Finding space to relax, flow and perform

zen bike flow ellipseMany of us have had an experience of ‘getting in the zone’ with work – in the office, in the garden, in physical pursuits, in sport, in artistic or musical endeavor. Things just hit the spot and we are performing at our peak…satisfaction is part of doing it.

As Brian Clough, the outspoken, but assuredly talented European Cup Winning football manager once said “Remember this…you can’t do anything to the best of your ability unless you relax. Nobody can. Nobody can…you’ve got to relax, then it ‘oozes out of you’  – IF you’ve got anything in you.

Csikszentmihalyi emphasises this idea in his book ‘Flow’, where he describes the phenomena as:

  • intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • merging of action and awareness
  • a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
  • a distortion of your awareness of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

Can we ever hope to get close to this in the world of work? On the basis of Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas, three things could be considered in the way we design work:

  1. Goals are clear (we know what and why we need to get on with the work)
  2. Feedback is immediate (if we are, or are not, doing things correctly – we see it ourselves)
  3. There is a balance between opportunity and capacity (we can do it and we have permission)

Of course we also have to be bothered about the work. We have to care –  the goals of the work should relate to our own purpose. This idea, in relation to Quality, is explored in Robert Pirsig’s famous philosophical fiction book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ (Pirsig highlights this book “…should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”).

People should have a sense of purpose, should care about their work, should have their own goals, sources of feedback and the capactity and opportunity to perform. Maybe managers should reflect on this the next time that they: don’t allow people to make decisions; give jobs to people who lack capability; offer their own ‘feedback’ in the absent of decent measures which staff could use for themselves. There are lessons for us all…

Incidentally, Zen and the Art…’ was rejected by 121 publishers before finally being accepted (a world record for a bestseller). It has since sold more than 5 million copies. There is probably something in that for another blog…


Brian Clough on British Success in Europe. National Football Museum’s ‘Kicking and Screaming’ project.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Harper Perennial, New York.

Pirsig, R.M. (1976) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into values. Corgi, London.

 ***this is the 100th post since we launched this blog in November 2011***

Should we say it again? People are not the problem.

chimp at wheelDeming famously stated “I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management), 6% special.“. In other words people-related ‘fault’ will be part of the minority 6%.

This statement tends to set people into a degree of  hand-wringing ifs and buts: ‘surely he meant this only in a manufacturing system’, ‘ what about the difficult people?’, ‘ what if they are incompetent?’, ‘I am sure folks are the problem 40% of the time’ etc…

Chip and Dan Heath share a trivial, but insightful example in their book ‘Switch’. They discuss a situation (part of a research exercise) where moviegoers eat significantly more popcorn if they are given large buckets, than if they are given small buckets. To the outsider it looks like the people are ‘Popcorn Gorging Gluttons’ and we may feel that we should judge them as so. In reality, their behaviour (eating excessive amounts of popcorn) is driven by the system – the size  of bucket they have been given. Change the bucket for a small one and their behaviour changes – they seem like moderate consumers. The system is the problem (large buckets), not the people.

“But aha – surely it’s their fault that they choose to scoff down the popcorn!”. True, we are sentient beings and can make choices (for example, I would hope that people who are aware of supermarket sales floor design are less likely to buy excessive amounts of fresh baked goods, fresh fruit and ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ items). I am not suggesting that we should excuse everyone of their behaviour 95% of the time. There are other things to consider – for example do we run on autopilot too often (Do we let the chimp drive the car? More for a later blog I think…)?

However as a start we need to be honest enough to examine our own assumptions as placed upon others and how we judge their behaviour. As the Heath brothers suggest, to do this we need to encounter a deep-rooted phenomenon identified in psychology.

 Kendra Cherry explains -“When it comes to other people, we tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. This phenomenon tends to be very widespread, particularly among individualistic cultures.

In Psychology this is known as the fundamental attribution error – we automatically assume that the person’s internal characteristics are the cause of behaviour even when other possible influencing factors are present in the situation.

So let’s pull away from assumption and open our minds to what is really happening with people.

Further Reading:

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis (p315), MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Heath C., and Heath, D. (2010) Switch: when change is hard, New York: Random House

Peters S. (2012) The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness. Vermillion, London.

 Other links:

Cherry, K. (2014) Attribution: How we explain behaviour.