In-depth background: FlowTeam Cooperation / Performance

We cooperate as a network of FlowTeam-professionals Our services are primarily focused on rapidly developing business teams and their leaders. During the past twenty years we have worked intensively with hundreds of companies in more than a dozen countries. Our approach to all assignments has been steadily refined in order to deliver maximum value to clients in the shortest possible time period. This summary explains the work behind our approach to teambuilding.

Our work with business organizations is based on several radical assumptions.

  1. First, that each individual in the team is traveling an evolutionary path. That each person is seeking to learn and searching for meaning in life which can guide one through the maze of choices.
  2. Second, that the team itself is the expert on its challenges, and that each individual has unique contributions to make in meeting these.
  3. Third, that the team is evolving in an unpredictable manner that has many opportunities for sudden transformation (and radical new solutions), and that these leaps are more likely to occur through cooperation between people in a fashion that respects choice and self-organization more than traditional hierarchical management.
  4. And, fourth, that teams can progress forward in a group evolutionary journey whose potential may not be obvious in advance to the intellectual mind.

There have been three revolutionary scientific advances during the 20th Century: Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, and Systems Science. The first two have had virtually no relevance for everyday life. Quantum mechanics concerns itself with things (such as atomic particles) that are unimaginably small, while relativity concerns itself with objects that are extremely large or moving very fast (such as stars or galaxies or the speed of light). Only systems science has shown itself to have practical value at the human scale of daily activities.

As the name implies, this branch of science has concerned itself with the study of 'systems.' A system is an interdependent collection of parts that interact with each other to function as a dynamic whole. Together the elements inter-relate in dramatic patterns that are not apparent when the elements are studied individually or are removed from the overall context of the system.

Systemic thinking leads to a holistic perspective that can allow one to develop a clear view of a dynamic system, such as a marketplace, without having all the details of every subject.

This way of thinking gives fundamentally different perspectives and offers deeper insights that can be translated directly to commercial enterprises and their strategies. It thereby allows business teams to tackle large challenges with a set of thinking tools that leverage their knowledge and experience.In this regard, the FlowTeam-approach to teambuilding has been developed from various sources, including the work of the International Society for Systems Science (ISSS)-an august body of individuals from many diverse fields. Until several decades ago, science had become progressively specialized to the point that even scientists in the same discipline could not communicate clearly with each other if they worked in different sub-specialty areas. Beginning with the work of a meteorologist called Lorenz, it was increasing discovered that the same activity patterns were being observed in virtually every area of science. ISSS is the best known of the organizations that were formed to accumulate and distribute information regarding advances in this body of knowledge. The rise of systems science has produced a diverse stream of insights over the past two decades. Our success in applying the insights of systems science to business and organizational issues also owes special thanks to Drs. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Sally Goerner, Linda Ackerman, Elaine Smith and Martin Gerber. All are trained scientists who have applied their energies toward identifying the secrets of successful business organizations and steps for enhancing teamwork.

Dr. Sally Goerner is an evolutionary theorist and biodynamicist whose writings have demystified much of the arcane world of systems science. (A world which is fully understood by only a handful of theoretical mathematicians alive today.) In particular, she has shown how systems science is vital for understanding the increasing inter-dependency of our lives in a global economy. She has also been invaluable in sharing insights and information as a consultant to us during the development of our intellectual property. A brief précis would include the fact that systems scientists have identified and studied three perspectives for studying systems in the natural world.

A simple system is one in which cause and effect are closely and linearly related in time and space and also one in which only a few factors are assumed to be operating. A batted ball that flies through the air until it strikes and breaks a glass window pane is an example of a simple system phenomenon. An observer would confidently conclude that the fracturing and shattering of the flat glass surface was caused by the ball's impact.

Straightforward observations usually can confirm the key cause-effect relationships between elements viewed from a simple systems perspective. Furthermore, simple system behavior is generally predictable. In our analogue above, if a hard ball is traveling fast enough and the window pane it strikes is composed of breakable glass, the pane is likely to shatter. It would therefore be easy to determine what object or force broke the glass.

