The Extraordinary Team Creation Manifesto

by Tom Koulopoulos

A New Science is showing us how staying in-the-flow may be the most important part of building extraordinary teams.

“I will never consider defeat, and I will remove from my vocabulary such words as quit, cannot, unable, impossible, failure, and retreat, for these are the words of fools and cowards. ” — Georgia Smoke Diver Creed

At one time or another we’ve all been on a really great team. Whether it’s the high school basketball team or a fledgling startup, the qualities of a great team are always the same; commitment, purpose, and an uncanny sense of being connected that amplifies your strengths and allows you to achieve at a level that you just couldn’t get to on your own. When on you’re on this sort of team you believe you can overcome any obstacle. It’s just plain magic, and once you’ve been there you forever look for a way back.

Well, there’s a name for that state of mind, it’s called “flow” and a good friend of mine, Dr. Judy Glick-Smith, has been studying it for years. She recently wrote an article about it that captures perfectly what flow is all about and how to create teams that sustain a flow-state. I’m borrowing heavily from it here because it is a manifesto that I believe every leader should know by heart. Yes, I’m looking at you!

By the way, Judy didn’t just study flow; she lived it. For the past five years she worked with the Georgia Smoke Divers (GSD), an extreme, experiential training program for elite firefighters in Georgia that focuses on flow-based experiences. Becoming a Georgia Smoke Diver is no simple task; it’s to firefighting what being a Seal is to the Navy. These are incredibly tough individuals, physically and mentally. Most importantly, firefighting is intensely team-based. Above average doesn’t cut it in this business. The pressure and stress are unimaginable. Consider that the number one cause of deaths among firefighters is heart attacks. Next time you’re feeling pressured at work think about that.

While you may not be fighting fires, and your stress may be considerably less (or not!), you are trying to build an exceptional team and there’s a lot the GSD can teach you about how
to achieve flow with your team.

  1. Lead by example. Demonstrate your commitment to service through servant leadership. In the words of the Georgia Smoke Diver Chief Elder, be a “leader of equals.” Think about this one. Are you there for your team? Are you constantly aware of the messages your actions are delivering? Like it or not you are the role model for the culture you’re creating.
  2. Communicate your vision and a sense of purpose. Every morning the GSD reads its mission out loud to all instructors and students. You might think that’s a bit excessive, after all once you’ve heard it two or three times what’s the point? Simple, we are most driven to achieve when our work is aligned with the need for purpose and meaning. You can never remind people enough of how important that purpose is; it’s their compass setting for every decision they make.
  3. Establish and maintain an infrastructure that supports the work of the organization. Poor systems will pull an individual out of his or her flow state in a heartbeat. Provide your team with tools to get the job done and then let them figure out how to do it. Unfortunately, many leaders seem to think their job is the exact opposite; tell people exactly how to do their work and then let them figure out where to find the tools.
  4. Create trust with rituals and storytelling. Prior to all student drills GSD instructors tells a story of how the drill was developed as a result of someone losing his or her life in the line of duty. Yeah, heavy stuff! How do you inspire through story telling? If you’re thinking, “but my company isn’t involved in life and death scenarios.” I’ll let you in on something; knowledge workers spend more of their life working than any other single activity–including sleep. This is their life, so acknowledge it!
  5. Honor individual creativity. If a GSD instructor has an idea, he can immediately capture it and turn it into Operations and Plans. The GSD Board reviews and often implements it immediately. However, even if it’s rejected, the leadership acknowledges the creativity by explaining why it cannot be implemented. What happens to ideas in your organization? Are people fearful of submitting new ideas because they simple expect them to be shot down? Or do new ideas have to run a gauntlet course to be heard?
  6. Use positive motivation. One of the GSD teams is called the Mo Squad. These are instructors whose sole responsibility is to motivate students. What would your work environment look like if you had people whose sole purpose it was to give encouragement to others?
  7. Learn what gives people joy and give them the opportunities to do it. Ask people what they love about their work. Then, listen. Most of us try to identify a person’s weaknesses in an attempt to help in areas where he or she is weak. Try instead providing training that magnifies his or her strengths. People find flow in the tasks and activities where they are strongest.

Creativity and innovation are the inevitable results of unfettered team-flow. If all of these components are in place, each individual in the organization becomes a leader. Change is integrated into the fabric of the culture. Your people will embrace change, because they are creating it on a moment-by-moment basis. And I guarantee you that they will take the experience with them wherever they go in an effort to always stay in the flow.

Many thanks to Judith L. Glick-Smith, Ph.D. for letting me share this summary of her article. You can see it in its entirety here.

This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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