_Performance_Team_Flow

The concept is based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s model for improving individual performance that blends Challenge with Skills and helps people to frame a process for optimizing performance, both theirs and others. Overall, the situation looks like this:

Flow - Issues Graphic

Low skills in a highly challenging situation generate stress and sometimes fear. High skill levels in a low challenge situation generate boredom. It is not a complicated notion and most of us can readily think of situations where this has occurred.

His model takes these issues and puts forth a different proposal for how to improve performance. That looks like this:

Flow - Image Graphic

“Flow” might be described as becoming absorbed in an activity and tapping into that energy field to perform at a high level. 

A high performance state is where individuals and teams operate most effectively and find that state intoxicating. People who have played my team building exercise, “The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine” often experience flow toward the end of the planning period when everything comes together very rapidly – or not, depending on how their team was working!

Skills and Challenges are important, but environment also counts.

How does one structure the environment to generate flow?

The overall environment generally needs to be supportive to reinforce the positives and minimize the negatives. The key is to set up an environment that helps to engage people and drive such a state of thinking and behaving. The components of a team-based, workplace environment design might have many or most of these components:

  • Clear goals, missions and purpose, where expectations are specific and processes and procedures are understood. Goals need to be perceived as achievable and the individuals must feel they possess adequate skills and abilities. The involvement of the team in the situation can also support flow.
  • Concentration and focus with a narrow field of view. Flow is more likely to occur if focus is on a narrow band of things rather than a broad one. Think of Bob Beamon’s thoughts on that record long jump in the 1968 Olympics. Avoiding distractions and disruptions is very helpful, although sometimes difficult to arrange and influenced by personal concentration skills.
  • Effective Performance Feedback is a critical factor, and one that many people do not well understand or implement (click here to access Scott’s Performance Feedback Analysis materials). To support high performance, feedback needs to be nearly immediate, positive, demonstrate trends in results, be narrow and specific and generally be self-measured and self-produced. When delays are introduced, it is like learning to play the piano when one cannot hear the notes for 30 seconds, a most difficult task.
  • Sufficient resources must be available so that external influences are felt to be minimal and a sense of “local control” exists about what is needed to succeed. Having to wait for equipment or permission is not conducive to a flowing workplace. A sense of control over the situation or activity lends itself to improved results; an internal focus-of-control generates better flow than a reliance or dependence on outside influencers.
  • Mental skills training is important. People should be using skills such as   dissociation, meditation, visual rehearsal or projection, positive self-talk (opposed to the constructive criticism so often used as a leadership technique by management!) and other creative skills that can benefit individuals. People should be able to access high performance mental states and also avoid distractions, both mental and physical. Teams using thinking processes like Ed DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats and other brainstorming or mind-mapping practices can add thinking skills to a problem-solving situation. Self-generated stretch or push goals for performance can create the need to expand and improve results and productivity.
  • A focus on success, rather than avoidance of failure, is important for most individuals. While some may employ a fear-of-failure strategy as a motivational force, it is generally not something that will drive peak performance. Having a focus on achieving success and meeting goals is much more rewarding than avoiding failure or lack of success. Intrinsic rewards support sustained performance much more than any added extrinsic rewards might generate. Achieving the goal and generating immediate positive feedback are powerful motivators and help sustain flow.
  • Balance between ability levels and challenges presented for the team (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult) is a key factor and something that managers and key leaders must attend to for best results.
  • Engagement within the activity itself is important, especially when it is a group or team situation where there may have been some past negativity surrounding this activity. Sharing risk can help minimize distractions and contribute to the feeling of support. Organizations DO have histories, as do individuals.
  • A situation of ownership can help, whereby teammates are enlisted in a shared challenge. This generates peer support for the perceived risks as well as support for the needed efforts. As I have said many times, “Nobody ever washes a rental car.” Having a sense of ownership can help reduce distractions as well as providing overall support and a decreased sense of risk. Individuals who do not have a sense of ownership involvement will not often create a sense of flow.

All of the above represent manageable environmental factors that managers can influence or control and any of these will help improve performance. And making people aware of the concept of flow is also helpful – the awareness can change how they deal with their thoughts and ideas and the choices they make about their performance.

And Remember, Fun is a helpful addition to almost every team building, high performance or organizational developmental situation.

Scott Debrief

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

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