Complicated systems, by contrast, are ones in which a greater number of variables is assumed to be operating in which cause and effect are more distantly related (but still linearly connected) in time and space. 'Complicated systems' share an essential feature with simple systems. Namely, that known changes in system variables or inputs lead to predictable changes in system behavior or outputs.

Unfortunately, though, our understanding of machines and complicated systems has led to a type of linear thinking that has confused machine behavior with human behavior. This is apparent in some of the metaphors that can be gleaned from many current business writings. It represents an impediment to achieving the most creative, productive thinking with challenges that involve people and business issues.

A car engine provides a good example of this principle in complicated systems. If one had access to all relevant information on sizes, construction and assembly of an automobile engine's components, one could use a complicated mathematical equation to predict the precise horsepower output. If known changes were made to the sizes or assembly of various parts, the specific change in horsepower output could be accurately predicted through applying the same formula.

Complex systems represent the third major way of viewing the world around us. These systems are a collection of parts that interact with each other to function as a dynamic whole and in which cause and effect cannot be linearly connected across time and space. A virtually infinite number of variables is assumed to be operating in such systems although some are more influential than others.

Now, in truth, every natural system is a complex one. The 'simple' and 'complicated' labels are merely short-hand terms for the filters that are used to reduce complex systems to the point that they can be studied efficiently. For example, when one asks what caused the glass to break in our first example above, the answer is 'the ball.' This is a 'simple system perspective.' Or, when one asks at what speed a ball of a specified size and hardness needs to travel and at what trajectory it must strike the glass in order to break it, this is a 'complicated system perspective.'

Instead, if one were to ask how the glass shattered and where the pieces of glass fell, this would be a 'complex system' view in that the result is not precisely calculable in advance even if one knew all the relevant information. Within complex, non-linear systems, precise knowledge of starting conditions simply does not allow one to predict subsequent conditions with certainty. Known changes in inputs do not lead to stable changes in outputs-even if one had all possible information.

As a result, an accurate view of complex systems initially may seem to be overwhelming. However, they do operate in everyday life according to principles that can be discovered but which simply do not permit one to make precise predictions about the consequences of changes that are introduced. In fact, accurately anticipating their future performance is most challenging when one thinks from a linear (simple or complicated system) perspective. Systemic thinking is an antidote for linear thinking. It is a set of tools for making more useful predictions about situations that matter. What complex systems might these be?

For example, the global climate is a planet-wide, complex system. The world economy is a complex system with many elements, including financial markets, trading exchanges, banking systems, and industrial markets. Likewise, an individual human being is a complex system of physical, mental, emotional factors, and other unknown factors. Beyond this, groups of people -such as work teams and organizations- are complex systems in which each individual person or element is itself a complex system….

Although their threads are interwoven throughout our everyday lives, mastering the multiple nuances of inter-dependent systems will always elude us. Applying systemic thinking principles is therefore useful for understanding and assisting people and their collective activities.

In particular, systemic thinking recognizes that when energy is directed toward key 'leverage' points, large changes in system behavior can occur. For example, it has been mathematically demonstrated that a butterfly's wings flapping at the right time and in the right place in Mexico could produce a hurricane in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, no one knows how many such storms actually begin this way-although we do know that they are the result of self-reinforcing, auto-catalyzing feedback loops.

A converse principle in systemic thinking is that much energy can be directed into 'non-leverage' areas and system performance will not change very much at all. In fact, it can be exasperatingly true that system performance becomes even more strongly homeostatic in response to energy directed toward changing it.

One example is the tendency of businesses to re-organize repeatedly as a tactic for solving complex political, product, process, co-ordination, distribution, leadership, or market problems. Each reorganization solves some problems initially but then creates a situation in which yesterday's solutions produce tomorrow's problems. This had provided the raw material for a great many 'Dilbert' comic strips.

However, the most astonishing aspect of living (or 'complex adaptive') systems is their inherent feature of self-organization during times of turbulence. In fact, Ilya Prigogine has demonstrated that periodic instability -and apparent degeneration- in complex systems are actually part of a self-organizing process that can produce spontaneous evolutionary progression. (Prigogine is a renowned theoretical chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1977 for this discovery of "dissipative structures.")

