Everything I Know About Improving Team Flow I Learned in Middle School

As an individual, I’m incredibly interested in how to achieve “flow state” more easily and frequently. And so, I’m drawn to writings on that. But in my business ventures, I have questioned how to help teams achieve higher team flow. Most of what I know I learned before high school, from singing in choirs, dancing on stage, and playing in orchestras — as a kid, who wasn’t all that talented. Maybe you had some of these same experiences, or were yours more related to sports teams?

Being initially inclined to discount childhood learnings for how they might help a million, or billion-dollar company improve the bottom line, I set out to discover something more profound. And I read through a 37-page research paper published in The Journal of Psychology in 2018. It was quite interesting, filled with lots of charts and diagrams, and official looking citations and footnotes. But I didn’t learn anything particularly new and profound, except that what I learned about team flow in middle-school was now, officially “proven.”

Before I delve into what I have learned, maybe I should back up and explain team flow a bit. The term flow state originated with University of Chicago Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 and describes a state of being, characterized by happiness and intense focus and productivity. Everything just flows easily and you easily forget the time. Is it feasible for business teams to achieve this flow state? I would say yes, but how do you know when one has hit a flow state? What does team flow look like? Here are several characteristics that are easily observable in your team meetings.

  • No one is on their phone.
  • Everyone is engaged and contributing.
  • The energy is high.
  • Progress towards a goal is visible.

6 suggestions for building team flow. #teamflow #team #projectmanagement #smartprojex

Now, here are six suggestions for building team flow, that, while drawn from my experiences in school, are confirmed by the research.

1. There has to be a goal that everyone is excited about.

I haven’t found a substitute for the performance, whether it’s a concert, ball game, international tour, or a recording session that is on the calendar that your group must prepare for. Having a goal that everyone is excited about is a major success driver.

Think about your childhood. Were you always excited about that next rehearsal or practice, or did you need the inspiration of that goal line?

This has been one of my pet peeves for years. I’ve written about it numerous times, for example, in a blog on supercharging your project charter.

2. Everyone must commit to the task.

How excited are you to attend a practice or a rehearsal when a significant number of people don’t show up? It just means that you will have to go through all of that material at a snail’s pace one more time — to catch up the ones that weren’t there.

It’s true on your business teams. Getting people committed to the task at hand is one of the most important steps you can take. It’s not so much about putting it down in a Gantt chart with a deadline. Get people to prioritize the task, regardless of the distractions and other demands that are sure to come.

3. It’s highly beneficial when team members’ individual goals are aligned with the team goal.

Picture two different middle school orchestras. They both rehearse the same music three times a week with the same conductor. In one group, everyone practices that music at home in between rehearsals, and in the other group, no one takes their instruments out of the case between rehearsals. Which one will make the most progress?

I knew this lesson long ago, and when I built my original software, I included a field in the database to track the individual goals of everyone on the team. But I rarely work on a project with a project manager who bothers to ask me anything about my personal goals. Are you asking the people on your teams? Are there resource allocation changes that you can make in your organization that will result in better alignment between team goals and individual goals?

4. The music can’t be too hard or too easy.

Any sports coach or music director understands that the skill levels of those on the team have to be similar. One violin player who simply cannot play the music will ruin your performance. It may be quite charming when your three-year old ballerina dances to her own rhythm, in contrast to the others on the stage. But when your high school basketball team loses three key players and has to play the big game with less-skilled players, fans rarely enjoy the outcome.

In the study on team flow that I previously mentioned and in Csikszentmihalyi’s groundbreaking work, one of the key elements of finding flow is the difficulty of the work. It has to be challenging, but it can’t be too challenging. Finding that balance is the key.

5. A sense of safety must be in evidence.

Before you can really build trust on a team there has to be a sense of safety. People have to understand that rehearsals are where you miss the notes so that you get it right when you are in the performance. If people aren’t missing notes, they aren’t learning new music. I saw this a lot in choral groups. People didn’t want to sing wrong notes, so they just pretended to sing. But that didn’t really help them learn to sing the music.

All of this is true on your business teams. People need to be comfortable enough to challenge ideas, experiment and fail, and admit that a deliverable is likely going to be late BEFORE it’s due. That’s how teams grow.

And that’s how trust is built. There is considerable research on the importance of building trust on your teams. This is why I like the idea of re-using business teams. Why spend all of that investment on a team and then, let it go to waste?

6. The leaders must be excellent communicators.

Rehearsals with a conductor who mumbles and doesn’t give clear instructions are pretty miserable experiences. Time is wasted trying to get everyone on the same page. Passages have to be repeated again, unnecessarily. Sometimes, the players or singers don’t even have the right piece of music in front of them. And then, some will zone out and stop listening, which adds an extra burden.

How does this apply to business? Are your emails succinct and clear? Have you planned your meeting agenda effectively? Have you communicated your vision and objectives to everyone until it feels absurdly repetitive? Most of us can still get better at communications.

Interested in working with me? As you can tell, I like reducing project management to the fun basics and enjoy working with committed teams and leaders that want help. Not sure you can afford hours of coaching? I have a book that might help you.

Citation: Jef J.J. van den Hout, Orin C. Davis & Mathieu C.D.P. Weggeman (2018) The Conceptualization of Team Flow, The Journal of Psychology, 152:6, 388–423, DOI: 10.1080/00223980.2018.1449729

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