Why organizations will lose their high performers. Revelations of factors to motivation and flow state among employees

Over a six-week period, I ran a project with seven individuals. I pitched to them that we would work to find out who they were, where they were at in their life now and where they wanted to go. They were told this project would involve a series of talk therapy sessions and have them perform individual reflective activities as homework for the duration. 

The value proposition for the individuals was the opportunity to help them identify who they were, where they were at in their lives and where they wanted to go. In addition, I hoped to help them identify what their strengths were, what they truly enjoyed doing, why they may have been drawn to certain passion areas, and maybe even help them find passions to explore. This project stemmed from my belief that every journey needs a start and an end; and with life being the most meaningful journey, it seemed wasteful to just "wing it". 

I purposely selected the seven participants with the intention of having a diversified sample from a base of professionals I already knew. They all had different career occupations and were at varying stages in their career. Their life stages were relatively similar, given they were all in their mid-20s (i.e. 24 - 26).

These were their occupations:

  • Software Engineer
  • Management Consultant
  • Quantitative Trader
  • UX/UI Designer
  • Big Tech Business Operations
  • Public Accountant
  • Corporate Finance

To maintain the privacy of the participants, I will specifically refer to them as ‘individuals’ and by their occupation.  

 

Why was I doing this?

I'm obsessed with self-development. I read a lot of books on high performers, psychology, and business. I run numerous personal experiments to make systems to become an optimal being. As part of this process, I maintain daily journal entries. This journal records activities, thoughts, and feedback from peers throughout the day. The compounding of such habits allowed me to continuously traverse through various careers in the business world. This process gave me the personal data to have comfort over my departure from my last role at a hedge fund, despite having broken in with an "unorthodox" career background. Thus began my sabbatical to explore more of what the world had to offer and to find coherence with who I was and where I wanted to go. 

This means I did a lot of introspection, which I still do a lot. It's how I set milestones to target, how I set directions for my life, and how I find purpose. The reason I continue to introspect is because milestones and direction can change as my life and surrounding world changes. To remain flexible but also aware of any break in coherence, it's imperative to always reflect. 

After having left the buy-side role, I moved back to Toronto. This is where I feel most at home, despite having only lived there for 3 years. It was about re-structuring the environment. In my time catching up with friends and colleagues, a common theme was that no one knew what they wanted to do with their lives and all seemed lost. Most were just trying to jump on the newest fads of jobs in cryptocurrency, tech companies or venture capital firms just because they sounded sexy, seemed easier than their current jobs, or looked like the money was better etc... Overall, most did not have intrinsically driven reasons and from what I could see, seemed to be, wasting their energy on the wrong pursuit. It wasn't just their careers though. Many just hated the way they were living, some were dissatisfied with their mental and physical well-being, and there were also cracks in social well-being as I witnessed a few friends break up from 7/8-year relationships. It appeared to be an absence of a holistic system. 

I view life as being a holistic system. Areas of your health, social/love life, work and play/fun need to all be taken care of. This is by no means "balanced". I shy away from this term because it seems to bring around a general perception that you should be doing a bit of everything. What many don’t realize is it results in being mediocre at everything. Rather, I see it as killing it in all aspects but having a system that lets you prioritize each area to focus your energy on. It also means that a break down in one area will impact another area. 

When I was in my last role at the hedge fund, I was away from my loved ones. I realized I was quite an extroverted person and such an absence was not ideal for my social health. Not to mention the realities of the role lacked coherence with the vision I had. This translated to a poor mental state and further resulted in poor results in my powerlifting training. After I had re-structured my environment with the move to Toronto, my training results got better, and my coach also noted how there was a significant improvement in my mind and mental state. It's all one giant system. 

I wanted to help my friends establish this view and create a system for themselves. Aside from my obsession with self-improvement, I also love having one-on-one conversations. Feedback from peers on how they found value in conversations with me gave me the some validation on this as well. It may be a result of me loving in-depth conversations that it translated into the other person feeling as if they were heard. At least, that's what I believe. One of the participants at the Big Tech Business Operations role said if the individual had never met me then the person would've probably been stuck in the previous dissatisfying role in consulting. 