The principle of discontinuous shifts (or bifurcations) following periods of dissipation (or chaos): Systemic thinking recognizes this potential for higher level functioning to arise from periods of turbulence is as true for business teams as it is true for any other complex system. This means that times of 'chaos' can be useful in making businesses more competitive rather than threatening to their survival.

One key to understanding the culture of commercial organizations can be credited to Dr. Linda Ackerman. She discovered that organizations function on a gradient that ranges from what can be called the Fear State through the Organized State to the Flow State.

Fear State organizations are ones that tend to use simple system thinking to understand business issues and solve problems. They may seem to operate efficiently but they are usually politicized and lacking in creativity. They are companies in which management tells people what to do and what not to do. Leaders usually are authoritarian in style and politics are often centered around a powerful leader or leadership group. Fear State organizations can achieve business successes despite the fact that morale is usually low.

Companies that function in the 'organized' stage tend to use complicated system thinking to understand business issues and solve problems. They strive to be efficient and orderly, they allocate resources clearly, and they develop effective internal controls. Their use of functional divisions, clear decision-making hierarchies, centralized resource allocation, and economies of scale produce many benefits. Business processes can be easily graphed, group responsibilities can be precisely allocated, and -for individuals- job accountabilities and the freedom-to-act can be crisply stated. Indeed, to the extent that internal operational clarity is the key factor that is rewarded by markets, these organizations will enjoy many competitive advantages.

In the past, the organizational activities in such companies have been held up as benchmarks for emulation. Their initial formulation came from principles of scientific management developed in the 1940's. These were 'objective' guidelines for managing the mechanisms of commerce through efficient, rational internal organization.

By the mid-1970's, the typical business school curriculum referenced such state-state, 'multi-national' companies as models for commercial success. Academics studied their commercial practices in depth. Such organizations provided examples of sound management principles, useful case studies, and evidence of how to do things 'right' in the modern world.

However clear the thinking of the 1970's might have seemed at the time, it lacked insight into the hidden assumptions of the state-state paradigm. For in the span of 50 years since World War II, the vertically-managed model of large business organization rose to its zenith only to suffer a rapid decline.

It is true that after World War II, when much of the world economy was rebuilding, companies that acted on state-state principles were quite successful. Yet it was this very absence of global competition that facilitated their success which, in turn, gradually produced a world in which the rules of the game subtly changed. Beginning in the 1970's, multi-national companies found themselves forced to adjust to the new rules of success if they wished to survive. This occurred with the growth of the world economy and the advent of international competition.

Indeed, state-state companies were managed in ways analogous to the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. The very processes that had once facilitated their success also served as a brake on their ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions. These effects, even with 'proper' organizational structure, were harmful to the long-term health of companies operating in competitive business environments.

Those who did not adapt faced the prospect of being obliterated in their markets, often by companies with an obsession for smallness, nimbleness and teamwork. By those who unleashed the collective intelligence of their human resources. By those who used speed and innovation as competitive weapons. These companies demonstrated what Ackerman called Flow-State organization.

In the Flow State, companies tend to use complex system thinking to understand business issues and solve problems. Their work groups self-organize around processes, operate with enhanced creativity and genius, are nimbly responsive, and achieve high performance. They also tend to have fun as they become progressively better at innovating and outpacing their competition. Their rate of change 'inside' is usually faster than the rate 'outside.'

This phenomenon was first apparent in industries in which there was world-wide production over-capacity. Among the first to suffer were traditional industrial sectors producing goods 4 such as automobiles and steel. Today evidence of the fact of ever-fiercer global competition can be found in every business sector. These range from the low-tech production of spectacle lenses to the high-tech world of semiconductor-based products and aerospace.

As the economy has globalized during our age of semiconductor marvels, the same increases in speed and international activity have also transformed the capital markets and financially-based businesses. Indeed, it seems that rapid change has become a constant and that the rate of change is accelerating. The world of commerce, it would appear, will never be the same.

It would also appear that team flexibility, a customer-centric culture, and process-based operations have increasingly become keys to commercial success. This is the rationale for developing flow-state organization. Learning how to do so in the shortest period of time is of great competitive value. The how-to steps are a unifying theme in the following sections.

