[Note: This is the third in a series of posts looking at the Social Enterprise in the context of the Big Shift. The first two posts were: Thinking about the Big Shift and the Social Enterprise and On Collaboration. This one focuses on the concept of flow, and how that relates to the Social Enterprise and the Big Shift].
Enjoying work is not a crime.
But sometimes it can feel that way. In some companies the visible manifestation of enjoyment — a smile, a laugh — is frowned upon. Heigh-ho-ing and singing on your way to work is considered not done.
For the past thirty-odd years, I’ve been lucky enough to be at places where I’ve been allowed to enjoy my work. Initially I was content to luxuriate in my enjoyment, taking that state of affairs for granted. I’d read about work being drudgery but hadn’t really experienced: somewhere deep inside me, I reasoned it away as an attractive consequence of knowledge work, “tertiary-sector” as it were, a consequence that was harder to obtain in agricultural or industrial work. As I grew older I realised that hypothesis was false. Some people enjoyed work, and others didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter whether they worked in primary or secondary or tertiary sectors: I saw gardeners really enjoy what they did, and do it well; I saw car mechanics excel at their job while smiling and whistling; it didn’t seem to matter which company they worked for: some people enjoyed work, others patently didn’t.
Then, in 1990, I came across Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the subject, initially via his seminal book Flow, later by gently backtracking through the rest of his oeuvre while keeping pace with his newer publications.
I found his work fascinating. Not because I was surprised by the conditions he listed for achieving that state of in-the-zone-ness: I wasn’t. After all, who could find fault with a list along the lines of:
- Have clear goals
- Work on tasks which suit your level of skill
- Get feedback as quickly and as often as possible
- Focus on the task at hand
His assertion was that as you worked under these conditions, you were more likely to “lose yourself” in your work and thereby reach significantly higher performance levels. Now I’m really oversimplifying things here, please do read his book (and those that followed). You will find it immensely rewarding and worthwhile. A good place to start is this TED video.
As I said before, that list didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was how rare it was to see those conditions met at work. Role and goal clarity could not be assumed. Skill levels were not that easy to measure; and even if they had been, attempts to do that measuring were rare. Matching of skills to task complexity was therefore not common either. Feedback loops were often short, infrequent and poorly executed: annual, perfunctory, subjective were the words that often came to mind.
The people who enjoyed themselves at work were therefore the exceptions, and these exceptions came in many guises. Some actually worked in companies where the flow conditions were met; 0thers managed to create environments where they acquired those conditions despite their paucity; and yet others managed to achieve their state of flow without actually having those conditions present. There appeared to be nothing systematic, predictable or repeatable about all this; I began to feel immensely privileged at the regularity with which I worked in places where enjoying work was (a) possible (b) encouraged (c) prevalent. But I couldn’t let it go at that.
More recently, as I thought about the Social Enterprise (particularly against the backdrop of the Big Shift), I started seeing something potentially quite exciting: that the principles of the Social Enterprise could actually be consistent with Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions for flow. Which sort of made sense, in some sort of corollary logic, circular as it may sound: The Social Enterprise is consistent with the Shift Index and the Big Shift; The Shift Index measures transformational performance improvement; Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow is about achieving optimal performance. Quod erat demonstrandum.
In explaining the Big Shift, Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison spend time describing the changing environment caused by the introduction and evolution of digital infrastructure, augmented by public policy decisions on movement and migration. They describe a world where competition is more intense, where barriers to entry are lower, where the rate of change is high, where things are more interconnected and where there is greater uncertainty as a result.
Those pressures in turn have their effect on every one of us as workers: faced with such uncertainty, complexity and speed, we try harder to find meaning in what we do, how we do it, why we do it. We try harder to find things to do that make us feel good just by doing them, where the rewards are intrinsic to the tasks performed. We look for ways to clarify our roles and goals, to understand how our actions fit into the larger context; we get attracted to tasks that make us achieve a sense of belonging, that allow us to participate actively; we push for active and frequent feedback loops, often from peers; task and resource allocation become more peer-to-peer (as opposed to hierarchical) and as a result, the skill/challenge tensions become creative and valuable.
We start looking for the Social Enterprise. A place where people are networked together, where role clarity is enhanced via openness and transparency; where feedback loops are quick, meaningful and frequent; where the ability to match skill to task is an outcome of empowerment and reduced costs of discovery.
We start looking for the Social Enterprise. A construct where collaboration happens as a result of connectedness and a sense of belonging; where trust is allowed to establish roots and to grow; where the pursuit of institutional innovation allows people to develop their potential and to exceed it.
We start looking for the Social Enterprise. An environment where performance is lifted through the power of partnership and the collective, both within the firm as well as beyond the firm. An environment where respect is earned and given, openly, mutually.
Cloud-cuckoo-land? Not really. Connected people, using common bases of understanding, empowered to act. That’s the basis of the Social Enterprise. Nohria and Lawrence, in Driven, speak of human beings having four drivers: the drive to acquire, the drive to bond, the drive to learn and the drive to defend. A Social Enterprise, properly implemented, provides an environment where these drivers can be met consistently and repeatably. With the resultant uplift in performance levels.
So far I’ve been talking about flow, as in the state of optimal performance. Serendipitously, perhaps coincidentally, many of the ways we achieve the conditions of flow are by understanding what we mean by institutional flows, as opposed to institutional stocks.
My next post will look at those flows in detail. What they are, how they come about, what happens in them and because of them.
In the meantime, comments welcome as always.