John Eales on creative zones
We grow up being told anyone can achieve anything as long as they put their mind to it. But is this a lie, albeit a noble one? And does it create unrealistic and damaging expectations? In the US they have a saying that anyone can become the president. It is a lovely sentiment but it is a bit of a joke when, in under 16 months, it is possible that we will see just two families – the Clintons and the Bushes – will have provided four of the past five presidents.
While it is probably more dangerous to quell ambition than to promote possibilities, you still have to be realistic. And, anyway, sometimes your most valuable team members are those with limited ambition. Let me explain what I mean by limited ambition. I certainly don’t mean “fat and happy” in a Homer Simpson way. Rather, employees who at this point in their career are working within their capability are content with their station and have limited ambition to advance position, income or status in the foreseeable future. Importantly, however, they still take pride in their work.
These people are gold, people whose capability, at that particular juncture of their working journey, matches the challenge and complexity of their role. They have found their “flow”. In his 1990 book, Flow; The
Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as when, “… a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.
Flow is experienced in active moments, when someone is engaged in meaningful and challenging work, at their level of capability, as opposed to when they may be idle and relaxed. In sporting terms it is referred to as “the zone”. A basketballer in the zone is often referred to as having a hot-hand – when they just can’t miss a shot. The concept of flow and capability is central to Canadian organisational psychologist, Elliot Jaques’ theory of “levels of work”.
Jaques categorises capability along a continuum of seven levels of work with level one being the least complex. Each subsequent level increases in complexity, uncertainty, and whether it requires a specific, tangible and local focus versus an ambiguous, global and longer-term outlook. So, a level-one person may work on a job with a zero- to three-month time horizon whereas a level seven executive will consider a 20- to 50-year view and beyond.
Due to personal limitations, not everyone progresses through each level, and those who do, do so at varying speed. Very few people graduate to level seven, which makes sense when you consider that some noted level-seven people – Mandela, Christ, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Hitler – have changed the course of humanity.
If you can operate in flow you can operate out of flow, and the consequences can range from distracting to disastrous.
People working above their capability level are vulnerable to stress, underperformance, lower self-esteem and a resultant loss of respect from their colleagues. And conversely, if you are working beneath your capability then you are liable to be disengaged, bored, frustrated and, as Andrew Olivier, author of The Working Journey, describes in an article he wrote on LinkedIn, even deceitful: “Four employees (in the mining industry) with identified potential turned down accelerated development, even though they were working two full levels below their capability. Their refusal to participate in the program puzzled us initially, but three years later when their sophisticated racket was discovered, it made perfect sense.”
The concept of flow augments the Jim Collins’ philosophy of getting the right people on the bus in the right seats, by dictating that they also have to be there at the right time in their careers. In sport, this throws up a particular conundrum, especially in choosing a leader, as career timeframes are typically short and the best leader in the team may not be the best player for the team.
This is where sport and business differ from a managerial perspective. Business can have a leader who no longer needs to be a doer whereas in sport, save for the rare example of the Davis Cup's non-playing-captains scenario, you cannot.
So, do you sacrifice playing capability and therefore credibility and pick the captain first and then the team, or do you pick the team and then pick the captain. The Australian way has always been the latter. The English, at times, for example when Mike Brearley was their Ashes cricket captain, have gone the other way.
In all walks of life, a leader is responsible for the productivity, growth and happiness of their people. An understanding of concepts such as Jaques’, levels of work, and Csikszentmihalyi’s, flow, can help a business navigate through such confounding yet crucial responsibilities.