Alison Beard in the July/August issue of HBR referred to the happiness backlash. The search for ‘flow’ was cited as an example of the focus on achieving happiness. The alternative essay provides a pragmatic reality of the world as it is. Later in the magazine the need for a revolution in the way we provide people support through ‘HR’ was also questioned. Our consulting experience would also point to a need for change in the way HR works.
Walter McFarland recently explored the need for managers to stay human in the ‘digital age’. Progress is more rapid than in any time in history and with rapid change, demands for greater productivity, resulting stress levels and time demands, the need for flow is correspondingly at its greatest. At organization, function, team and individual level it can enable all entities to cope with, respond to and make the most of these new pressures.
Today’s business environment is one that breeds the impersonal – strides in technology have exponentially improved our ability to broadcast intentions whilst significantly diminishing our capability to interact such that personal connection is lost. The consequence is that technology is thought as the architect and tool of a project or process change instead of a tool for the human architect. Gallup and McKinsey recently reported on this dilemma. Gallup noted that only 13% of the world’s 1.3 billion full-time employees are engaged in their work. McKinsey research demonstrated that the healthiest companies generate almost three times the returns than less healthy companies.
My observations with clients and in research have seen the major consequence of dehumanising organisational structure as the neglect of employee talent. Reducing human input can lead to lack of engagement, innovation and collaboration. The people resource should not be squandered for there is no extra cost, or costly updates when individuals and team take responsibility for their performance and continuous improvement. As McFarland notes, ‘we just need to claim back our humanity.’ How? By engaging and enabling the workforce to contribute their full value.
Back to Alison Beard: the extent to which individual, team and organization flow is achieved is not really about happiness; it is really about performance. In understanding and enabling flow we can bring simplicity from complexity, reduce stress and pressure to enhance direct impact of people and performance and for people beyond performance to the maintenance of humanity, equilibrium and purpose.
Steven Kotler’s video identified the link between flow and incredible performance. By exploring the attainment of flow beyond the individual to team and organization levels we can conclude that there are strong similarities.
The dominant energy within teams and organizations will go a long way to determining the culture and the way things work. One of the barriers to flow is an HR function out of sync with the rest of the organization. This is worse still if within that function there is also a disconnection and lack of flow. The extent to which alleged ‘best practice’ is used to justify the imposition of policy, process, recruitment process and/or operating frameworks is often a clear indicator of whether the maximum potential is being achieved from everyone in the wider organization.
To release flow at all levels as we move into ‘the workplace of the future’ (reference Gratton, Meister, Morgan, Donkin, Maitland, Thomson et al) needs a total review. Charles Handy has often referred to the need for organizations to reflect society. To survive, they need to appreciate why, what and who they are for.
The extent to which lean process driven change can continue is questionable given the number of attempts organisations have driven already. Gallup acknowledged the ‘leaner and meaner’ improvements made by many though highlighted the potential gearing impact that engaged workforces could generate. Efficiency is close to being exhausted as a further driver of improved performance. Incidentally, the full cost reductions intended have rarely been achieved in reality. And as Clay Christensen points out, these are efficiency innovations, no more, so lead to a dead end of cost savings and possible job losses if taken to extreme.
People and the full value of their potential contribution are the most underused lever of change for effectiveness and improved performance. Achieving the most time for individuals, teams, the organisation and its customers to be in flow is key to achieving a transformation in performance.
My research and work with clients has realized three strands of challenge which is we need to achieve people in flow, hr in flow and customers in flow. The need to be conscious of the blend for all stakeholders is paramount.
The intent is to achieve an integrated, collaborative and co-ordinated operational framework and culture. One step towards this is the alignment of business, function, team and individual intent and objectives. Any disconnection will negatively impact performance. Thus, the first step is to be committed to the reason why every role exists.
If we overlay McFarland’s remarks on the need for leaders to stay human then there is a case for flow to be core to doing so. For this would enable individuals and organizations to link not just to intent and objectives but also to their higher purpose and value.
Flow connects the top down/bottom up alignment and it can be developed into a more flexible approach to organizational structure; one that is defined by the needs of that organization and makes the most of the people within it.
What matters will vary from organization to organization. Individual to individuals for ‘total flow’ and the alignment of purpose and intent, for a connected culture and transformed performance with a focus on people to drive change.
For this to be achieved then HR will need to re-think and revolutionize for flow and that includes the contribution of all ‘people support’ functions. With improved organization flow there is also wider benefit; including improved customer experience. In her book and excellent videos ‘The Shift’ Lynda Gratton provides a sub-title of ‘the future of work is already here.’ When taken to each level of operation we have highlighted that ‘flow’ underpins so much of the journey to the requirements of the future workplace. This will not be an easy journey. With five generations in the workplace there are conflicting interpretations of ‘norms.’ Varied cultural dimensions further add to the challenges of achieving flow at all levels.
What can help?
- Clarity and alignment of purpose, intent and objectives.
- Focus on integrated, collaborative and coordinated cross-organization leadership, management and operational frameworks. This will require leaders and managers to fully commit to a shared purpose and work with flexibility to achieve organisational priorities ahead of functional and personal objectives.
- Appreciation of the application of the intent, objective, key result, critical action, strength deployment and reverse pathway (see diagram). This can help realize the context of expectation, contribution and intent. With a shared sense of purpose it is a lot easier to ensure that all involved within performance and any improvement journey realize their roles and take responsibility rather than ‘blame’ others if performance doesn’t change. (This is an adaptation of the Impact Maps introduced by Robert Brinkerhoff in Success Case Method 2005)
- A focus on ‘what really matters’ with increased levels of trust and reduced levels of stress.
- Adoption of ‘Flow’ as a driver for change.
- People support centred on the organizations priorities, people and performance enablement.
- Releasing rather than controlling contribution.
These will form a strong case for a focus on flow. People ‘in flow’ are key to any level or interpretation of performance and attainment of purpose.
About the author:
Neville Pritchard is Chair of the Company Transformation Group. He previously held senior HR roles in Abbey National and Barclays and has been consulting and coaching for the past ten years.