So yes, I loved coaching/speaking with people on career advancement and life systems designs. Yes, I loved anything related to the self-development realm. But there was more reason as to why I did this. 

As an investor, I am in the camp of Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger’s: bottom-up, fundamental analysis investing. This means learning about the business by examining who operates it, what it does, it’s value and investing with conviction for a long-term (i.e. ideally 10 years). To have such conviction, I needed to amass more reference knowledge, so I read about a lot of different businesses. Everyone knows about Phil Knight of Nike and Howard Schultz of Starbucks. That's cool. But I've found myself being drawn to smaller and more obscure companies the general media doesn't talk about. After all, all large successful companies start off small at one point and it’s the folks that find ‘em small that win big. But furthermore, in this arena of small companies, exceptional founder managers play a vital role in the long-term success of the business.  

These exceptional founders commonly have two traits. They are amazing people leaders and exceptional capital allocators. But without being an amazing people leader there is no use being a great capital allocator. For you won’t have much capital to allocate. These CEOs focused on creating and continuously shaping a sustainable culture in their organization, sometimes unintentionally. A culture that prioritizes the employees first, allows them to become their best selves, which in turn morphs into a virtuous cycle of better customer service, innovation and growth within the company.

Basically, the success of the company was due to success in taking care of it's people first. It only seems logical that if you put your people first and they feel taken care of, they will take care of the customers. These customers, will reward the company and the cycle continues. It doesn't have to be this way of course, most are not. Which is why most people hate what they do and hate the company they work for. It's tragic. 

I believe that a company is a world of its own. Most people will spend about 1/3+ of their waking hours at "work". Most “work” also requires people to all start at the same time and end at the same time too. Assembly lines are practically a thing of the past thanks to technology yet we still adopt its hourly system. Innovation failed there. The company forms a micro-universe around the individual's life. Given my belief that work, and life must be coherently integrated for overall well-being, an organization's environment will then play a major role in the system. Given such importance companies have people's lives, it is a downright shame to see so many be mediocre-at-best in providing an environment for individuals to thrive and be fulfilled. Whether in history or fictional novels, human quest to create utopias eventually succumb to the creation of dystopias. So many don't bother. But what if we focused on the miniature world of a company. 

To do that, I think it's important to understand what high-performers desire and want. From an individual's standpoint, I also think the individual must perform an internal bottom-up analysis to understand who they are and how their chosen organization fits into their journey. From reading numerous literature on both subjects, the realization is that many are written by people who've never actually done anything. Many just quote off past studies. So, I thought: why not run my own study? Picking individuals who I felt were or had the ability to be high performers and taking a two-way approach to helping them learn more about themselves but also on what factors motivated them that could be incorporated into organizational design. 

 

How did I go about testing the why?

So, let's get into the project details. 

There were two components. 

  • First was a talk therapy session where I met with each participant twice a week for an average length of 1 hour. The sessions consisted of a conversation where I asked them a series of questions focused on introspecting their lives.
  • Second were weekly assignments. Participants had to complete three daily logs during the week. They would choose the dates they logged but preference was requested for weekdays to record what they did at work. 

The talk sessions were conducted in-person or via video chat with a preference for in-person where possible. 

The weekly log activity consisted of two mandatory components and one optional component. Two mandatory components were:

1: Activity Tracker

activity tracker.png

2: Feedback Tracker

feedback tracker.png

The optional task was a form of daily self-reflection where the participant would list up to three amazing things that happened that day.

With the talk sessions, I had hoped to build trust with the participants quickly in order to delve into deeper discussions and engage in higher quality introspection. It was with these sessions that I intended to help participants identify where they were at in their lives (i.e. the starting point) and where they intrinsically wanted to be (i.e. the destination). 

The activity logs were meant to allow them to quantify their days and use them as reference points during our talk sessions. It was also a way to collect data into the relationship of activities to intrinsic human drivers and identify what factors contributed to placing them in flow-states. 

"Flow" was popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi through his research and book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He described flow as a “state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it."

So, why flow?

Well.

