Ideas. We all want them – from the writer faced with the anguish of the
empty page, to the chief executive who knows that if he could only tap into the
creativity of the workforce, there would be a step change in energy, innovation
and productivity. But where and how can you promote ideas?
The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famously associated
with the concept of ‘flow’ – a form of super-focus which the best sportsmen and
women, musicians and writers adopt when they are at their best. Flow comes to
us ordinary mortals when, for example, writing a piece such as this. You might
be completely stuck and nothing comes to mind for hours. But when flow descends
– usually triggered by the adrenaline of an approaching deadline – it can be
completed fast. All the bits of your brain that create the connections that
generate ideas suddenly lock into place. You are on a roll, blanking out
everything except what you need to focus on the task. If we could find flow
more systematically, we would perform so much better.
In some respects, HR professionals are trying to create organisational flow.
If all the elements in the organisation can be persuaded to focus and pull in
the same direction, you create the kind of sustained roll that defines all
high-performance organisations. It doesn’t matter whether it’s based on Porras
and Collins’ great book Built to Last, or our own findings in the first phase
of a Work Foundation project called ‘Work and Enterprise’. What creates
performance is the integration of multiple objectives around a clear sense of
organisational vocation. The serendipities and connections lock into place;
teams function; quality conversations are routine; leadership and engagement
I suppose our next phase of work – amassing survey evidence and case studies
to bear out this approach – could be thought of as trying to identify what
creates organisational flow. We have fragments of the picture. My colleague
Myles Downey, director of studies at the School of Coaching, is a devotee of flow.
His approach to coaching is essentially about blocking out external
interference to maximise performance – a lesson he transfers from sport to
business. But what are the embedded processes that create flow? Are there
methods of generating ideas and getting them adopted in the way common to
high-performance organisations? Is there more to innovation than giving people
the permission to fail? Is it vastly easier to ‘say’, than to ‘do’?
One idea is technology brokering, or ‘waterholing’. This is the conscious
bringing together of disparate people who can fire off each other in
facilitated conversations. But while that might generate great ideas, where
next? The trick, as always, is implementation, getting ownership and buy-in.
Most organisations are just like most people – they don’t achieve their true
potential. If they could just find the flow…
By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Work Foundation