Talentism’s research and hands-on experience lead us to believe that businesses and leaders are heading into even tougher times. Companies are failing to consistently achieve important goals. Leaders are failing to find clarity. And many of the people who work in business are increasingly finding work to be a necessary evil, rather than a place to find purpose and productivity.
We believe these wasted opportunities exist because the world in which business operates is changing rapidly, while the thinking about how to build and run a business has remained stubbornly static. The gap between our current business reality and our old business thinking is causing organizational failure and individual confusion. We call this increasingly intolerable situation the “widening productivity chasm”. This chasm exists because our current business playbook doesn’t give leaders and the people who work for them the answers they need to navigate their increasingly confusing circumstances.
Legions of consultants and theorists have recognized this gap. Billions of dollars and millions of hours are spent on closing the productivity chasm with promises of better, faster businesses and happier, more engaged employees. But the chasm persists, and appears to be growing. We believe this is because most solutions to important business problems are different versions of the same basic recipe: optimize the current thinking. Put a new page in the same playbook. The fundamental thinking about business and people remains largely unchanged. And thus the solutions fail, even when the insights the solutions are based on are fundamentally sound.
Take the concept of flow for example. Flow is real and it is important. It is a neurological and psychological phenomenon in which people are completely immersed in an activity, containing and channeling their emotions in order to optimize performance and learning. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi popularized the concept of flow during the 1980s, describing it as an “optimal experience” where people feel, “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.” Even if you haven’t heard of the term “flow”, you have heard of “being in the zone”. We’ve all felt it before: that sense of effortless excellence. Its where we are optimally productive and feel most alive.
The idea of creating more flow in business has become a hot business topic. It is apparent that increasing the amount of time that people spend in flow states has tangible benefits to businesses, and the concept has subsequently entered the lexicon of business strategy. This makes sense: maximizing flow is correctly seen as a path to higher productivity and employee engagement, both of which are important to the top and bottom line.
Business theorists, strategists, and change consultancies have proposed a variety of solutions as the idea of flow has become more popular. The ideas are often contradictory, such as increasing novelty and complexity in the environment, decreasing the level of distraction in the environment, increased socialization through brainstorming sessions, decreased socialization through closed offices, and more.
Unsurprisingly this “flow revolution” hasn’t resulted in any substantial difference in the productivity chasm. It has become another management fad, just like the hundreds of other solutions that have consumed manager’s time, attention and capital but left no real dent in the problem itself. Flow is a real and important thing, but it isn’t fundamentally changing anything. Why is this?
The problem is not the core principles of flow. The idea of flow is well established by science and research. The benefits of flow are demonstrated by stars in every line of work, including sports, entertainment, business, science. Putting a “flow page” in the old business playbook doesn’t drive sustainable advantage because the solutions aren’t dealing with a simple but profound reality about people and work: confusion prohibits flow. A leader who wants to increase productivity must first focus on eliminating the fear caused by confusion.
Anxiety has consistently been shown to be a performance killer. States of threat turn on the fight or flight response, creating what is referred to as the “amygdala hijack”. As Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project says in his NY Times article “Why Fear Kills Productivity”, “When we’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed, we’re different people than when we’re calm and secure. In the latter state, our prefrontal cortex runs the show, and we’re capable of making informed choices. When fear intrudes, our amygdala and the lower regions of our brain take over, and we can’t think straight. Fear contracts us.”
This isn’t a stunning new insight. Edwards Deming, the father of the modern quality movement, created billions of dollars in value while helping the Japanese emerge from their postwar depression to become a manufacturing giant. In his famous “14 Points”, Deming proclaimed “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” He had been using this principle to increase productivity since 1951 and the results speak for themselves.
Flow cannot exist in a state of confusion. And yet the old business playbook, built on 110-year-old thinking about how to drive people to make widgets faster, continues to treat fear as a necessary part of the management toolkit. You don’t have to accept our word for this. Just look up “productivity and anxiety” in leading business publications. You’ll find countless references to individual and team sports, with correlations between the fear used to boost performance in sports with the benefits of using fear to boost performance in business.
We don’t deny that when someone is scared they can jump higher and run faster; this is just a basic biological fact and an important part of our evolution as a species. It even makes sense that business theorists would conflate sports success with business success. After all, if a manager’s goal is to make someone run faster or jump higher, fear can get results.
But the modern manager’s job is to get people to think better—to get into flow. Fear kills flow. Fear doesn’t help students achieve better test scores, inventors create new products, customer service people help customers, or people build healthy and productive relationships.
The old business playbook says that fear, in the form of management accountability and the constant threat of firing, is an important way to increase productivity. And when the world of work was about producing more widgets faster, this made sense. But that isn’t the world of work we live in today. In fact, that world is long gone, unlikely to return. That is why adding a page about flow to the old business playbook leads to mediocre outcomes. In essence, the purveyors of flow solutions are saying, “Fear is just a fact of life, so let’s move the offices around and put pretty pictures on the walls so people feel better.” It is little wonder that these solutions fail to deliver their promised results.
Insights into the nature of flow and many other important concepts can be transformative for a business. But we must first start with practical ways to reduce the productivity chasm. The pace of change in the business world will not slow down. Our profound and fundamental thinking about business and people must keep up.
Good ideas will continue to deliver mediocre results unless we change our thinking. We need to build a new business playbook that deals effectively with our new business reality and new insights into what people are like and how they achieve optimal productivity. Only then will important insights lead to sustainably better businesses.