Finding a new peak in performance
Most of us are aware of the concept of “flow”. First defined in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in his deceptively mundanely entitled book: “Beyond boredom and anxiety”, flow is most commonly associated with “the zone” that many athletes and sportspeople describe when they’re performing at their absolute peak.
To be in a state of flow is to be entirely absorbed by an activity, to such an extent that conscious thought, the divide between awareness and action, and all concerns and anxieties, simply melt away, leaving a sense of pure, in-the-moment focus and control.
Ayton Senna once tried to explain the feeling following his extraordinary F1 qualifying performance in Monaco in 1988, when he’d been lapping two seconds faster than anyone else in the field: “I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct.”
And when you get a group of players in flow together, it is a wonderful thing to behold. However many times you’ve seen it, it’s still hard not to be amazed by Carlos Alberto’s goal, or more accurately the entire Brazilian team’s goal in the 1970 World Cup Final. Yes, the side was peppered with great players, and yes, they had been trained, coached, and practiced over and over, to play in this fluid, flexible, free-flowing style.
But that’s merely the recipe. The visible result is the effortless interplay, the shared intuition, the extraordinary anticipation of each other, as immortalised by Pele’s ludicrously casual final pass.
That’s how the ingredients of flow combined to create that breath-taking moment; a moment in which football truly lived up to its moniker of “the beautiful game”; and from which Brazil secured their third World Cup success out of four successive tournaments.
This is how a team looks when it’s right at the top of its game. And this is how a business feels to work in when it’s in a state of flow. Everything just works, seamlessly, almost subconsciously. Every player is trusted to play their part, to read the game and be there when the pass is put into space.
Contrast that image with the mandatory orders for workers to return to offices coming from the tops of various investment banks over recent weeks. The same organisations whose internal cultures are widely known to be extraordinarily stressful for junior and mid-ranking employees: huge workloads, extreme hours, and micro-management from above; the antithesis of an environment conducive to team flow.
There will always be, and should always be, tensions in a business; critique, challenge and conflict are essential for excellence, but in the boardroom, in meeting rooms, over strategy and resources. Not within the very processes that underpin its productivity. In the dressing room and coaching sessions yes, but not out on the pitch. And never in the cockpit of a car weaving around an unforgiving track at over a hundred miles an hour.
These are not places you need conflict and stress. These are places you need fluidity and flow.
Hybrid working, flexible hours, online collaboration, seamless digital workflow across sites and time zones, these are all here to stay. Not simply because it’s nicer for employees, but because it’s far more productive; far more conducive, not just to a better work environment, but to better work, to organisational flow.
There is a huge opportunity to be unlocked from the silver linings of our covid experience if we are prepared re-imagine how we can use those lessons to their full potential.
And there is a new peak of performance and productivity waiting to be discovered if we are willing to look afresh at the structure of work and the people who do it, and to reorganise and retrain in these new tools and practices, to play a far, far better game.
A more fluid, flexible, free-flowing game.
A more beautiful business game.