Flow charts

John Eales on cre­ative zones

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - John Eales

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.

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