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Get Your Scrum Team "In the Zone"

June 21, 2017
We always hear athletes talking about being 'in the zone.' But you don't have to be LeBron James to feel this type of hyper-focus. Learn how Scrum teams can harness it.

At 211 degrees, water is hot. At 212 degrees, it boils. And with boiling water, comes steam. And with steam, you can power a train - S.L. Parker

What Is the Importance of That Extra Degree—From 211° to 212°? How Are the Top Players in Extreme Sports Able to Push Their Boundaries?

The answer is simple, they are better at entering the "flow" state, i.e., "the zone" in which we attain optimal performance and feel the best.

Have you ever been in "the zone” where everything around you seemed to fade away? Did you notice that, during that time, you were performing at your peak? If so, you’re not alone. This experience, called "Flow," is a mental state that allows us to perform at our absolute best. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in his book "In a flow state, we lose our self-consciousness, selfishness, and sense of time. Using goal-setting and immediate feedback, we can achieve a state of "flow" that improves our relationship with work, increases our self-worth, and gives our lives meaning."

Is it possible for a Scrum team to reach a flow state or get into "the zone"?

Yes. In this article, we will explore how a Scrum Master can help Scrum Teams to enter into "the zone."

But, why should you bother about getting the team into "the zone"?

People and teams who are in a flow state often experience ego loss - the sense that they aren't individuals and they are one, they experience "the power of Ba" (Ba is a Zen-like energy of a self-organizing team. It is an idea from the ancient Eastern world, and its characteristics are reflected in Buddhism and Japanese philosophy). When extreme sports players experience the flow state, they often report that "they become their sport" and share the feeling of being "one with the waves" after experiencing Flow.

When we enter the flow state, our brains release the following five critical chemicals that both make us feel good and actually grow our performance.

  1. The first is Dopamine "the feel good hormone," which helps us to sharpen our focus and find innovative solutions to obstacles. Dopamine also helps in engagement, enthusiasm, and will-power for exploration.

  2. Second is Norepinephrine, that helps us to sustain focus and boosts our skills. Norepinephrine enhances blood sugar, thus giving us more energy in our bodies. It increases emotional control, arousal, and attention. In essence, it helps focus on the present.

  3. The third healthy dose is of anandamide, that boosts our creativity. Anandamide improves lateral thought, i.e., our brains’ ability to develop new connections. Moreover, it helps us outgrow fear, thus making us more prone to validate our experiments.

  4. Fourth is endorphins, that masks pain. This is particularly helpful for extreme athletes, who push their bodies to the absolute limits. Small bursts of endorphins are also produced with laughter and joyous moments. It helps the team to go an extra mile and stretch beyond their comfort zone.

  5. Fifth is Serotonin "the feel important hormone," that is responsible for the “afterglow” we feel after being in the zone, a moment of pride and importance.

All these chemicals contribute to the deeply profound experience of peak performance, both in terms of our physical abilities as well as the amazing feeling itself.

So, How Do You Get the Scrum Team Into "the Zone"?
  1. By experiencing enjoyment: If you want to run a 10k marathon, then you should enjoy running. We only feel pleasure in the comfort zone, but, in order to feel enjoyment, we need to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Enjoyment is essential for getting into the flow state which a Scrum Team can experience when they are engaged in a task or activity that balances challenges and skills with clear goals and immediate feedback.

  2. By practicing mindfulness: In addition to enjoyment, a Scrum Team need high levels of attention and absorption in the present moment. Mindfulness can be attained by strengthening self-control and tapping into their discipline. Adhering to the rules of Scrum can really help a team become disciplined. Being in the zone means complete immersion in the present moment; this combines action and awareness, thus giving a sense of control.

  3. By motivating the Scrum Team intrinsically: One way of getting into a Flow state is by setting intrinsic rewards for yourself and detaching from extrinsic motivation. Also, creating an environment that fosters bottom-up knowledge creation and self-organization can be a big factor. Providing autonomy, mastery, and purpose to the team is key to tap into their intrinsic motivation.

  4. By playfulness: When I see my four-year-old kid playing with his toys, he is totally immersed in the present moment. He is focussed, committed, and value oriented. This makes me think that playfulness is not the opposite of work. When team's start enjoying the work itself, as if they were merely playing, they experience an immersion in the moment just like kids.
  5. By having a challenging work: The author of The Rise of Superman says that flow state cannot be attained without working on challenging work. But how challenging should the work be? Challenging, yet not impossible. The challenge level should be 4% greater than the skills level. When the challenges and skills both are high, then the team steps into the flow state.

  6. By being Flawsome: Lyssa Adkins describes Flawsome (adj.) as a person who embraces their "flaws" and knows they are awesome regardless. You don't have to be perfect. Having flaws is fine. Work on them as you see fit and, in the meantime, be "flawsome." Instead of cursing the darkness try to light a candle. Adopting a growth mindset is key to continuous improvement that results in peak performance.

  7. Being in the community that shares the same passion: The most optimal way to achieve peak performance is to seek a community with shared interests. A community that shares your passion helps to build confidence and continuous growth. Communities also help us push the limits of our comfort zone and step into "the zone" of peak performance, often termed as flow.

In Summary:

People and teams experience the state of Flow when they have highly challenging work supported by their high skills. Ensuring a fail-safe environment that fosters experimentation, exploration, and encouragement for people to work on difficult tasks can be a great driver for attaining their peak performance.

Do you see challenges with the above-suggested approaches for helping your teams to get into "the zone" or flow state? Who do you see as your support system in order to deal with those challenges?

I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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