This is the common equation:

Employees at flow state = Employee’s advance towards mastery = Increased fulfillment and productivity = Long-term positive results for company

Looking at the 100+ high performers I've read about through their individual biographies (i.e. Tribe of Mentors, Tools of Titans, Richard Branson, Haruki Murakami), or heard through the 20+ podcasts I'm subscribed to, or the list of historically amazing companies that focused on their employees to achieve success (i.e. Small Giants, Intelligent Fanatics, Patagonia, Google etc..) achieving mastery in a skill whilst in a state of flow is a common theme.  

Touching back upon my emphasis on the importance of personal introspection and creation of a utopia-like environment in organizations, it leads to reaching flow-state. It's about helping the individual understand what puts them into flow. What they are seeking mastery in and creating an environment for them to optimize the route towards it. The great thing about mastery is that you’ll never achieve it. But you love the process so that’s okay. So then its determining what frameworks should be established in a company's culture to make it a flow-inducing environment for high performers who are seeking to achieve mastery in their craft. 

 

So, what stood out? What happened over 6 weeks?

Participant involvement summary:

participant data tracker.png

Activity Log Data collection summary:

activity log.png

Activity Log Analysis - Factors to Flow State & Motivation:

The focus was on discovering activities that gave both high energy AND high engagement. I felt you needed BOTH for an activity to be constituted as being in flow state. Per the tables above, this narrowed my data set down to 41 entries. You may have noticed that in the rating system, 7 is not an option. If you did, then good catch! This is an idea I adopted from Kyle Maynard, the famed author, entrepreneur and athlete who is a quadruple amputee. In Tim Ferriss' book Tribe of Mentors, Kyle refers to a conversation with a successful CEO who would rate interview candidates from 1 - 10 but not allow a rating of 7. This forced raters to decide if someone was just barely passable (i.e. 6) or above average (i.e. 8) because too many people use 7 as the cop out answer to "eh... meh... it's okay". Same theory had applied her to rate activities. From my talk sessions it became apparent that participants each had different ways of interpreting engagement. So, I decided to widen the net a little and say anything that was rated as 9 or 10 was highly engaging with 8 being something that was engaging but not very absorbing. This is where human judgment came in, but this is how I rated my own activities with 9/10 being high engagement. Given the participants’ activity entries this seemed to be the case for them too. 

So, why take out the fun/leisure data you may wonder? The fun/leisure activities constituted things like group exercises with friends, eating out, movies, and social events (side/passion projects were not considered fun/leisure). I focused on examining activities that did not constitute ‘fun’ for two reasons:   

  • First is that we spend at least 1/3 of our weekly time awake at work. That is probably the longest time spent on any singular activity (outside sleep, hopefully).
  • Second is because I believe the kind of flow you engage whilst doing work vs. leisure/fun activities is different. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that people were much more likely to reach flow state at work than in leisure activities and I can understand why. When we think about leisure and fun stuff, it generally includes eating out with friends, group physical activities (e.g. pickup volleyball or rock climbing), and sex. These are purely pleasurable activities with the purpose of social enjoyment rather than a quest for mastery. I believe pursuing mastery in a certain craft puts one in the optimal state of flow, hence such leisure activities were omitted.

From analyzing the participant data, the following factors were the common themes resonating with activities related to achieving flow state:

  • Learning
  • Ownership
  • Autonomy
  • Recognition + Feedback
  • Environment

I) Learning

Especially when it's related to learning about something that they are personally interested in (whether it's solving a problem for passion/side projects they hope to turn into businesses or learning to improve skills they want mastery in). The discovery of new facts related to their interest area prompts a further desire to learn more and explore. This hits upon a pre-requisite all high-performers must have, which is to be curious. Those who are curious enjoy learning and such opportunities to learn will induce them into flow state. 

