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Flow: A Missing Piece of the Productivity Puzzle

Two C-level business leaders recently asked me the same question but from a different starting point.

The first asked, “How can I ensure that as an organisation we are not pushing people too hard and causing possible burnout, and yet get the most out of them?”

The second asked, “I sense that some of our people are coasting. How can I push them further and increase their drive to achieve more?”

In both cases there is a perceived gap, between what they believe their people are capable of, and what their people are comfortable or willing to give. I believe this lies at the heart of our productivity challenge.

Typically, this would form part of a classic engagement question, the age-old question of how to increase discretionary effort. But this feels so last century. Rather than focusing on discretionary effort to meet the organisation’s objectives, the challenge needs to be viewed through the lens of human potential.

A leader’s job is to bridge the organisation’s purpose, vision and values with the individual’s beliefs and aspirations, and create an environment that allows both to flourish.

This leads to alignment and synergy, which in turn creates that precious sweet spot where work feels effortless and in flow.

What gets in the way of flow?

  • Mixed or confusing messages regarding focus or priorities
  • Short-term deliverables that create unsustainable pressure
  • Political dynamics that create uncertainty and tension
  • Fear that doing the wrong thing will lead to lack of promotion or losing one’s job
  • An imbalance between activity that doesn’t challenge or stimulate, vs. work that inspires

Too frequently, our work environments are designed to prevent rather than encourage flow. Deep dialogue and listening, moments of stillness and creative play can all stimulate flow in a way that extended frantic periods of activity rarely achieve.

Let’s look at a classic nature-based metaphor – a river.

A river flows at a rate determined by its incline and the volume of water above it. This is the energy that is driving it – literally its strength and force. Water can move around boulders and rocks and find its way when the force is strong enough to push it. In organisation terms, this is the strength and force of aligned purpose – all effort being invested in reaching the same destination.

There are seasons when flow is reduced, when the water rests and slow movement takes over from the rush of new energy. This is natural – allowing periods of rest in between periods of new life are necessary for renewal. But at the same time organisations need to beware of water (energy) that gets stuck and stagnant – resting in pools that have little new stimulus for movement.

How to translate potential into performance?

So how can a leadership team stimulate and create an environment that allows their people to do their best work? Belief in potential is the starting point – translating that into performance and results is the harder part. Here’s how:

  • Coach managers and team leaders on how to coach for improvement – creating a learning culture that supports everyone in bringing their best self to work.
  • Make your company purpose, mission and values central to every aspect of the business. People want worthwhile work – understanding how their work contributes to the larger whole.
  • Ensure communications channels are available to resolve tensions so that conflicts can be quickly resolved. So much energy is wasted on this alone.
  • Provide regular access to inspiration. When your people are inspired, work becomes effortless.
  • Create an environment that stimulates new thinking and growth. E.g. start meetings with a question ‘What have you learned that surprised you this week?’ (not necessarily work-related).
  • Build a culture of gratitude, appreciation and celebration. People want to know when they’ve done a great job.

Ultimately, leaders need to believe that every single member of their team has more to offer. But rather than pushing harder, the question needs to be ‘how can I enable them to step into their potential and perform better in their flow’? That alone would go a long way to bridging the productivity gap.

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