Group flow can increase the productivity, happiness and creativity of business-led technology teams and is a powerful tool for organizations looking to have higher impact. If you have worked on a high performing business team or sports team, you may have experienced group flow. Group flow is a state where a group of individuals become more than the sum of their parts (ensemble) and deliver outcomes faster and better through task absorption, deep mutual trust, and collaboration. Group flow is contagious and creates feelings of happiness, joy and elation (Seligman, 2011). Group flow has shown to improve creativity (Sawyer, 2017), productivity by 500% and learning by 200-500% (Holton, 2021), which are valuable results for any organization. Teams that experience group flow are better able to retain members and add new members to their team successfully (Snow, 2010). Group flow is also trainable. There are certain behaviors and characteristics that will increase the likelihood of group flow and a set of blockers that will impede group flow. Teams that practice these skills will increase the time in group flow, increase the amount of joy they receive from their work, and improve their performance. This paper covers the science and benefits behind group flow, a real-world case study of group flow, and the limitations of scaling group flow.
Science behind group flow
Individual flow is a universal phenomenon described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s as being selfless, timeless, and engaging (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). When in flow, one is completely absorbed by the task. The experience is described as “being in the flow” or “in the zone”. Time is perceived as moving slowly or quickly. People in flow experience complete control of their activity while also being challenged at the appropriate level. We used to believe that group flow was simply the result of a group of people each experiencing individual flow, but that is better defined as “co-active flow”. Group flow is different from individual flow (Magyarodi et al., 2015) and requires an extra set of characteristics due to the social nature of the process. Group flow occurs when group members are co-creating with each other, dependent on each other, and become agents in each other’s flow experience. These behaviors/triggers will increase the probability of group flow:
- Shared Goals – Shared goals limit the influence of our ego on the outcome. Share the goals upfront and check in with them often. Use a project management tool to track the goals and the work required to achieve them. Review the board frequently. If you use user stories, the story should be the container for the goals and conversations related to them. Stories should evolve (or split into new stories) to ensure we are capturing the genius of the group.
- Close Listening – Feedback is required for group flow. Get the most direct insight from feedback by using close listening. Be completely present, no multitasking, no checking your phone or computer. Repeat back what you heard. Document any concerns on the board and move on if you are not able to solve new issues immediately.
- Yes And – Group flow is harder to achieve and maintain than individual flow because one must perform well in their own tasks while also sharing and receiving feedback that will result in higher group performance. Use the “Yes, and” technique to improve interpersonal communication skills (Crossan, 1998). Instead of saying “no” to an idea, say “yes, and…” to validate the idea and add to it.
- Complete Concentration – Distractions will decrease performance and quality of task work (Foroughi et al., 2013). The group is shielded from as many disruptions as possible. Remove competing projects/tasks by re-prioritizing or re-assigning to give teams the space to do deep work. Carve out dedicated deep work blocks to prevent interruptions.
- Sense of Control – Business led technology teams are composed of business owners and technology experts that have authority and capability to deliver the outcome without a lot of external dependencies. Team members need to have control over the implementation. For group flow to be consistent, group members, and the group as a whole, must be competent to solve the tasks at hand (Hackman et al., 1975, Salanova et al., 2014).
- Blending Egos – Most innovation comes from teams, not individuals (Woodman et al, 1993). You don’t get Apple with just Steve Jobs, you need Wozniak too. When in group flow, team members become more group and task-centered and less self-centered. Social identity and personal identity merge. When something goes wrong, ask “what caused this” instead of “who caused this” to focus on the task, not the person.
- Feedback Loops – Agile, lean and Lean Startup do this well and are well adopted methodologies in the technology industry. From Lean Startup (Ries, 2010) we get “Build, measure, learn”. Agile has sprint demos, customer feedback, and story refinement to ensure the right outcome is built. These frequent feedback loops enable teams to have higher impact and productivity. To increase this trigger, review progress against the shared goals to inform the team’s decisions. Automate as much feedback as possible and make it visible to all team members.
- Equal Participation – Work is broken down so that each member can do unique work with complementary interdependencies (Borderie et al., 2017). Each team member is able to take part rather than waiting around. If you aren’t writing code, you can be testing, documenting, or enabling it. If the team is behind on a commitment, other team members can pitch in. Skill levels should be roughly equal in order to ensure equal participation.
- Familiarity – Bring everyone up to a base level of domain, process, and task knowledge before beginning work. Team members that know one another perform better, especially in unpredictable environments (Stoll et al., 2021), which are common in technology. Know how your team-mates are motivated, their strengths and their weaknesses in order to co-create better. Begin each meeting by asking what they are doing outside of work to get an idea of what motivates them.