As mentioned above, systems scientists made a break-through in understanding complex systems when it was discovered that they operated according to predictable patterns regardless of the scope and size of the system involved. The same patterns of dynamic activity that could be seen in a single cell were also apparent in an entire organism. The same processes that could be seen in a pot of boiling soup could also be observed in the life cycle of a star.

The scientific name 'isomorphies' has been used to refer to these common patterns in nature. This word comes from the Greek (and later Latin) roots for 'similar' and 'form.' Systems scientists have used advanced theoretical mathematics to describe these patterns. Mathematical models are effective in that they are the purest descriptive 'language' available, a language that is not influenced by opinions or prejudice. However, it is also true that only a limited number of theoretical mathematicians understand the underlying mathematics of systems science.

Martin Gerber, an innovative Swiss physicist, was a gifted mathematician who left an academic career in order to work in a physics supply company. As part of his job, he undertook a multi-year study of successful business organizations in a variety of industries. He kept immaculately detailed notes and records but was unable to determine why these teams were successful.

Eventually, by chance, a colleague in ISSS asked whether Gerber had ever analyzed successful teams from the perspective of systemic thinking. Might it be that their performance could be related to systems principles, particularly to embedded success principles that can be observed nature?

Martin Gerber began to do so with the knowledge that ISSS scientists studied system patterns in great detail. He concluded that this had produced a precise mathematical understanding of 104 sub-components-or 52 mirror-image pairs of patterns. He then assembled these clearly defined patterns into 19 aggregate isomorphies and discovered that these 19 precisely defined isomorphies were the key to understanding what makes some living systems more successful than others.

In non-living systems, such as energy flow through a pot of soup, isomorphies represent ways of increasing the efficient flow of energy through the system. In living organisms (technically known as 'complex adaptive systems'), isomorphies represent powerful patterns by which such systems can flourish and adapt in the face of rigors or challenges in their surrounding environment. Indeed, it appeared that the 19 isomorphies represented hidden success principles for evolutionary progress.

By reviewing business team performance from this new point-of-view, it became clear how successful teams worked their magic. The work groups that had been studied were intuitively using some of the hidden success principles of nature. The same leverage patterns that permit all living systems to become more resilient, to better adapt, and to thrive. Furthermore, they were doing so without formal knowledge of advanced mathematics or systems science!

These facts suggested that high-performance teams could use and apply these success principles in their work without intellectual knowledge of them. However, these results sometimes occurred by chance and not every team could reproduce them at will. If these success principles worked extraordinarily well when applied intuitively, imagine their benefits if applied consciously.

We have converted the knowledge of systems science into management concepts and tools for implementing these scientific discoveries. We have found useful explanatory models that can be presented simply-often with pictures and everyday examples. This makes sophisticated technical findings understandable for the average person along with awareness of how to apply theseto the challenges of everyday business life.

As a result, we have continued prototyping the work by advancing the Flowsystem and shifting it to a more efficient and comprehensive level. Our aim has continued to be that of creating high-performance FlowState teams in the shortest time possible. Of central importance are the 12 socalled FocusAreas that form the'DNA' of the learning process.

Each of these FocusAreas comprises a pragmatic and powerful application of two or more complex system isomorphies. They are taught along with the isomorphies themselves to groups who progressively use these as tools for evaluating and improving their own teamwork. Indeed, each FlowTeam adapts the 12 FocusAreas to their business environment and progressively learns to apply them in their dailywork life.

Whenever possible, we interview all participants prior to a teambuilding session. This permits us to understand relevant business issues and to customizethe process for the commercial needs and challenges of each group. Once this preparation phase has been completed, we are ready to begin the teambuilding event itself.

We have found that three minimum criteria must be met before teamwork can be improved. Accordingly, we confirm that every team member is committed to the process The three essential commitments are:

  1. All team members must agree that they want good teamwork. This means teamwork that is more productive, more efficient, more fun and more commercially successful. Good teamwork is not always easy. It is based upon respect for diversity and it frequently requires effort and intensive focus.
  2. All team members must agree that they will work together toward a common vision of learning new methods and achieving specific results during the teambuilding event.
  3. Everyone in the group must commit to establishing a 'manual' of team rules and guidelines. This document then can become an ongoing, updated prototype for how you will work together and resolve problems in the future. By listing specific behavioral agreements, it serves a vital role in enhancing team performance. Unfortunately, because this essential stepis usually is neglected in teambuilding approaches, post-event enthusiasm gradually wears off and team patterns can remain largely unimproved.
Once all three questions have been answered in the affirmative, we are ready to begin. During the initial launch, which is usually three days in length, most of the time is devoted to using the concepts and tools for solving actual business problems.