Really interesting conversation, which made me realize there are still people within the firm that I’d like to meet and learn from
— Participant referring to conversations with Partners at firm

Learning from peers and mentors was also conducive to being highly engaging and energizing activities. Peers were identified as individuals they respected and enjoyed collaborating with. Colleagues who shared a genuine interest in the learning area and were perceived as high performers resulted in higher energy during collaboration whereas those perceived as weak performers resulted in low energy levels. Mentors were commonly identified as the leaders, often the C-suite or upper management of the organization. Not middle management. These mentors were individuals who were able to provide a bigger picture through their own experiential wisdom. Seemed intuitive. I personally felt I learned more in 1 hour of speaking with the CEO of a company than when I was working on a 4-month consulting project for a company in the same industry. The experience of learning from a knowledgeable veteran was seen to be highly valuable for it had a leap-frog effect on wisdom.  

II) Ownership

Specific to ownership was the ability to dictate the end-to-end creation of the product, which was reflected in their work environment and their side projects. Side projects that participants had intentions of launching into actual businesses played significant roles in taking up position as flow-inducing activities. Such entrepreneurial endeavours proved to be clearest indicators where the participants felt they had full ownership beginning from idea generation all the way to the execution. Such levels of ownership were seldom found in the actual work environment.

The outlier was the quant trader. The quant trader had full ownership over the strategy that could be executed to generate trading profits. Ownership of the end-to-end process was taken further where the quant trader benefited directly from trading successes by being entitled to a percentage of all profits the individual generated. This level of ownership was not found in any other occupation from the other participants.

A close second was the software engineer and Big Tech Operator, both of whom had opportunities to purchase stock options in the company. However, this option did not result in a sense of ownership when the individual did not have plans to stay at the company for a long duration or believe in the company's future. Financial ownership is a well-proven incentive metric that has been commonly discussed as an effective method for motivating employees to think and act like owners of the company. However, I would argue financial ownership takes a backseat when compared to ownership of the actual work. 

Highly relevant work and got my boss quite excited about being able to distribute this to the execs on a weekly basis. Enjoyed being able to put this together from scratch and shape it however I wanted.
— Participant on a new assignment

Participants commonly found activities induced flow-state when they had control over the "how", at the bare minimum. Control over the "what", "why" and "how" was evident for their entrepreneurial projects but at a work environment even just having ownership of the "how" was material.

This could mean that the individuals’ expectations of their corporate work environments were so low that they were excited to finally get any form of ownership. Though, at the bare minimum, I think control over the "how" will stop the presence of negative emotions arising from the task at hand. From my observations, control over the "how" allows the task to become a heuristic task (i.e. creative) rather than an algorithmic one (i.e. automatable). I believe an innate component of being human is in being creative and using the brain to think and explore possibilities. This theory seems to be supported from experience that algorithmic tasks declining in motivation in the long run.

Ownership makes the work meaningful. Once the work is meaningful, the employee is considered to have "skin in the game". The result would be an alignment of incentives as they now feel their products have an influence on themselves and the outcome of the company. I believe the introduction of financial ownership into a company as the secondary consideration will make an enhanced material difference to the level of ownership the employee will experience. 

III) Autonomy

Tying into ownership of the 'how' is autonomy. If ownership focuses on the specific tasks, then autonomy focuses on the overall collections of tasks that make up the day. Autonomy is trusting the employee and not penalizing the individual for having freedom. Weird to consider you'd be penalized in a developed country for wanting freedom, but for some odd reason, there’s a general conception that being an employee means trading away freedom for money. Hence, autonomy is essentially freedom of time.

In addition to determining the 'how' of a task, the employee will choose 'how' to structure the day to go about completing the tasks. It's about how the employee will choose to assimilate work and life together. It's about designing the work to fit around the employee's life to design an optimal system. This is all possible because there is trust between the employee and the employer and that fosters autonomy. 

I’m excited to get v1 working for this side project. Learning about concepts I am unfamiliar with is one of my favourite things to do. I’ve segmented one of my current side projects into very specific modules that need to be completed. They have clear goals and benchmarks that need to be met, which contribute heavily to achieving flow state.
— Participant

It's been evident among the participants that the lack of autonomy continued to be a point for extremely low energy levels, whereas those who had the ability to choose when they went into work, where they worked from, how they worked and when they decided to end off their day noted as having higher levels of overall well-being in life. In the books I read about self-improvement, psychology, and organizational design, they all discuss autonomy as a motivating factor. Something to give employees to allow them to produce great work. I think as the evolution of work moves to more of a focus on creative/heuristic work and less on the algorithmic ones, autonomy will become a “hygiene factor”.

