155. Bart Vanderhaegen on Flow: Transcending Organizational Barriers to Progress

We all seek progress: at the individual level, the team level, and the company level. Flow is the term for the experience that we feel when we are making progress on challenging activities through our own actions. Flow is high productivity and high achievement. It is the sensation you have when making progress is “winning” over being distracted or frustrated. Organizational structure is often a barrier to flow. Bart Vanderhaegen tells Economics For Business how to transcend the barrier.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Learning and change are good for people and organizations, but very hard to implement.

Management books, management gurus and consultants are all for change to established ways of doing things. But the business landscape is littered with failed change and transformation projects. It’s not people who resist change, it’s processes and established practices and organizational structure. In many ways, structure is the biggest barrier to change, and the enemy of learning. Even when change projects re-make a business’s structure, it’s still there, just in a different configuration.

What if it were possible to transcend structure?

The secret lies in motivation.

Austrian economics reveals the secret of motivation: every individual seeks better circumstances for themselves, trading one set of conditions that’s unsatisfactory for another set that they prefer. That’s an intrinsic motivation — it comes from inside the individual.

Most business systems rely on extrinsic motivations, what Bart Vanderhaegen calls carrot and stick. The firm metes out rewards in the form of awards and bonuses and promotions for behavior it wants to encourage, and withholds them when there is unapproved behavior. The firm takes a positivist or behaviorist view of the world: people can be “nudged” into approved behavior patterns.

Rewards have many flaws. They rely on predictions — setting future targets — that can never be reliable. These predictions are often fixed, unresponsive to changes in the environment, and usually set without much discussion with the individual who is to be motivated by the target. If the target is met or not, the individual finds it hard to know exactly how their actions contributed to the result.

There is a third kind of motivation: FLOW.

It is possible to harness a third kind of motivation that is neither carrot nor stick, and relies on neither reward nor punishment. It can provide autonomy and freedom to individuals to pursue what they find valuable. They can see their own activity as a contribution to a greater end or purpose for themselves. This kind of motivation comes from FLOW.

FLOW is your absorption into an activity performed well. It’s the enjoyment of performing an activity to the extent that you are actually experiencing that you are good at it, while you ae doing it. The activity itself creates the motivation for it. FLOW easily wins the internal competition between getting distracted or diverted versus making progress on the activity.

We are progress-seeking creatures, and FLOW gives us the greatest sense of progress.

FLOW is practical, and can be harnessed, practiced, and linked to work and organization.

There are three conditions for being in FLOW, or getting back to FLOW when you fall out of it.

1) A clear and specific goal for the activity.

This is not to be confused with aspirational goals like a corporate vision, or target goals like the year-end sales volume target. This goal is at the level of action. For the specific activity, what represents completion? In what time specific frame? What problem will have been solved when the action is complete?

2) Capture immediate feedback from the activity.

The activity tells you if you are making progress. Measurement is in the activity itself — there is no outside judge. If you’re not making progress, the activity can steer you back to it. Bart Vanderhaegen uses a tennis analogy: if your shots are going in, you’re making progress; if not, you can adjust your action.

3) The activity must have a challenging but solvable level of difficulty.

To make progress requires taking on challenges that can elevate our skills. FLOW requires overcoming difficulties (an insight that is contrary to the old adage of “keep it simple”).

For those who are quantitatively minded, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the founder of FLOW studies, measured the appropriate degree of difficulty as 10-12% harder than one’s current ability — a kind of Goldilocks number of not too hard and not too easy.

This has profound implications for organizations engaged in motivation. They must present ever-increasing levels of difficulty to their employees and teams, as they learn to perform better and better in the flow of taking on challenging tasks.

4) Organizational structure is a barrier to FLOW and to its power to solve complex business problems.

FLOW can solve complex problems. When the overarching problem to solve is how to deliver customer value — which is a problem that cuts across all elements of corporate structure — a FLOWing team can succeed, because value is a clear goal, and learning by taking on difficult challenges provides a pathway to the goal. The customer doesn’t care how the firm is structured.

Internal structures of departments and functions and conflicting goals and rules can present a major barrier to FLOW and to customer value generation. A problem-solving team representing many departments and focused on the goal of customer value can transcend the barrier, and transcend corporate structure.

Therefore, Bart Vanderhaegen recommends not to spend time and effort creating a new structure when the current one is problematic. Create FLOW over structure.

5) How to put FLOW into action.

Like everything that has value, FLOW is a subjective experience. But there are some application actions that can help to generate team FLOW.

  • Organize a problem-solving network on top of the structural layer.It’s an organic network that crosses departments and regions and functions and all other structural boundaries.
  • Give each team in the network a mandate.A mandate is a problem to solve without specific direction on how to solve it. The team figures out what the solution will look like and how to get there.
  • Make the problems as open as possible.The problem may be to define what are the most important problems to solve.
  • Create transparency (via a software platform) on the problems, ideas and progress.Everyone “taking the pen” themselves.
  • Make sure the goals are linked to actions.For the most open problems, goals can be set for a small number of steps: let’s get to the next milestone in 30 days (e.g., generating a first set of preliminary ideas).

Through criticism and testing, teams will be able to FLOW to new levels of comfort in solving the most difficult of problems. They become more and more capable. And the problem-solving network is scalable: it can become bigger and bigger and solve harder and harder problems.

Additional Resources

“The Value-Creating FLOW Process for Business Problem-Solving” (PDF):

Bart Vanderhaegen’s TED

The Pactify

FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi:

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: