A state of flow

rock_climb_will_mono-2I often talk about flow in the sense of how value flows through a value stream from a customer’s demand trigger through to its satisfaction.

However, this post is all about a different use of the word ‘flow’.

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – I’m not going to pronounce that! – is world famous for his studies and writings on happiness and creativity. His seminal book ‘Flow: The psychology of optimal experience’ (1990) outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow.

If you are in a state of ‘flow’ then this means that you are completely absorbed by an activity and a situation…and you are so involved that nothing else matters. It’s what is often described as being ‘in the zone’.

It is the optimal state of intrinsic motivation and is something that we all experience at times, even to the point that you forget about time, food, self ego and so on. And, given this, you can see that it is an incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable state to be in.

It has been noted that this flow state is a functional mode of ‘being’ that eastern meditation masters have been pointing to for millennia.

An example:

“The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are in flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow)

It just so happens that, having regularly climbed some years ago, I really ‘get’ his example…and even if you are afraid of heights but have been on a climbing wall once in your life I bet you weren’t thinking about much else whilst holding on!

Your flow examples will be different to mine – other activities often cited as examples are musicians lost in their music and painters becoming one with the process of painting i.e. they experience ‘the suspension of time’. Have a think about when you are totally in the zone and not thinking about the rest of the world.

So what?!

Now, I know I can’t spend all my days [climbing/….] (please substitute your personal flow activities in here) and that I need to earn money to live…but wouldn’t it be brilliant if I could regularly attain a state of flow in my work?!

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow occurs when there is neither anxiety nor boredom.

Anxiety occurs when the challenge of the moment exceeds our capabilities. Boredom occurs when we are capable of doing considerably more than the challenge presented to us.

Tying this in to Frederick Hertzberg’s theory of motivation: Anxiety and boredom are demotivating, flow is motivating.

A command-and-control management system is likely to:

  • dictate methods/ solutions/ activities to the workers;
  • set grand ‘implementation’ plans that seem massive and unachievable “given what we know about our reality!”;
  • focus on results, rather than constant iterative improvement;
  • set targets that may be impossible or out of our control (leading to anxiety) or
  • may be easily achieved (boredom)
    • “….though, if I get a bonus for achieving the easy target, I am unlikely to tell someone I am bored for fear of being given the impossible instead.”
  • use end-game language (such as ‘best practice’, ‘target operating model’, ‘solution’, ‘project completion’…) rather than focusing on the journey;
  • likely lock-in ‘the plan’ and focus much effort on forensic examination (and blame) of variance rather constant learning and adjustment.

…but, ultimately, provides an environment that constrains people’s ability to achieve flow in their work.

We can see that the Systems thinking ‘scientific method’ of:

  • constant/ never-ending:
  • experimentation;
  • by the workers/ management together;
  • to attain progressively more challenging target conditions;
  • which are meaningful to the customer

is most likely to provide workers and management with a state of enjoyable psychological flow where their skills, and the challenges they take on will constantly grow.

I love being in a state of flow…and I expect you do too.

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