Using Clayton Christensen's definition of hygiene factors: It is where lack of autonomy results in job dissatisfaction but the presence of it will result in the absence of job dissatisfaction, rather than job satisfaction. This has been evident in my participants where entries of dissatisfaction were related to being forced to sit in an office until 10pm despite not having work to do, or not having control over their own workflow. The presence of autonomy in some participants did not make them rate their "work" as being amazing but it trickled into how it allowed their social life and health to be amazing thanks to it. How much they enjoyed the actual "work" was more focused on the learning and ownership area.

According to a study conducted by researchers from Cornell University (which I learned about from Daniel Pink's book "Drive") on 320 small businesses; 50% of the businesses that granted autonomy to their workers had their businesses grow at 4 times the rate of the businesses that relied solely on top-down direction. The businesses with autonomy even had 1/3 less turnover. It makes sense. Especially in smaller businesses where each individual employee can have the potential to make a larger impact it would prove to have a material effect. Thus, autonomy is something that should be essential for any business that plans on being successful in the long run. 

IV) Recognition + Feedback

As much as I believe our decisions should be derived from an internal scorecard that is tailored towards our intrinsic motivations, I think it is only human to value external validation. As social beings, receiving external feedback is a valuable form of external validation that can motivate us to learn and grow.

Recognition and the process of receiving feedback relies on the existing organizational culture the participants were in. Many didn't have environments I would consider optimal for receiving feedback. However, I do believe the participants are just as responsible for asking for feedback if they want to improve. Citing another research referenced in Daniel Pink's book "Drive", a group of psychologists led by Dr. Edward Deci learned that positive feedback did have enhancing effects on intrinsic motivation. It seems rather obvious yet seldom utilized.  

 

I was very engaged in listening to other’s approaches to a design problem and giving feedback. The steps I take in how I formulate a solution into a product is something I enjoy discussing with other designers, and it was also very self-reflective on how I approach problems my way.
— Participant

When participants did receive feedback, whether it was initiated by the participant or their environment, it had flow inducing effects. These feedback sessions were selected by the participants as being material enough to record as a separate entry and they further described it as being highly engaging and energizing. Feedback sessions with negative feedback were also highly engaging; albeit the energy was lower if the feedback was constructive criticism or perceived to be not value-adding. Overall, feedback sessions were all highly engaging.

This affirmed my belief the participants were each on paths to be high performers. I believe a requirement for any high performers is a desire to learn and embracing feedback is one of the best ways to learn. When the feedback was positive and/or constructive, it motivated the participant even more, based on the language and enthusiasm they displayed during our in-person sessions when I followed up on their activity logs. Positive feedback in simple forms of specifically addressing and praising work done by the participant was noted as key energy drivers as well. It seems that it would be common sense to celebrate accomplishments of individuals to help drive momentum and motivation, but this too seemed to be seldom done in most organizations.

Feedback sessions were inclusive of verbal sessions with colleagues but also clients and data feedback from customers who used the products. I believe feedback symbolizes growth. It's the only way to verify whether your execution from what you've learned has amounted to anything. It's a completion of the small cycle in which the individual has learned, executed by having ownership and receiving feedback on the individual's efforts. If feedback was not present, there would be no indicators of growth and this would undoubtedly lead to dissipation of motivation. 

V) Environment

Open concept offices are all the rage. All the corporate firms (i.e. big consultancies, accounting firms, banks) are doing it. Too bad it's just a fad that is nothing more than a cheap PR stunt. My participants are a mix of introverts and extroverts. They are also a mix of remote and co-located office employees. The remotes love their environment and can't imagine anything less than that. Since they pick their own locations that allow them to focus, they did not mention environment as a concern in any session/log. Though, they mentioned how they could not imagine going to an environment that had less freedom than what they had now. The non-remote participants all work in open, co-located office spaces. All found the open space environment distracting, and strategizing how to create an individual space to get into a flow state was important. They preferred the open workspace to socialized but felt it hindered their ability to actually focus on their tasks.  

