The 7 principles of flow: A guide for digital business transformation

The seven principles of Flow by Design will guide digital business transformation initiatives for a more sustainable paradigm of success. These principles will better design stakeholder experiences, products and services, organizational structures, and new business models. Ultimately, the application of these principles will create the autonomous enterprise, where businesses and their stakeholders can co-create value at the speed of need.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

"Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person's physical, emotional, and mental states." -- Carol Welch-Baril 

Movement and flow are also the medicines needed to create value at the speed of need in business. This is the third post in a series on Flow by Design, a new, more sustainable paradigm for business success. In the previous article, we introduced the Flow paradigm and its transformative value, describing how it works by means of a few examples. In this article, we will introduce the principles of the paradigm so that entrepreneurs, innovators, and managers alike can design experiences, offerings and organizational structures and processes to deliver and realize that value themselves. We will also introduce Peak Performance Indicators, the aspects of each principle where we think business designs should focus on the greatest impact.

Principles of Flow

Our research has spanned a wide range of industries across all sectors, looking for examples of organizations that manage their resources in ways that are in direct contrast to the silo-based approach we explored in the very first article. From a diverse set of examples that include both digital and physical and that cover experiences, offerings, and organizations, we have identified seven core principles that flow-based designs have in common. These principles are in direct opposition to the silo principles (see Table 1 below for a comparison), and are as follows:

  1. Connection: Flow entities are connected to the outside world, market or ecosystem of which they are a part. They sense what's happening in their environment and with all members and parts of it. They aim to transform their relationships with their customers and all other stakeholders.
  2. Distribution: Flow entities distribute their resources throughout the ecosystem to where they're needed, when they're needed, rather than centralizing them. They meet and serve their customers where they are and enable them to maintain their own flow.
  3. Integration: Flow entities assimilate all the inputs from their connections and integrate them to create a synthesized view of what's happening. They align their employees and other resources around a common mission, plan or purpose to enable coherent and consistent actions and behaviors.
  4. Autonomy: Flow entities resources to make decisions based on aligned assimilation and synthesis of the external inputs, in keeping with their unified mission, plan or purpose. They support and empower their customers' autonomy, as well as that of their employees, through their experiences, offerings and organizational models.
  5. Mobility: Flow entities mobilize their resources to enable distribution to where they are needed and to enhance their responsiveness to emerging conditions and needs. They foster individual and collective wellbeing through movement both literal and figurative.
  6. Continuity: Flow entities ensure that mobility and distribution are ongoing, providing a constant stream of resources that are continuously refreshed from enrichment environments. They delight their customers with new and compelling experiences frequently.
  7. Holistic Success: Flow entities foster sustainable or regenerative practices. They make non zero-sum game decisions, seeking success for all members of their ecosystems, environments, and communities as well as for themselves and the ecosystem as a whole. 

These principles can be used by all organizations who wish to design their own flow-based experiences, offerings and business models for transformational or even disruptive impact. We realize, however, that they may sound merely aspirational rather than practical so we discussed how they actually apply.


Table 1: The Comparative Principles of Silos and Flows

Case Studies

Let's take a closer look at two very different case studies of flow-based systems to demonstrate how different they are to traditional or silo-based models. We will use an advanced product system that exemplifies technology resources, the Autonomous Car, and a regenerative organizational model that is built around living resources, the Spanish fish farm Veta La Palma.


The 7 principles of Flow

The Autonomous Car

I recently wrote about Tesla, the most disruptive and valuable car manufacturer in the world. Tesla will be the first car company to reach a trillion-dollar market capitalization by 2024, according to ARK Invest. The combination of electronics, autonomous hardware and software, AI-powered applications and autonomous driving data is what separates Tesla from its competitors. Autonomous cars are far more connected to the outside world than traditional models. To function effectively and safely, they have to sense the other cars and conditions around them, know about changing conditions along the way (e.g. a crash closer to the destination that has caused a build-up of traffic on that particular road), and be connected to its maker for any potential upgrades that it may need to support the current journey or future ones. In the future we can expect cars to be more connected still, to charging stations between trips, to garages - or perhaps to mechanobots - when they self diagnose problems, and to people who want to rent them for individual journeys as robotaxis or autonomous car shares.


The building blocks of autonomous systems

An essential part of the autonomous car is its ability to perceive or make sense of all the data that comes in from the outside world via their sensors or connection points. All this data is integrated to provide a 360 view of their immediate environment and to enable the artificial intelligence onboard to make effective decisions about next action. The sense and perceive functional blocks of the car are analogous to the CRM 360 view in business. The ability to capture and analyze user data from all devices, on all channels, and deliver meaningful insights to all lines-of-business within the enterprise is how companies create value at the speed of need. To deliver value to stakeholders at the moment of truth, businesses need to have a single source of truth. The only viable method of capturing, analyzing, deciding, recommending and taking action in near-real-time is by using a CRM platform that is well integrated and orchestrated within the entire enterprise. It turns out the autonomous car is the blueprint for the future autonomous enterprise.


Flow by Design: An example for autonomous vehicles 

In the current schema, the "most" autonomous cars (Level 5) will be able to complete a journey end-to-end without human intervention. This requires a high degree of intelligence to sense, perceive, decide and act on all data from the start point to destination. But true autonomy goes far beyond even that ability to self-nourishment, self-diagnosis, self-healing, self-improvement, and even some level of self-determination, giving a car of the future the ability not only to organize its time but also perhaps to determine whether it's safe or even "wise" to undertake a requested journey.


