Flow and work

Flow is a state of consciousness where a person is “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity”.

There is a TED talk by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi on the subject. It is about 20 minutes and very interesting. It covers the same material that is in his book Flow.

In the talk, Csíkszentmihályi had a version of this diagram:

Flow Diagram

In a state of flow challenge is high and skill is high, and people are devoting so much attention to what they are doing that they don’t have any attention left over to worry about themselves or their lives. Apathy is at the opposite end of the scale, with low challenge and low skill, where people spend most of their time not caring how bad things are. Apathy and most of the intermediate states are less optimal than flow.

Most of the literature I have read about flow has focused on individual experience – flow experienced while a person is working or playing by themselves in activities like rock climbing or composing music. (Note that I have not yet read Csíkszentmihályi’s books on business, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning and Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet – they are on my list to read next.) Flow is highly correlated with increases in performance and personal growth, so I am interested in flow experiences that people have while working on work teams.

One doesn’t want to have the same state of mind all the time, but it seems to me that good work environments enable people to experience flow often, perhaps whenever they want to. Csíkszentmihályi calls people who can enter flow regularly autotelic. Can teams help people be more autotelic? Are teams that do so higher performance than other teams? Do they encourage personal and team growth?

I am wondering if this diagram would help us design better work experiences. If people are aware of their mental states, maybe they can use the diagram to pinpoint where they are on this map, and then set a course that takes them toward flow and growth, or at least toward relaxation. With a team, a person would not have to navigate these states by themselves – they could get help to redesign their work and environment to increase their skills or adjust their challenge level in order to produce the flow state more often. This reminds me of the Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment concept from video games, where the game AI adjusts the game in order to keep the player in a state of flow, making it more enjoyable.

Another question I have is, “Can we use this diagram to get insight into why experiential leadership training like Boot Camp works for people? Does it provide an environment where people can more easily migrate from the other states into the state of flow?”

Wikipedia says, “In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following eight conditions:
Chinese calligraphy

  1. goals are clear
  2. feedback is immediate
  3. there is a balance between opportunity and capacity
  4. concentration deepens
  5. the present is what matters
  6. control is no problem
  7. the sense of time is altered
  8. the loss of ego

I think Boot Camp goes to all 8 points – some directly, some indirectly.

  • Goals are clear, feedback is immediate – this is not immediately obvious, but in Boot Camp you set your own goals and get feedback on them right away. The feedback is in the form of “Am I having fun? Do I feel like I am making progress?” Since there is no outside coercion to keep doing anything that isn’t “working” in Boot Camp I found out I can get information instantly and can adjust immediately.
  • Balance between opportunity and capacity – since Boot Camp is a purely voluntary learning environment, but help and coaching are available instantly, there are large amounts of both and participants can freely adjust them to their liking.
  • Concentration deepens, present is what matters – the default Personal Alignment is “self-awareness” and campers are immersed in art, which rewards present-moment experience. The training schedule as very few fixed meetings so campers’ time is mostly their own.
  • Control is no problem – since the Boot Camp environment is entirely optional, and each activity is optional (by the use of the Pass Protocol) participants can choose to engage in experiences that match their level of skill and challenge.
  • Loss of ego – best idea wins regardless of source is a Core Commitment, and painting on each others’ paintings also helps. The Boot Camp manual specifically says to make your product great, only put in great ideas, great work, and great art… don’t try to have everyone represented.
  • The sense of time is altered – this was one of my profound experiences at Boot Camp, when I was immersed in my own Personal Alignment work during my first Boot Camp. It was at Crystal Lake and I spent a long time outside, looking out over the glassy water. Then I finally came inside to find that while I was contemplating, my team had been hard at work, and our Web of Commitment ceremony was going to begin in a few minutes… For the ceremony, my team wanted me to make a painting of my Personal Alignment. I only had a few minutes, and at first I despaired – how would I do that? Then I remembered Jim and Michele saying that a good idea can change cost, time, and quality all at once. I looked back out over the lake and had an insight on what to do, started painting, and in a few minutes had the perfect representation of my alignment. How did that happen?
  • My hypotheses is that we can design improvements to Boot Camp, to work environments, and leadership coaching experiences by using this model… we can ask ourselves, “What does someone need to head toward flow, rather than heading toward apathy?”

    As for insight into why Boot Camp works… I think that one reason it works is that it immerses participants in an environment where flow is much easier to attain than default culture’s work environments. For me these repeated flow experiences helped me realize that my everyday work could be more like Boot Camp: filled with more personal growth, more immersion in energized focus, more enjoyment.

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