Put myself on do not disturb / away for most of the day to do heads down work. A lot easier to focus when there isn’t a lot of distractions (especially early in the morning). Also picked a spot at the office that is hidden so not a lot of people pass by
— Participant

All participants noted the con of the open-office concept were unwanted distractions from coworkers breaking their flow by coming to talk or just the noise of those speaking around them. One participant opted to put on headphones, blast music and look disinviting so co-workers wouldn’t approach the individual. Another opted to start earlier in the mornings when the office was empty and then finding hidden corners where no one can see the individual. Another has opted to jump between empty meeting rooms or one-person working rooms to focus. 

Another important facet to consider for flow-inducing activities is that no matter how much learning, ownership, recognition or autonomy there is... if you're distracted by your environment you will not reach flow state. My opinion is that focus requires elimination of all distractions and that begins with environment construction.

Social activities analysis

Outside of work-related activities, the participants logged large numbers of highly engaged and high energy activities. I categorized them as "fun". I do not believe a person should be in a flow-induced state for their life's work for all hours they are awake. Some may disagree with me and believe 100% flow-state is required to achieve anything. I disagree and believe that is not a sustainable model.

I digress, I’m not proposing for “work-life balance”. I feel “work-life balance” had the best intentions but has evolved to be commonly interpreted as compartmentalizing segments of your life. It’s a fine approach but that results in piecemeal time investments to various facets of your life. My view of an optimized system is one where various facets are intertwined and immersed together. A form of constant parallel processing where everything works to support each other instead of shutting work away into a time block, ignoring it when hanging out with friends etc…

Fun activities are required to actually cultivate creativity. They help relax the brain. The brain will continuously work towards the tasks and ideas that engross you; it just needs you to step away from intensely focusing on these tasks a bit. So, in that manner, I do believe it is highly valuable to engage in plenty of highly engaging and energizing fun activities. It’s during such times when one can think of creative solutions/ideas for work as well.

For the participants, fun activities constituted of exercising, sex, eating out, video games, movies etc... The common theme was that these activities were all with other people (despite some participants identifying themselves as introverts). 

Participant analysis:

We now know the various factors that helped the participants achieve flow state. Given such knowledge of their lives through the activity logs and introspective talk sessions, what did they get out of it? What had I observed in the development of each participant through the 6 weeks?

My initial observation was on distinguishing character traits between participants. Earlier in the data tables, I noted the program started with seven but ended with five. Both participants dropped off by mid week 2. There were many reasons/excuses including: not having enough time, not adding the desired value (despite having said it did add value the week before), my own competence level to lead such discussions, and "I've done all this". Now, they may be true reasons for the individuals. But when I considered true limitations none of those "reasons" stuck. Among the five who continued, there were individuals who had much less time, more demanding work environments, had a great idea of where they were, had equal or greater professional accomplishments, and who were happy with where they were in life.

So, then what was the difference? The individuals who dropped off were the accountant and finance professional, so they had similarities in occupation. But I do not see value in generalizing entire professions so will skip over this fact. What I noticed from the initial activity logs and talk sessions was a difference in mindset. A growth vs. fixed mindset. 

The individuals that continued were all curious individuals who were always looking at ways to make themselves better. If they felt as if they had a great idea of who they were already, they wanted to test that hypothesis through me. If they already had a destination they wanted to venture to they wanted to do the due diligence on it with me. They all wanted to make the time to learn more about themselves. It's at this moment I’m reminded of a quote by Naval Ravikant, founder of Angel List: 

If I only did what I was qualified to do I would be sweeping with a broom.
— Naval Ravikant

The growth-mindset participants do not let what the conventional norm define as "qualifications" limit what they do. Anyone who is "qualified" started off as "unqualified". It's not as if people were born with qualifications. People forget that as they traverse through the professional world. They forget that they will have to constantly reinvent themselves to grow and be an actual high performer. Individuals with a fixed mindset are focused on the past, what they've done and not on reinventing. Without challenging the self to reinvent, there can't be growth. Over the long-run, individuals perceived to be high performers in one profession may decline to become just average or even below-average if they turn off their growth-mindset and stop reinventing themselves. 