Several one-day follow-up sessions are usually provided over the next year or more to assist the team in achieving a stable, high-performance mode. The initial FlowTeam then serves as a resource in teaching the thinking, tools and work approach to other teams. Eventually it is possible to spread customized tools and a common language throughout an organization. We also have developed procedures for training Flow'Animators' to teach the FlowTeam-method to new teams

We do not take a theoretical approach. Rather, we introduce some basic concepts and then provide tools and techniques that are put into use immediately during group activities that are focused on actual business problems. In this manner, the team learns through doing. Indeed, we have repeatedly found that putting ideas into action is the fastest way for a team to learn. Doing so develops skills and insights that can be applied to everyday working challenges without delay. As Confucius said in 451 BC: "What I hear, Iforget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand."

Wealso have developed a rich catalogue of commercial examples that allow teams to understand quickly how these principles relate to the history of business enterprises. This represents a 'sea change' in teambuilding methods. Away from the psychological and management consulting methods of the past, and toward the elements of FlowState organization that will be most competitive and successful in the 21stcentury.

Our goal in teambuilding work is to catalyze a group's systemic progress by providing targeted coaching along with a number of specific exercises and techniques. Experience has shown that teams learn through moving into unfamiliar territory and experiencing the resultant instability. Within these periods of turbulence or chaos, self-organizationcan produce spontaneous bursts of progress. This is in keeping with Prigogine's work on dissipative structures as mentioned above. Over the course of a teambuilding session, we endeavor to progressively guide participants into states of confusion through introducing new concepts and tools.

These initially destabilize group interactions, particularly in the early stages of learning each tool and insight (the phase of 'conscious incompetence'). Then, as participants improve in applying new learning, the group becomes more (consciously competent) resilient and creative. As new skills become well practiced and group members begin to need to be stimulated by novelty, we again challenge the team by introducing more new ideas, suggesting variations on established techniques, and practicing a variety of new tools and skills.

One FlowTeam produced a succinct definition of the FlowTeamDesign-approach. It reads as follows: "The FlowTeam-Method is a set of tools for unleashing the collective intelligenceof a work team. It generates a patternof enhanced productivity, innovation and problem-solving in a context of extraordinary teamwork and morale. 'Flow' is progressively realized through applying natural principles derived from systems science-initially with the support of experienced coaches and later by the work organization alone in aself-sufficient manner."

Our work with high-performance teams has been useful in our ongoing R&D. These groups have helped to develop and improve an array of useful work tools based on an understanding of the success principles of nature. As a result, we have been able to benchmark from the best practices of outstanding organizations in a variety of industries.

We have also found that the core principles and steps in FlowTeambuilding are powerful tools for enhancing business performance. We believe that they are broadly useful and can be adapted to virtually any commercial challenge. In particular, our experience has shown that the following applications are especially useful:

  1. EXECUTIVE TEAMS: Senior executive values and behavior have a great impact on work climate. It is important to have leadership commitment to the Flowstyle of high-performance teamwork as well as an understanding of systemic thinking and the principles involved. Our most rapid successes in enhancing corporate culture have come when senior executive groups have participated in a FlowTeam building process at the outset.
  2. EXTENDEDMANAGEMENT TEAMS AND CORPORATE CULTURE: When we have worked with middle management groups as well as executive groups, they have been in a position to 'pioneer' the concepts and tools with their own organizations and thereby help them to spread organically. This assists in creating a new style of participative leadership, cross-functional synergy,and intelligent implementation of strategic direction.
  3. COMMERCIALSTRATEGY: We have worked with as many as 120 participants in ways that are more efficient, productive and innovative than the traditional approaches to large group meetings. These programs have been successful in devising competitive business strategies and sound tactics. FlowTeam-processes for collective decision-making permit those who have information on customers, processes, corporate resources, and informal networks to share these and collaborate efficiently with each other while forming a cohesive commercial strategy.
  4. BUSINESSCLIMATE OR MARKETPLACE SHIFTS: Change is the one constant in work organizations today. Dramatic marketplace changes have resulted from government activities such as deregulation or privatization or management decisions to make the transition to public ownership. However, the background shift that is affecting nearly every company in recent years has resulted from the progressive growth of the global economy. World trade has increased 1500% in the past four decades. We have provided successful, in-depth assistance to companies experiencing all these major types of change by helping them to unleash the collective intelligence of their people and teams.
  5. PERFORMANCETURN-AROUND: When under-performing areas of a company create problems throughout the organization, improving their results is a vital priority. In work such as this, 7 we provide a briefing to management groups on what our process involves and what beneficial changes they can expect to see. The company then measures and monitors practical factors that are important to their business. Whatever the elegance of any teambuilding theory, the best test of its value comes through achieving meaningful results in the workplace.
  6. START-UPBUSINESSES/NEW DIVISIONS WITHIN EXISTING BUSINESSES: Initial patterns assume a life of their ownin business groups. This is why it can seem so exasperatingly difficult to change corporate culture. We work with organizations early on to establish patterns of behavior and conduct in work life that are conducive tolong-term success. In part, this involves developing habits of efficiency, productivity and innovation. This requires creating a learning-orientated environment that wisely nurtures and invests the intellectual capital of itspeople.
  7. AFTER PERSONNEL CHANGES, REORGANIZATION OR RESTRUCTURING: In the same way that initial patterns have a life of their own, the periods following significant organizational changes provide special opportunities to enhance the performance and success of business groups. We have worked with teams be foreand after new leaders have arrived, after company reorganizations, and after mergers/acquisitions. Each situation lends itself to rapid results through affecting leverage areas during periods of turbulence.
  8. CREATING INTERNAL FLOW TEAM TRAINERS AND CHANGE AGENTS: It is more efficient and cost-effective for companies to use their internal training resources to promote the qualities of FlowState teamwork throughout their organizations than it is to rely exclusively upon us to do so. This also allows us to assist and learn froma greater range and variety of companies. Whenever possible, we therefore work to establish a cadre of internal Flow-Supporers among existing trainers. This permits wider impact and faster business results.
Exchanging information efficiently and choosing direction quickly is virtually impossible in large group meetings as they traditionally have been held. We apply the information-transmission and decision-making principles of FlowTeam Dynamics with very large audiences, whose members are often from varying cultural backgrounds with different native languages. This can be done productively in an atmosphere of fun that produces genuine commercial value. We believe this can be accomplished in groups as large as several hundred participants.

Our approach to teambuilding is systemic. We view every business team as a complex system that is operating with a vast array of stable, fluctuating, and unpredictable elements. It is impossible to truly separate each person from the overall business environment and the larger systems in which work activities occur. Effective teambuilding must take this greater context into account.

The underlying principle upon whichFlowTeam Dynamics are based is that of self-organization. We assume that the team can solve its own problems and that the answers and resources needed can be created and enhancedby the group itself. That effectively handling conflicts and navigating turbulence can promote greater resilience which leads to a higher level of team success. That increasing openness and trust will allow each team member to excel. That by increasing the speed and quality of communications, decision-making and problem-solving the team will develop commercial advantages relative to its outside competitors. That team morale will progressively grow as its members use their talents and reach a higher level of success with business challenges.

For this reason, FlowTeambuilding is especially useful in self-directed work teams, process-based organizations, and companies without rigid, traditional hierarchies. It is the fastest and most potent form of teambuilding that we have ever witnessed. Although the facilitators are only temporary, teams that learn the FlowTeam-method continue to improve and benefit. Indeed, when new teams learn to apply the thinking and tools that form the 12 FocusAreas of the FlowTeam-Design, their business and financial performance subsequently improve.

We invite you to accept the challenge of 21stCentury commerce by becoming ever-evolving leaders in FlowState teams. Doing so can transform your career as well as your organization.


FlowTeam SA, NovaVita Résidences, C.P. 321, 1820 Montreux, Schweiz, Tel +41 (0)79 401 47 77
E-Mail info@flowteam.com