Finding ourselves in a generative space can be elusive at times. There are many non-generative spaces all around us, from challenging team environments, to a market environment that may feel unfamiliar, perhaps even unsettling. And as waves of disruption and dislocation continue to appear around us, it may feel as though a generative space is far away.
The study of states of Flow, now observed and studied in almost every area of our lives, suggests otherwise. The sense of flow which we enjoy in these spaces, where new possibilities become visible, where we can exercise judgement with new insights, and where our capabilities are enhanced by collaboration, by synchronous events beyond our control or best-devised plans, is more accessible than we think.
I have noticed the power of Flow increasingly over the past decade. Setting up Ascent Growth Partners, for example, was an act of synchronicity and in working with clients and partners, we have often found ourselves in a state of Flow, able to deliver extraordinary results.
I recall one instance, when a CEO of a client organisation reached out to me, in the midst of conversation, about the growth plans he had in mind for the organisation, and stated, with a sense of wonder and surprise – ‘You truly operate in the generative space’. I was taken aback for a moment, still trying to remain in our ‘business’ conversation, then I asked, with curiosity ’what do you mean?’, he continued to explain how working with our team has helped open new possibilities, how ideas that were kept at the back of their minds, were given center-stage, a space to grow and mature into compelling propositions, and how he felt empowered and equipped to take the business in a new and bold direction – a direction he knew had to be travelled, we simply provided the space in which he and others could give it shape.
He spoke about the confidence he felt in his team, for this new direction, how the environment demands of them a different response and how liberating it was to step forward, in executing their response. Their strategy, he said, came to life.
I could not take credit for this, of course. He was describing a state of Flow in which many individuals participated, where they could contribute and where they felt they can now accelerate. Such is a state of Flow is, at its best, participative, encompassing and an integrated team experience.
But how do we create such a generative space with others? And especially where collaboration is often lacking, where commercial interests can easily come in the way, where we haven’t felt synchronicity for a long while? My experience, perhaps somewhat controversial, is this – generative spaces are available to us far more than we tend to believe. They are not dependent on past interactions or a shared history with the individuals concerned (through that can help accelerate the process) and they can be triggered by virtually anyone involved, irrespective of status or rank. They are there for the taking. They do require however an act of commitment on our part.
In his study of ‘Superbosses’, author Sydney Finkelstein arrived at a similar conclusion. He reveals several practices which have made ordinary people extraordinary in their ability to create a sustained state of flow.
1. Extending the invitation – not just to those you may be comfortable working with, but to those who challenge us, those who have very different views of what we have called them in to participate…what is common to this diverse folk is how genuine the invitation is. These ‘Superbosses’ are relentless at inviting others to participate, they genuinely recognize the contributions that participants bring, they paint a compelling picture of this diverse team accomplishing more than they perhaps ever dreamed of (and open in sharing this view with them), while curious about how different skills-sets could come together. In short, they invite others to co-design something meaningful and extraordinary.
2. Remain uncompromisingly open to outcomes – Being uncompromising and clear about the outcomes we would like to realise, whether in developing new products or services, partnering with others, or perhaps bringing innovation into how we work, is common to these individuals creating a state of sustained flow. Equality important is our willingness to flex the outputs which we believe signal we can attain such outcomes – and ‘Superbosses’ know how to distinguish between the two.
One of the reasons we employ Objectives & Key Results (OKR’s) in our work is exactly that. It focuses us to explore deeply the ‘Why’ work should be done, what would the organisation be capable of, once achieved and where they might be, armed with these early outputs. The outputs which we (both) thought would reflect these outcomes do change, as we learn and adapt to new market realities. Being uncompromising in our intent – to create value, partner, seek new ways while flexible in how these manifest – 3,6 or 12 months from now, we found is key to enabling a Flow state. It gives permission for teams to innovate, to venture outside known boundaries, experiment and embrace new, sometimes challenging data.
3. Teamwork in Flow states transcend common boundaries and roles – Transcendent displays of teamwork are possibly the most visible sign of a Flow state amongst team members, where highly-competitive individuals come together to achieve something extraordinary, often in intense situations where every decision counts. Team members have deep respect and affection for their colleagues, helping everyone to work together, learn at speed and perform better than they would on their own – often exceeding their own standards. Such deep camaraderie is one of the lasting and most rewarding aspects of experiencing Flow.