Of the participants that continued the program from start to finish, they each confirmed the program was beneficial for them. Each had finished with a stronger understanding of where they were in life at the current point in time and also a clearer sense of the destination they wanted to venture towards. Some came out with new revelations on what their true strengths were. Some developed hypotheses for new passion areas while verifying what they thought were passions were just externally imposed paths. Some were able to learn about what they truly wanted and to change how they thought about their career path. Some learned to view their life as a holistic system that required investment of time and effort in all areas (surprise! just killing it in your job does not solve all or even most problems!). 

The participants noted the activity logs allowed them to objectively evaluate their week instead of fall victim to the recency bias of overweighting recent joys or sorrows. It also allowed them to systematically reduce the activities that resulted in negative energy/engagement and increase the ones that resulted in positive energy/engagement.

The one-on-one talk sessions were noted to be have been very effective and enjoyable. Participants felt the reason why talk sessions were important was it helped them obtain the holistic picture of where they were and where they wanted to go. The conversation format allowed for fluidity and an opportunity for us to dig further into pre-set beliefs/assumptions, which resulted in new personal revelations for the participants. 

Another observation is that only one individual, the quant trader, wanted to stay in their current role. There is alignment with the individual's destination, intrinsic motivations, and the job. The environment incorporates all five factors identified for a flow-inducing work environment. The individual has complete ownership of the work process, full range of how and what the individual wants to learn, and only goes into the office when needed. The participant is remote 80% of the time. The individual is the only one who actually engaged in flow state and high energy activities during the typical working hours of 9 to 5.

This is not the case for the software engineer who shared similar levels of autonomy with a remote-like environment. It was identified that there was a lack of learning and ownership for the software engineer's role. Despite being in the financial world, the quant trader also has great leaders who do not put negative pressures to perform. They have been noted to allow the individual to learn from trading mistakes and they seem to take a longer-term vision into the individual's development as a trader. The quant trader gets clear feedback from the trade results and when the trades perform well, the individual is rewarded by earning a share of the direct profits for each trade. 

The other four all want to leave their current jobs. Rightly so, given that most of their flow state activities are focused on their side projects that happen in the morning or at night (outside of work hours). Other than that, the rest of the flow states are related to social/fun. It has become evident the reasons are two-fold:

  • First is that the organizations are run sub-optimally and lack multiple factors that would help create a flow-inducing environment.
  • Second is a misalignment with i) who the individual is vs. ii) the person's chosen destination vs. iii) the opportunity to see that through in the current organization. 

 

Conclusion

If you made it this far I must say thank you. This was a fun six-week project in which I was able to learn and discover three key facets regarding human development in self and organizations. 

First: 

People need time to take stock of who they are, where they are and where they want to go. Sounds obvious but most have never put it on paper. There is a big difference to see it written out as opposed to a 5-minute floating thought. It's also a truly fun and enlightening process for everyone that goes through it, I swear it beats Netflix. I think the adage of "know thyself" is a requirement before we can think about having opinions on other facets of the world. I believe building a holistic system in your life is the no.1 priority because it can become the anchor to which future decisions get made. My first recommendation would be to read the top literature on self-development. Reading such literature will help form a mindset around how to think about introspection but also give you some great questions to ask yourself. 

This form of introspecting by yourself by asking questions has been coined the term "self-authoring". You are essentially writing the ending to your own story. An NPR article highlighted this tactic and how University of Toronto's Jordan Peterson utilized it in his own programs to reduce the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap for 700 students over 2 years. This practice was also adopted by the University of Rotterdam where it is mandatory practice for 1st year students and reduced the drop-out rate in Ontario's Mohawk College by 40%. These are just examples of why spending some time for introspection would be important. If you want to take a stab at this but don't want to read books or literature on it because you think you are so above that and taking time to figure yourself out is just not a priority compared to watching a Netflix special then here is the bare minimum recommendation: Try Debbie Millman's 10-years to a remarkable life exercise. I haven't done this with my participants, but it is one I love doing personally and has been the most powerful vision activity for me, and I've done a lot of different ones. 

