fluid, flow, and contribution to the future

“Drowning men, it is said, cling to wisps of straw.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

There is a difference between the future of work (a combination of productivity, mattering/impact and the business vision) and the future of business (a combination of globalization, geopolitics and business’ responsibility to people, society and the earth, i.e., its role in shaping capitalism). This doesn’t mean they aren’t related, but I do worry that those focusing solely on the future of work are simply making an incredibly flawed way of doing business more effective at being flawed. That said. When asked about the future of business I do begin on a pragmatic level and how a business should work because work itself has a feedback loop relationship with the future design of business. Almost everyone now agrees with what every thinker suggested in the 1980’s and early 1990’s that ‘agility’ is the key to business success.

Which leads me to fluidity and flow.

The reality of the future of work is a bit simpler than we tend to make it. It centers on two key features of agility; fluidity and flow.

  • Fluidity

Toffler stated in 1985, “[business] must execute its current activities to survive today’s challenges and adapt those activities to survive tomorrow’s.” That is fluidity; bring to bear resources (people & material) to survive and thrive. Most businesses struggle with this because of command & control, silos, centralized management and lack of ability to not only share resources easily but shift the most appropriate people (from one department) to the optimal team. But it goes a bit deeper than that. Fluidity is an inherent attribute of progress and to the connectivity necessary for collective impact. What I mean by that is fluidity is about conversations, connections and creation not just of an individual, but individuals in action together. This is an important concept because it represents what is necessary in the present for the temporary results of a unique combination of circumstances presenting a unique set of problems/opportunities and requiring an original solution that represents work/labor ‘applied effectively’ AND edges into what is necessary for the future. What I mean by that is no temporary situation can be viewed in isolation, but rather each temporary situation merges with those that precede and those that follow, all simultaneously but maybe not equally, so fluidity is shaped by the former and shaping the conditions of the latter. Labor is then a continuous fluid activity with fleeting opportunities and unforeseen events. Since labor is a fluid phenomenon, its conduct requires flexibility of thought and fluidity in behaviors/actions. Successful labor depends in large part on diligence and the ability to adapt — to proactively shape changing events to the advantage of the business, and its vision, as well as to react quickly to constantly changing conditions. This can sound exhausting, but the cadence of labor fluctuates from periods of intense activity to periods limited to information gathering, reflection, or capability development. This means fluidity is found in the competitive rhythm, i.e., conflict, between entropy (or desire to replicate and standardize) and emergent, i.e., the intentional fluid organizing to optimize events to suit the purpose of the business (and the individuals). I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this is fluidity between self-interest (impact) and collective interest (impact) and generated value which leads me to Flow.

“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  • Flow

Flow is fluidity working in sync, but when I speak of Flow, I typically mean it in terms similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests as in terms of state of mind, people energy, for optimal performance.  Flow has several states, but let’s say that the desired business objective (which fluid labor makes possible) is, the continuous, smooth flow of value from the business (collective labor) to the market. So, Flow is the people mindset that creates the intrinsic energy for that effort. Oddly many people think of this as ‘labor at scale’ when it really is simply ‘a system in flow’ and, worse, many businesses believe incentives, gamification and ‘motivational efforts’ are how to attain this. Economics, and individual meaning, almost always arises from flow and achieving an organizational flow state is when the flow state is attained by & of the people. The tricky part is that the system, the whole, is made up of layers and nested systems with their own pacing. This thought is kind of important. Flow can be asymmetrical and it can also contain a variety of speeds (see: Pace layering). I often refer to organizational flow as ‘cadence.’ What I mean by that is a business tends to have a rhythm when it is in flow which is a reflection of the combined individual worker pacing. Flow is actually when all layers of the organization find synchronicity – not same speed or pace. Flow at an individual level is almost irrelevant if it isn’t multiplicative to the energy of the system as a whole. In fact, I could argue individual flow can hamper organizational collective ‘flow’ if the individual self-interest is not in the greater system interest. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that often existing business ‘rules’, including incentives & performance metrics, encourage a belief in individual flow over collective flow. My point here is that organizational Flow is individual labor at a collective level. Which leads me to commitment to the Future.

