ATD Blog

Group Flow: The Genesis of Innovation

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Innovation is critical to the continued growth of organizations—not only for the creation of new designs, products, and markets, but also for cost-savings, process efficiencies, and engaging and keeping great workers. But while vital to growth, innovation can be elusive. With the ever-increasing complexity of systems, innovation and solutions require collaboration among multiple contributors. The popular belief that lone “creatives” achieve innovation is contrary to the overwhelming number of breakthroughs enabled by many great minds working collaboratively in a given domain. But this increasing complexity of systems is demanding greater skill sets and problem-solving capacity among workers.

Throughout history great invention was a product of collaboration. Edison had his team of physicists, machinists, and engineers at Menlo Park. Monet worked with close friends and rivals for 15 years while developing Impressionism. Newton “stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Additionally, research shows that teams generate more important scientific research and successful inventions than solitary individuals. Scientific papers and patents with a higher number of contributors are cited more often (a key criteria to establishing the importance and quality of the work). When the collaborators are from different companies and universities, the number of citations increases even more, which attests to the notion that diversity is a key element of an innovative group. 

How can the power of the group be harnessed effectively? 

Group flow is essential, because it is conducive to efficient and creative work and energizes and engages team members. A culture conducive to group flow holds immense potential for reward as the genesis of innovation.


But what is flow? Famed researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly introduced the concept of flow in the 1990s. People who enjoyed activities, for which there was no money or recognition, only intrinsic motivation, intrigued him. He concluded that being in a state of flow—or “in the zone”—provided the motivation. One loses track of time and experiences a real sense of satisfaction. Flow can be achieved regardless of the activity: solitary or team sports, dance, creative endeavors, scientific study, chess, strategic planning, and starting a business.

The chances of experiencing flow increases when the conditions below are met:

  1. The goal is clear. 
  2. Constant and immediate feedback of progress towards the goal is provided. 
  3. The person feels challenged, but not bored or frustrated. A match exists between the skills he or she possesses and the skills required by the task. 
  4. Allowance is given to concentrate fully on the task without interruptions. 
  5. An unconstrained period of time to work is provided. 
  6. Pressure to succeed is minimal.

Items 5 and 6 are, of course, rarely possible in today’s organizations. What’s more, experts in productivity and organizational creativity debate the efficacy of eliminating all constraints.
Distinct from individual flow, group flow occurs when all members of a group are “in the zone”—with the group’s task demanding equal focus and effort from all members. The purpose and outcome of engaging group flow is to achieve something greater and more rapidly than each member could do on his or her own: creative solutions, genuine innovation, and decisions with profitable results.

Group flow requires autonomy to define the goal and schedule, a protective environment, and tools to direct the focus of group members. Group composition is also a key factor. By implementing the methodologies in this series, the transformative leader will begin to see more engagement by employees and a proliferation of profitable new ideas.

Future posts will provide concrete, real-world recommendations for the work environment and tools that facilitate group flow and innovation.

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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