Want to Lead More Effectively? Find Your Company’s ‘Flow State’

How many times have you watched a musical performance or listened to a song recording and found yourself totally lost in the moment? You aren’t the only one. Look or listen closely and you’ll see that the performing artists in question are also in “the zone.” They’re so totally engrossed in their craft, with their actions fluid and seamless, that their listeners are pulled into their trance.

It’s an incredible moment where the artist and audience become one—no longer a collection of individuals but a single entity experiencing what psychologists call a “flow state.” It’s a coveted place to be. As psychologists Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi write in Handbook of Positive Psychology (2005), an individual in a flow state “operates at full capacity” and reaches “dynamic equilibrium.” The experience of flow, they note, “encourages a person to persist at and return to an activity…and thereby fosters the growth of skills over time.”

Who wouldn’t want that? It’s clear that achieving flow is critical to success in any venture, whether it’s creating music, producing a film, fielding a sports team, performing major surgery, or running a business. As the research and consulting firm Forrester points out, “a growing body of scientific research is proving that supporting employees’ ability to reach a mental state called flow is much more important to boosting customer satisfaction, talent retention, and revenue growth.”

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. Few companies have succeeded in facilitating that level of flow. In particular, most companies haven’t integrated the processes that allow employees—and, therefore, the entire business—to move forward seamlessly as one.

My company, the information technology company Cherwell, recently asked Lawless Research to conduct an independent study about this phenomenon. We polled more than 1,000 information workers in U.S. companies with more than 1,000 employees. Just 27% of the study’s respondents said that the 10 or more business applications with which they worked daily were highly or completely integrated. More than two-thirds of respondents said that their typical processes were still moderately or highly manual. One-third said they found it difficult to use applications that involved multiple departments or data sources.

So much for flow. Impediments like these generate anxiety or boredom and disrupt the balance of “perceived action capacities” and “perceived action opportunities,” as Nakamura and Csikszentimihalyi put it—hardly the conditions for successful outcomes. Indeed, survey respondents who reported higher levels of work process integration in their companies also reported higher levels of satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.

Look no further than a band of musicians for evidence of this. It’s not the order in which the notes are played by individual musicians that creates a performance or captivates a listener; it’s how it all comes together—how it flows.

In the business world, there are various methodologies that have helped teams work together more efficiently and companies deliver more effectively, from Kanban to Scrum. Champions of these methodologies call it a “flow-based approach” and point to improved collaboration and engagement. (According to a 2016 report from Gallup, “engaged employees produce better business outcomes than do other employees across industry,” whatever the company size or nationality or economic conditions.) The result, they argue, is the delivery of more than the sum of the parts.

So how can more corporations find their flow? I offer two suggestions.

The first: Think about the full journey, end-to-end. What is the actual experience of the person that the company is serving? Which processes are occurring throughout and across the organization? How can technology help? If you’re lost, look to the music: It’s the entire composition, rather than a single note, that engages the players and the listeners.

The second: Stay focused on the end state. The goal is the outcome. What is the purpose of the services performed? How can things be changed to better facilitate the ultimate goal?

In our survey, clear themes emerged from the 27% of respondents who said their processes were more integrated and they were more engaged, satisfied, and productive—that is, “in the flow.” Their companies had adopted a digital transformation initiative, established a central location for apps and services, and appointed a person to be responsible for shared services. Their companies also asked employees how work might be improved, redesigned inefficient processes, and committed themselves to job training.

In July, I attended Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen and spoke with leaders from many different kinds of companies: traditional retailers, transportation startups, food and beverage giants, technology natives. What I heard consistently from CEOs was the following refrain: We have a vision through which we can use technology to transform our businesses.

It’s clear to me that the fulfillment of that vision rests on strategically orchestrating services and automations across and organization. It’s the right thing to do for a better customer experience. It’s the obvious path to achieve more flow. And done right, it’s music to everyone’s ears.

Sam Gilliland is the CEO of Cherwell Software.

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