peak performanceWe know what it feels like when we are performing at our peak – when we’re fully employing our core strengths to overcome challenges, time flies by, and we lose ourselves in what we are doing. Not only does this ‘flow‘ state or being ‘in the zone’ feel great, we are enormously productive, motivated and energised while we’re in it.

An important article in the McKinsey Quarterly (free registration required) sets out three ‘actionable strategies’ that managers can employ to bring about flow states in the workplace. We’ll return to these strategies in future articles.

For now, it’s at least equally worth your while to look at how McKinsey’s consultants discovered them, because you can use the same process to discover what works for any aspect of performance you want to improve, at work or in other areas of your life, for your team or for yourself.

Turning it round, you can also use the same process to find solutions to any problem, the more intractable the better (for easy problems, where the solution is obvious, you will probably find it simpler to just fix the causes). This process will work well with systemic problems where there’s no obvious cause, or the solutions you have tried are getting diminishing returns.

So what did McKinsey do to discover the strategies that make for peak performance?

“Flow sounds great in theory, but few business leaders have mastered the skill of generating it reliably in the workplace. An easy first step is to consider what creates flow in your own work situation—a question we have put directly to more than 5,000 executives during workshops we’ve conducted over the last decade. In this exercise, individuals initially think about their own personal peak performance with a team… Then they pinpoint the conditions that made this level of performance possible: what in the team environment was there more or less of than usual?”

So rather than viewing great sheaves of data and analysing it to attempt to draw conclusions, what they were doing was asking for stories – trusting the emotions of their executive interviewees to select the episodes in their working lives that held the most meaning for them.

In telling the story, the interviewee would (at least to some extent) associate back into how they felt at the time, which would assist them in remembering more detail about what happened, as memory recall is intimately tied up with emotion.

Next, the executives were asked to identify the conditions that made this level of performance possible, with this great question: what in the team environment was there more or less of than usual? The more the interviewer had guided them into reliving their story, the more depth they could go into in pinpointing the conditions for success.

These sound very similar to the questions in an Appreciative Interview, the heart of the ‘Discovery’ stage of the Appreciative Inquiry ‘4-D’ process. I don’t know if McKinsey were explicitly using Appreciative Inquiry, or if it’s a case of parallel evolution. Either way, recalling stories of peak performance and then looking for the conditions that made the exceptional performance possible is the best way to identify ways to make it happen more often.

That was the process for discovering what works in encouraging peak performance; we’ll go into the content of their findings in a future article. You can get the whole of their strategies for peak performance in the book Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage by Scott Keller and Colin Price.

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If you would like to become confident in applying Appreciative Inquiry at all levels, from organisational change to 1 to 1 coaching, book your place on the Practical Appreciative Inquiry facilitator training on 18-19 March in the UK, if that’s the right thing for your professional development right now.

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How McKinsey Discovered Strategies For Peak Performance At Work

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