The technology stack of autonomous vehicles: existing, modified and new set of technologies are required to become a service oriented model

All cars are mobile, that's obvious, and the autonomous car will be no different in the short term. In the future, that mobility will be enhanced in heavy traffic as autonomous cars are anticipated to flow more smoothly together without individual human driver behaviors and styles clogging things up. But more importantly, in an era of cars as autonomous ride-share vehicles, each car will be able to act in near-continuous mode rather than being parked for most of the day and night. This will save space and may even reduce the total number of cars on the road.


Traditional vs. Autonomous Driving - A change in relationships, access and safety for all 

Holistic success for autonomous cars comes from the fact that they will open up travel and transport to those who had previously been excluded from it, including the elderly, the very young, the blind, the disabled, the epileptic, and other groups regarded currently as unfit to drive. It will also transform the experience for all humans who will now be free to engage in leisure or business activities and become travelers rather than machine operators. It will be much safer for all road users and roadside users like pedestrians and cyclists as the vast majority, incredibly as much as 94%, of all crashes are caused by human behaviors including fatigue, intoxication, aggression, and distraction. This should also lead to less damage to the cars themselves. Electrification throughout will enhance the ability of the cars to sense, perceive and make decisions, and will also provide environmental benefits through reduced consumption of fossil fuels and emission of carbon monoxide.

The autonomous vehicle in many was provides us with a glimpse into the future of business - the autonomous enterprise. In the future, the combination of technologies like machine learning and deep learning, computer visioning, smart robotics, natural language processing, sensors and wearable technologies, digital smart assistants and spatial computing with augmented and virtual reality will create a highly automated and autonomous set of capabilities at work and your home office. Future business applications will anticipate, recommend and many cases fully deliver value where individuals and organizations can co-create value at the speed of need - their stakeholder's needs. The inevitable future of business is the autonomous enterprise and ecosystem.

For some, the future is already here. AI-powered CRM platforms can deliver the single source of truth to businesses. Today's Salesforce CRM platform can capture, analyze, decide and recommend relevant and impactful action to its stakeholders - employees, customers, and business partners. Our prediction is that by 2030, most enterprises will have autonomous capabilities, where business applications are tightly integrated, delivering the single source of truth to stakeholders, empowering them to use flow by design principles to improve experiences, offerings and new business models.    


Veta la Palma Estate is a commercial fish farm in southern Spain. 

Veta La Palma

Veta la Palma, the Spanish fish farm brought to prominence by chef Dan Barber in his TED talk "How I fell in love with a fish" has turned the traditional agricultural model on its head. It is a farm that does not isolate itself from other parts of the ecosystem but is fully connected with, and virtually indistinguishable from, the wider environment. In this way it fully integrates its fish into their ecosystem, enabling them to play their normal part in its life and being part of the overall complexity that gives the ecosystem its health and resilience. It provides far more space per fish, giving them freedom of mobility and creating a much more distributed system, which greatly improves their health and well-being and reduces the risk of disease and pollution. It is a farm that does not feed its animals but gives them their autonomy, allowing them to feed on their ecosystem, as they would in the wild. 


Designing for flow in regeneration and sustainability - Veta La Palma Fish Farm

The fish are caught and sold only in response to specific demand from restaurants, fishmongers and other customers, creating a continuity of extremely fresh supply in small batches, reducing waste and maintaining exceptionally high quality. In terms of holistic success, it is a farm that does not shoot, poison or otherwise deters its predators but measures the success of the farm by their well-being. It is a farm whose activities do not pollute or impoverish the environment but actually purify and enrich it. It has become a bird and wildlife sanctuary, home to over 250 species of birds, 50 of which are recorded as being endangered elsewhere, and it provides direct income to about 100 people from the neighboring villages (source: Veta La Palma, vetalapalma.es). It is a remarkable and successful experiment in the flow by design approach to resource management and, according to Chef Barber, the fish tastes absolutely delicious!

Other examples of flow principles in use can be found in retail, hospitality and the entertainment industries, including Amazon, Marriott, and Disney. 


Flow by design principles in use in multiple industries including retail, hospitality and entertainment. 

Peak Performance Indicators

As we have just demonstrated, flow is a paradigm that can work for all companies, large and small, traditional and "modern", digital and analog. But, in the same way that humans can optimize flows through training to increase the capabilities of the body and achieve peak performance as athletes and sportspeople, we have also observed that the more companies apply these principles of flow the greater the transformative or even disruptive impact they tend to have.

So we have asked ourselves what it would mean for any organization to be most "flow-like". How might they train themselves for peak performance, and what areas should they focus on for the greatest impact. For each principle, we have identified three peak performance indicators (PPIs) that identify the components of the principle that are most likely to deliver the highest impact and which are therefore characteristics of the most disruptive companies. We believe speed is the new currency in the digital economy. We also believe that companies must be able to maintain a healthy sense of urgency to achieve peak performance and speed. World-class athletes are on a lifelong pursuit of their full potential or peak performance. Athletes often find themselves in a flow-state, where they perform without thinking, using muscle memory and years of practice and discipline to deliver peak performance at the right time. How can the enterprise deliver peak performance? How can the enterprise reach a flow-state? This is the promise of the autonomous enterprise.  

PPIs are similar to the more traditional KPIs in the sense that they provide organizations with a way of focusing on the small number of things that will help them move the needle. They are, however, different from KPIs in two important ways. First, as parts of an entirely new paradigm to business as usual, one which prioritizes relationships between organizations and their ecosystems over efficiencies of their internal process, they include components that are more outward-looking and that will, therefore, seem unfamiliar to most managers. Second, KPIs tend to be defined at a business unit, department or function level within an individual company. We have defined the PPIs at the principle level to be cross-functional and holistic, in keeping with the overall intent and spirit of the flow paradigm.

In our next post, we will discuss why businesses must focus on improving or even transforming their Connections for continued business success and will describe what peak performance looks like within that context.

This article was co-authored by Henry King, a business innovation and transformation strategy leader at Salesforce

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