- Constant communication – If you think you are communicating enough, you aren’t. Use Slack, Microsoft Teams, video, mobile, dashboards, and whiteboards to constantly communicate. Encourage team members to share information all the time, including negative information. Asynchronous communications enable individuals to remain focused on tasks. Synchronous communications enable teams to build mutual trust and share emotions, which help the team maintain flow (Christakis et al., 2013). Find the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous communications to optimize for the team’s shared consciousness.
- Shared, Group Risk – This is how you drive intrinsic motivation to achieve the shared goals. Each team member should feel accountable to the commitments and the shared plan and there should be some risk associated with not meeting the goals. For example, not shipping the product on time could affect customer sales. Team members should feel safe to take risks and to raise risks in “a culture where employees can tell the boss bad news” (Dr. Stanley Dekker). Without this safety net, team members may push each other into fight or flight responses, resulting in protectionism, indifference, lack of diversity of thought, and knowledge silos, all which reduce team productivity.
Reduce these blockers to improve the probability of group flow:
- Distractions – remove mobile devices and laptops from view unless necessary to get work done. Resist the desire to check notifications, social media, or whatever else that might distract you from the work.
- Negative attitudes – check that everyone is being positive with each other. Call out negativity when it arises.
- Poor cognitive framing of the exercise – even the most boring activities can create flow when novelty and challenge are introduced. When struggles arise, re-frame them as an important step in getting into flow.
- Poor flow hygiene – lack of sleep, hydration, proper nutrition can all affect one’s ability to get into flow. Work in active recovery blocks into the group’s schedule to mitigate the effects on performance.
- Misaligned arousal – Check on the right level of autonomic system arousal – are you aware, are you tired, are you hyper-aroused? Decrease or increase arousal as needed using breathing techniques, light exercise, or group play.
Real world case study
How does this work and feel in a real-world situation? In a recent corporate scenario, I coached a group using the techniques above over three months as they worked through a complicated data transformation project. We did a five day, dedicated work-a-thon at the end of the three months and set an aggressive goal that we all rallied behind. For six hours a day, we worked on documentation, automation, shared trust, and enablement. In one week, the team improved the performance of the primary workflow from 48 hours to 30 minutes, a 100x improvement in single item throughput. Here are some quotes from the team on how they felt about the experience:
“I felt excited during the work-a-thon to finally be working on a solution and getting all the brains together and dedicating time to the solution.”
“I loved the time to focus on an issue and see the impact that we can all make when we get together to brainstorm a difficult problem that would have been impossible to solve alone. After I felt motivated and empowered to continue to use this method going forward for other difficult problems”
“I felt like I was able to zone in on the most critical factors that were slowing us down, and knowing this was the priority of the whole team gave me a lot of confidence we could achieve real innovation while everyone was on the same page. Afterwards I felt like we built something impactful.”
“Proud of the trust that was built with the teaming across several days”
“Great learning opportunity and worked well to help build relationships on a personal level with the team.”
“The metrics we set up to improve times and set records made me feel super engaged and motivated during the workathon.”
“Everyone showed up ready to learn, think, and push themselves out of their comfort zone. With clear set goals, the team knew what we needed to accomplish and we made it fun.”
Team members reported the following against the Flow Short Survey when asked about the week-long working session. On a scale of 1 to 7 (1 = Never, 7 = Always), team members reported above average scores on feelings of involvement, clear goals, concentration, control, and a loss of self-consciousness. The only metric that was below average was “I lose track of time” which is explained by the rigorous time boundaries we put on our activities.
Group flow is more likely to happen in small groups than in large groups (Littlepage, 1991). A jazz quartet is more likely to achieve group flow than the marching band. Be wary of advice that suggests group flow can scale to entire departments, business units, or organizations. Group flow is influenced by situational variables and any training that does not take into account the culture and individuals will likely not succeed (Swann et al., 2018). Group flow can be fragile and disrupted by organizational systems or culture (Armstrong, 2008). The group flow triggers favor small teams, not large organizations. For example, immediate social and system feedback is much easier to do at a small scale. The benefits in productivity, creativity, and happiness are clear for small, individual teams and keep these limitations in mind when trying to scale the approach.
By increasing group flow triggers and removing flow blockers, teams are much more likely to get into a group flow state. This state will become a self-reinforcing practice for the team because of the positive benefits and feelings experienced. Group flow may not scale to the entire organization, but can be very effective at improving the performance, impact and happiness of small teams and should be considered a useful tool for any team. Practice the triggers above with your team, and, before you know it, you will realize the benefits.
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