Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-high, Chick-sent-me-high) is a central character in Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Csikszentmihalyi studied the heightened state he called flow or what others often refer to as the zone. This is perhaps best illustrated by the legendary exploits of surfer Laird Hamilton (see the post Superflow).
Although much of the early study of flow focused on athletics and extreme activities (such as mountain climbing), for process excellence professionals there is a ready and relevant parallel: the heightened level of performance work groups can achieve when the heartbeat of the process is harmonious with the heartbeat of the incoming flow of work and the group works in sync seemingly without effort.
Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology, education, and business at the Washington University in St. Louis, did his doctoral program under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Sawyer, building on his interest in group dynamics in things like jazz, took Csikszentmihalyi flow ideas to the group context in his book Group Genius.
Kotler devotes part of his book to what he calls Group Flow Triggers. For a process excellence practitioner his description is highly relevant to the business environment. He writes:
Sawyer also discovered that flow states have social triggers — ten in particular — which are ways to alter social conditions to produce more group flow. A number of these social triggers are already familiar. The first three — serious concentration; shared, clear goals; good communication (i.e. lots of immediate feedback) — are the collective versions of individual preconditions identified by Csikszentmihalyi.
Two more — equal participation and an element of shared risk (mental, physical, whatever) — are self-explanatory given what we already know about flow. The remaining five require a little more information.
Familiarity, our next trigger, means the group has a common language, a shared knowledge base, and a communication style based on unspoken understandings. It means everybody is always on the same page, and, when novel insights arise, momentum is not lost due to the need for lengthy explanations. [Lean flow practitioners will immediately recognize this as the principle of not only standard work, but a standard and shared culture and way of thinking].
Then there’s blending egos — which is the collective version of …humility. When egos have been blended, no one’s hogging the spotlight and everyone’s thoroughly involved.
A sense of control combines autonomy (being free to do what you want) and competence (being good at what you do). It’s about getting to choose your won challenges and having the necessary skills to surmount them.
Close listening occurs when we’re fully engaged in the here and now. In conversation, this isn’t about thinking about what witty thing to say next, or what cutting sarcasm came last. Rather, it’s generating real-time, unplanned responses to the dialogue as it unfolds.
Always say yes, our final trigger, means interactions should be additive more than argumentative. The goal here is the momentum, togetherness, and innovation that comes from ceaselessly amplifying each other’s ideas and actions.
For those who work in large organizations, this observation may hit close to home:
Unfortunately, not every company is this innovative. A Sawyer points out in Group Genius: “It can be hard to find this kind of experience in large organizations, which tend to reward closing up communication, narrowing the channels, and minimizing risk. That’s why people who seek out group flow often join startups or work for themselves.