Second:

For organizations there would be extreme value in having one-on-one discussion with your own people. What I've learned from speaking with my participants is that there is a definite lack of discussion between them and their organization. Most did not have any formalized feedback process. They don't have regular touch points where the employee can speak about personal growth. Some large firms institute ideas like having a company assigned "coach/performance manager". Most cases are that the employee does not trust the coach/performance manager because of a) potential misalignment of incentives if your coach is someone in middle management, b) your coach does not have leverage to influence your situation or c) your coach is not someone you personally admire and share no values with. 

Company's should first focus on earning trust with their employees. How? Well, it's key to understand that trust is not binary but rather in varying degrees on a spectrum. I trust my best friends but, on a spectrum, I trust my parents more. Most companies haven't passed the initial hurdle of "You never have my personal interest at heart" part of the spectrum. One way to earn trust is to first trust your employees. A quid pro quo. The leader of the company must first trust the employees. How do you show trust first? Well I know some firms are 100% transparent about the entire company's financials with their employees. This may seem radical and foreign but the idea that secrecy is the norm seems to explain the lack of trust in most organizations. Something else would be in creating a flow-inducing work environment. Many of the five factors I listed required the organization to trust the employees. So that's a start. Then it's continuing the build trust with the employee over time and work together in allowing the individual to build a fulfilling career at the organization. Implement a trusting environment and look to engage with your employees. To learn about each one of them and help guide them. Pull out the wasteful middle management and have leaders who have leverage directly speak with the newer employees. You might think this is only for small organizations but plenty of 1000+ people organizations have implemented such solutions by adopting autonomous decentralized models so there is an option for you too. 

Third:

A belief I have is that the "work" of humans will continue to evolve to become more creative. It's a shift from a predominantly algorithmic-based tasks (i.e. factory assembly line) to more heuristic-based tasks (i.e. artistic/creative). We've continued to focus on efficiency in algorithmic tasks until we've found ways of eliminating humans altogether from algorithmic tasks. A lot of what management consultants do is cut costs by eliminating "redundancies" one of the ways is streamlining and automating tasks. What are tasks where the output is so easily quantifiably measurable that it can be automated? Algorithmic tasks. Sure, some places like to boast about pumping out 20 or 100 "innovative" ideas or papers every year but when are they innovative? Most of the time they aren't creative at all. If an organization has to advertise they are innovative, they probably aren't. 

With the onslaught of automation, the value add for people in the future will be on heuristic tasks. Daniel Pink's Drive also referenced a 2005 McKinsey study that spoke of how 30% of new jobs in the US are algorithmic while 70% are heuristic. I only see this ratio gap becoming wider in the future. I know I'm referencing a bit of data from Daniel Pink's Drive here but there is some recency bias here because I just did my personal book review on it so that is why. In case you were wondering.

As I ranted quietly above, and as I'm sure to you it is also common sense, you can't manufacture creativity. It doesn't just come to you when you want it. The best you can do is to build an optimal environment to allow creativity to flow out. What kind of environment is that? My guess is one that is a flow-inducing environment. It's an organization that has embraced the culture of focusing on the people first and enabling them to be their most creatively productive selves. The war starts with attracting the right talent but it's about winning each battle of working with your people to help them grow organically and retain them for the long haul. That's the only way the organization will win. 

There you have it. 

I hope you found value out of my personal passion project. I know I did. I think there is a need to create organizational cultures like the one I spoke of here. One where work and life is immersed. An environment that is a "results only work environment" (ROWE) with a focus on designing systems where employees can be effective and do what they love with people they admire and respect. An environment where when you go home or hang out with your friends you don't want to say, "can we not talk about work now fellas?" No, you love this. You want to talk about it 24/7. 

Call me an idealist but I think it rather tragic for work to not be like this. 

I don't think what I've learned from my own research project is anything new. It's more an additional layer of data on a mountain of data that has so few utilizing it.