Testing to Improve Flow Means Happier Teams

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There are many ways to assess the perceived viability or potential effectiveness of a proposed experiment. Teams can determine the options to improve flow, but it may not be clear what aspects of their work to address. While it’s best to start and get feedback as quickly as possible, a lightweight test may shine a light on one or more options to start with.

Cynthia had just left an “energetic” meeting with some leaders at her organization. In the past couple of years she became fascinated by how people and teams work together. Thus began her journey to affect some positive change at the insurance company where she had spent her whole career.  

Cynthia has been collecting flow metrics for a few months now. There are many potential areas of improvement, but where to start? She didn’t want to just share the observations with leadership without team members having a voice. Historically, improvements were handled as special initiatives, sometimes a task force and often were not demonstrably successful. Her leadership seemed open to working differently, but still saw it as their job to recommend changes and the team members’ job to stay focused on delivery. Given what she had seen of past initiatives, she had come to believe those closest to the work would have the ideas that were more likely to improve flow.

Starting with an experiment to improve flow

Cynthia gathered some team members and shared the flow metric data. She asked, “Which area would you like to focus on first?” Michael, a newer developer at the company raised his hand. “We are constantly being interrupted, priorities are unclear and I’m not sure I’m doing valuable work. It’s been hard for me to feel a real sense of accomplishment. What if we consider the likelihood that an experiment will improve the ability for us to achieve a sense of flow in our work?” 

Cynthia and the team looked at Michael with curious and somewhat perplexed faces. Cynthia queried, “Michael, could you tell us how we might go about that?”

“You bet!”, he said, and he went on to explain …  

A perfect flow state: when nothing else seems to matter

“Flow defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is ‘The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost.’”

To go a bit further, getting into a state of flow becomes possible when the work is challenging and stretches us, but not so far beyond our skills that we become anxious. This is the flow “sweet spot”.  

Coincidentally, the aspects necessary to transform an activity to improve flow are often those missing early in the project to product shift: 

  1. Well defined Goals
  2. Immediate Feedback
  3. Ability to concentrate 
  4. Balancing Skills and Challenges

So, what if we consider applying the following tests to our proposed experiments? 

Four questions to ask when assessing experiments to improve flow

  1. Will this experiment result in clearer goals and objectives? Even better – will it connect more deeply to the intrinsic goals of team members? (Look for more on this in a future post.)
  2. Will you be able to increase the frequency and usefulness of feedback?
  3. Will the experiment remove non value add process steps, meetings, work and thus allow team members to concentrate on the most valuable work? Will the experiment reduce context switching or interruptions?
  4. Will the experiment create capacity for individuals to grow personally and develop new skills and/or provide new challenges that constructively stretch and challenge team members? 

After Michael shared his perspective, the team set to work to generate some potential experiments and to see how they stand up to the tests above.  

Every value stream is composed of many humans who ultimately want to be happy. Though everyone’s personal calculus on happiness can differ, what we all share is the desire to do meaningful work, with little friction and without anxiety. I invite you to consider each human with your interventions. Invite them into the problem space and give them equal voice. Use the tests above, or something similar, to consider the impact on the people in the work. These tests can be boiled down to one principle: 

Will it make the lives of the people doing the good work better?

“They” –  your employees, customers and shareholders – will certainly benefit.  

In part two, we’ll join Cynthia as she returns to the leadership team to share what she and her team learned through experimentation, and whether they were successful in increasing flow both for the value stream and for those working in it. 

If you want to read more about flow metrics and moving from project to product, check out these resources:

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