FINDING YOUR FLOW TOOLKIT
FEEDBACK LOOPS & MEASURING SUCCESS
Twenty years ago (at Georgetown University) I took a fascinating class called “Natural Science and the Aesthetics”. The premise of this class was to observe and learn about natural physical systems—systems that revealed beauty, order, and the principles underlying natural progress and evolution.
While some in the class studied such topics as “the aesthetic qualities of aqueous beer foam” (Yes, that was the actual topic of a paper), I was more intrigued by the repeating principles and metaphors that can be seen in nature and within the human body: The comparison between the body’s circulatory system and a city subway system, the structural similarities between broccoli sprigs and human lungs, the beautiful ratio: 1/1.62 that can be found in tree branches, the height vs. width wingspan of a human
being—even the architecture of Greek temples—that kind of thing. The conceptual breakthrough:
That which lies in the macro also lies in the micro.
Through this wonderful journey through natural principles I was introduced to the science of cybernetics—something we’re all familiar with, but rarely optimize.
Cybernetics is the science of effective organization and control within living and non-living systems. Words such as regulation, control, stability—even steersmanship have been used to describe the effective movement of something from one place to another, with the proper mechanisms in place to effect a given end.
With so many principles to understand, I sought the one that represented the essence of progress. The principle was feedback. Simply stated: Every system needs feedback in order to course correct towards a fixed point—its goal.
So let’s move from macroscopic and microscopic topics right into the human condition. Few have said it better than famed author and consultant, Charles Coonradt when he commented:
There are three types of people in this world:
- Those who know they are winning.
- Those who know they are losing.
- Those who do not know the score.
Of these three, the most dangerous is person #3.
For all of us, feedback is one of the most profound principles that govern every facet of our lives. Without feedback we cannot progress. We rely on feedback in every way—inside and outside. Without it, we literally go crazy.
Known as “white torture” individuals who are placed in sensory deprived environments for extended periods of time, begin to lose personal identity. They are compelled to do whatever it takes to re-enter an environment with any connection to reality. Who would ever guess that NOT getting any stimulus was a form of torture!
In the literature on flow, feedback is one of the “big nine” concepts. If you want more flow in your life, you have to identify, measure, and utilize your feedback loops to fine-tune your trajectory towards meaningful goals.
So what are these feedback loops? The answer is: you have to discover this for yourself. It’s about seeking the right information in order to know if you are moving in the right direction.
Sporting arenas do this well: Runs Batted In (RBI’s), passing and rushing yards, unforced errors, etc… all provide clear and precise data for the athlete to internalize and adjust. Fail to learn and you fail to progress. It’s that simple.
Getting a “clean bill of health” means measuring your bodies physical systems (i.e., heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol (LDL, HDL), weight, body mass index (BMI), hormone levels, enzyme counts, etc… to those of common standards. Any deviations from the norms then risks emerge and you have some adjusting to do. This becomes a little fuzzy when either your game isn’t clear or when other people are involved.
One of my former colleagues, Alan Fine, a brilliant coach and mentor, made an important distinction between logical systems and psychological systems. A logical system is akin to an airplane:
Perhaps it’s common knowledge that an airplane is off-course most of the time. If on autopilot, it relies on multiple sensors to adjust its trajectory. A slight dip of the nose and the computer says “head’s up.” A small change in pitch or yaw, and the computer says, “straighten out”. An infinitesimal change in course and the computer says, “your off track!” All this happens by the microsecond.
Give these same commands at the same frequency to a human being and the reaction is: “get off my back! Why are you constantly pointing out my faults? You don’t like me!” You get the point.
There is a significant difference between a logical mindset and psychological mindset. If you want to improve your performance and find more flow in your life, the former is required in larger doses. So what to do?
Think about a current life arena that’s important to you and ask yourself: what are my feedback loops? Where am I getting valuable information and how am I using it? In corporate arenas, formal feedback loops for employees show up a paltry 1-2 times per year, yet vital feedback can be tapped every day—if you find your loops.
As you consider the arenas where you seek greater levels of flow, consider these five strategies to help you make the most of the feedback available to you:
As I mentioned last week, too many people are reactive about feedback. They wait until they make a mistake or do something wrong or, heaven forbid, somebody finally says it: “you’re not cutting it!” Don’t wait for feedback to come to you. Go get the feedback you need. Don’t wait for your spouse or significant other to blurt out “you are not fulfilling your end of the bargain.” Instead, beat him or her to the punch.
Identify Multiple Feedback Loops
Make a list of the many types of feedback available to you in your key performance arenas. Some may be quantitative; some may be qualitative. Some may come from scoreboards or scorecards. Other feedback requires a human perspective. This can be as simple as asking a friend or colleague (whom you trust) to offer some insight on how you can improve your game—whatever it is.
In either case, pick and choose the data that will be the most important to you and choose “one thing” you can do something about. Use that feedback as a source of constant nourishment and course adjustment.
Act on Feedback
Feedback is useless if it is not acted upon. Be clear about what “specifically” you will do differently given the feedback that you have captured. If your feedback is coming from another person, make sure it is not too vague or unclear. Get an explicit agreement as to what the gaps are so that if you choose to make those changes, you will see the results
All data is feedback but progress requires focus. To move confidently in a direction, it’s important to identify the “inputs” that lead to the “outputs”. Whether the goal is weight loss, trust developed, money saved, or concepts internalized, seek to find a clear correlation between what inputs you are doing and what outcomes you are getting. For this purpose it can be quite useful to have a personal score-carding system in place. Let’s review briefly:
As explained above, at the heart of every scorecard is a clear goal or objective—one that is SMART (Specific, Meaningful/Measurable, Aggressive but Realistic, and Time bound). With a SMART goal in place, you must choose a quantifiable “Input Measure” that you have absolute control over (miles run, pages read, money saved). Tracking these inputs (measured daily) gives you the greatest chance to influence the “Output Measure” (pounds lost, grades received, trust built).
An effective scorecard will provide meaningful measures for both inputs and outputs—but also be visual so you can track either your upward trends or downward trends. Simple correlations help you identify if you are moving in the right direction or measuring the right things. If Output Measures are a challenge, be clear on your inputs and get to work—paying attention to what is working and what is not.
For a deeper cut on building personal scorecards see either Chapter 9 of Finding Your Flow or Session 9 of the Principles of Personal Excellence course.
Refine Your Process
As you seek to “influence” your desired continue to review and refine your measures. I’ve seen it often where people simply measure the wrong thing. For example, they think that increasing the number of minutes in a workout will decrease their weight—not recognizing that they may be gaining muscle. In this case Body Mass Index is the proper measure. So experiment until you find that input that affects the output. If you keep at it, you will find that core behavior that drives you closer to achieving your goals.
Remember, this is usually a personal process. Don’t assume that somebody else’s model can easily be “bolted on” to your system. Discover what works for you and keep it simple.
The Bible boils all of this down to the simple principle of “Sewing and Reaping”. While building scorecards and models can be complex (but very useful), the most important principle is to simply place more attention on making a connection between what you are doing and what you are getting. Master this and you will master your destiny!
EXERCISE AND PRACTICE:
- Read Chapter 9 of Finding Your Flow this week and follow the instructions
- Pick one or more MLA’s (work, family, friends) and identify 1-3 feedback loops that would take your profession, family relations, and your social life to the next level.
- Review the questions in the attached scorecard tool. See if you can transfer your most important goal and identify the inputs that will lead to the outputs you desire.