  • commitment to contribute to the future


They say it all breaks down to keeping your feet on the ground

My sole intention is keeping my head in the clouds

They say that I can’t last a day in the real world

I say you wouldn’t survive one night in mine

Asking Alexandria

This is where a business decides how they want to conduct business so that their business has a role in shaping the future. This is when a business should do some soul searching on their commitment to aligning the individual employee, the company, the community, society and, ultimately, the world. This is functional, emotional and aspirational. I have said for decades that the ultimate aim for any business is “better”: better moment, better outcome, better day, better life, better world (pick your better or combination of better). To be clear (part 1). A business cannot claim to aim to make the world a better place no matter how bad the business might be for people or society, a commitment is a complete commitment or, at minimum, a commitment to progress, i.e., becoming better. To be clear (part 2). I, personally, believe Purpose is establishing too simplistic a cage for a business to successfully exist within. I believe, as someone who thinks about the future of business, a business should purposefully decide what they want their commitment to the Future is. I have unequivocally stated that all business should have the same commitment, the purpose of business is to benefit people, but as long as a business decides to make a commitment that embraces that concept in some way, the business world should do fine. For example, an airline, or all airlines for that matter**, could commit to “social connectivity,” i.e., breaking down barriers that divide and unite humanity.

  • ** I do not believe a business gains differentiation off their commitment or even “Purpose,” differentiation and distinction is gained by “How” they develop strategies and execute toward the commitment.

Once the commitment has been established a business can hunker down on the “hows” which can be environment, gender equality, social responsibility, a cause, or all of them. My main thought is this permits businesses to be flawed, as in their ‘hows’ do not have to be perfect, just showing progress (better today than yesterday), as long as their commitment remains, well, a commitment. Which leads me to how to make sure progress occurs in a business. Well. Suffice it to say, 99% of the best businesses have figured out how to successfully keep their feet in the clouds and their head on the ground. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know it looks like I got it twisted around, but I did not.

  • Good businesses are always walking with the future in mind.

Always traveling toward possibilities, always seeking ‘what’s next’, possibilities drive movement. Feet in the clouds.

  • Good businesses are always closely listening, and thinking, to the drumbeat of the feet of what is happening around them, i.e., the possibilities.

Ear to the ground, so while possibilities are driving movement and progress, pragmatism, or reality of what can be done, insures everyone in the business is keeping their head in the game today; but smartly and with fluidity. Head on the ground.

I have called it mastering pragmatism & possibilities, but it is the ability to have your feet in the clouds and head on the ground. I believe this shifts a mindset from being destination-based, or solely pragmatic based, to a more fluid & flow-based mentality in which the business is driven by movement (possibilities) but pragmatically adapts to possibilities (opportunities). Maybe most importantly, because I am discussing a commitment to the future, while you may identify what commitment to contribution to the future you want to commit to, strategy and execution will be based less on “what will the world look like in future?”, because you have actually elected to shape the future, and more on “how do I best align with the unfolding present?

I tend to believe if more people thought about it this way businesses would have more hope and more achievable possibilities than they could ever imagine. I tend to believe the future of business would be better in terms of a more positive contribution to the individual, society, productivity, and general meaning in the world (not at the expense of profit or growth).

If we are honest, the way business is being conducted presently, embodied in feet on the ground & head in the clouds, doesn’t really seem to be working that well.

Businesses seem to be more woefully stagnant <albeit ‘talking’ change> and have more despair and lack of hope with regard to their possibilities than ever. And, yet, they are desperately implementing “change initiatives” and organizational changes all of which, in my mind, are simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. That isn’t to say the best organizational practitioners won’t enhance fluidity and flow and possibly even edge into a ‘commitment to the future’ space, but I am in the ‘future of business’ business. I struggle to believe optimizing humanity can occur, in any business, until the business itself decides what commitment it wants to make TO humanity. In other words, with a commitment to contribute to the future, the business is simply clinging to wisps of straw. Ponder.


“Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Written by Bruce