ATD Blog

Group Flow: Be Open to Risk

Friday, November 11, 2016

Group flow is fragile. It’s destroyed by interruptions, external demands, and lack of engagement.  But group flow is worth pursuing because innovation emerges from complex interfaces and team interaction. 

For several weeks, we’ve been exploring how managers can create an environment conducive to group flow. The final element of this environment is creating a place where it is safe to occasionally fail. While most corporate leaders, finance experts, technicians, and engineers are indoctrinated to minimize risk, there is no group flow without the risk of failure. Here’s the good news: balance is achievable.  

Error and failure are intrinsic to the process of innovation—creating something that is truly new, not just a modification of something already in existence. Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, has explained that the company expects engineers to experiment and use creative ideas to the point of failure. “If you don’t fail, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough,” she said. Shotwell acknowledges, though, that customers cannot tolerate failure, so SpaceX implements extensive design redundancy and hardware testing to ensure quality and reliability.

Ways to Welcome and Mitigate Risk 

Risk to stakeholders must be mitigated in this process, and a great group will do so. Vigorous risk analysis also is required. But how? 

For starters, managers can maintain group flow by conducting brainstorming sessions to evaluate innovation against risk and cost. Meanwhile, design thinking’s iterative process also supports the paradigm of “fail early and fail often.” 

But when group members listen closely to others’ ideas while forming their own, assimilating data, and assessing the benefits and risks simultaneously, fresh ideas may be missed and the tempo of the group can slow down. Managers can try using the Six Thinking Hats to conduct meetings and ideation, as well as to evaluate risk and shape creative ideas. The Six Hats method aligns thinking processes so that each component can be examined in turn; it also prevents any single member from dominating the group. 

In addition, all group members need to be engaged and focused, listening closely and building on ideas contributed by others. To that end, managers can use the creative thinking techniques to provide focus during meetings, and individual group members can use the following tools to advance a meeting (particularly if some members are participating remotely):


  • SCAMPER method
  • metaphoric thinking
  • lateral thinking
  • brain writing
  • mind mapping. 

It’s worth noting that low tolerance to risk in the planning and design phases increases attrition of valuable employees who leave to find flow in start-ups or smaller ventures. In the global war for talent, organizations that need to innovate can’t afford to lose good contributors. Leaders need to create the environment for group flow and allow group genius to thrive.

Final Word 

No doubt, group flow is conducive to efficient and creative work, energizes and engages team members, and supports the principles for agile development and design thinking. 

Let’s review some guidelines for establishing an external environment conducive to group flow and tools to guide and focus the team to achieve maximum value from each member’s capabilities. To facilitate harnessing the power of the group, consider the following actions to foster group flow for generating unique solutions, profitable innovation, and effective risk mitigation. 

  • Set a mission or focus area rather than a strict goal. A diverse group engaged in flow and design thinking will explore areas where innovation and creativity can improve or transform, not only solve an existing problem.

  • Consider the agile development process, design thinking, situational awareness, and good decision-making skills for providing constant feedback of progress and disciplined thinking.

  • Group members should share fundamental domain knowledge, vernacular, and skill level, but the most innovative teams combine a wide range of expertise. Include a “wildcard” and decision-maker in the group.

  • Co-location is optimal for facilitating effective communication and focused concentration.  However, virtual teams can achieve flow with advance preparation and firm but flexible leadership.

  • Autonomy is the top predictor of team performance. Transformative leaders defend the group’s need to concentrate fully on the task without interruptions, dogmatic constraints, or outside demands. 

  • Leaders should remain flexible on time constraints.

  • Group flow needs an environment that is tolerant of failure in creative phases balanced by risk mitigation for high-quality products and services. 

Bottom line: Group flow requires autonomy to define the goal, a protective environment, risk tolerance, and tools to direct the focus of group members. By implementing these steps and methods, leaders will begin to see more engagement by employees and a proliferation of profitable new ideas.

About the Author

Laurie Buss is an aerospace engineer, market analyst, business consultant, fine artist, and an expert in workplace sustainability, efficiency, and strategy development. After a 23-year career working for and consulting to corporations like Hughes, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Thales, and SpaceX, she now enables companies to cut meeting time in half, eliminate up to 80 percent of inefficiency in manufacturing and business processes, and increase profits with fresh ideas for product development and improving business operations.

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