BY Raghunath Basavanahalli | December 2, 2014 | Blog

This is a series of blogs of my thoughts on the most important of human endeavors, Work and its associated things like Productivity and Processes. This is third in the series. In this blog, we explore the possibility of creating conditions for optimal experience at our work and jobs, more commonly referred to as “Flow State”.

Flow StateMany organizations today are spending a lot of time and resources to try and create conditions for optimal experience at work, more commonly referred to as the “Flow State”.

A lot of sports-persons and artists refer to it as “Being in the Zone” or “In the groove”. With “Flow” productivity is high, creativity is enhanced and it is a rewarding experience in itself. It increases well-being and happiness. In turn, well-being and happiness increases engagement and productivity. This sets up a virtuous reinforcing cycle. Sir Richard Branson says, “In two hours in flow I can accomplish tremendous things.”

Steven Kotler, a journalist, director of the Flow Genome Project, and author, writes about how businesses can tap into their productivity potential by “flow”. In his HBR article, he refers to a 10-year study conducted by McKinsey, in which top executives reported being five times more productive in flow. According to these same McKinsey researchers, if we could increase the time we spend in flow by 15-20%, overall workplace productivity would almost double. US defense agency, DARPA, found that military snipers trained in a state of flow learned 230% faster than normal.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the earliest and most widely respected researchers of “Flow”. Technically, Flow is defined as “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” This eighty year old American psychologist of Hungarian origin has dedicated his life to the study of this phenomenon. He proposes that people are the happiest when they are in a state of flow.

He observed that almost everyone’s dream and definition of happiness was to have a relaxing Hawaiian vacation doing “nothing”. Yet, when asked the occasions in the individual’s life when they felt they were in flow, it was invariably always while working or doing something, in fact doing something very tough/ hard, typically straining their every fibre. Flow was not reported when the individual was in a state doing nothing. In fact, he observed that most people didn’t know how/ what to do during their free time, quite often leading to boredom rather than optimal experience.

This led him to research Flow in a lot of detail. According to him, Flow is typically characterized by (think and visualize mountaineering as you read these):

  1. Jobs that are autonomously chosen (often these are increasingly hard and complex)
  2. Goals that are intrinsically motivated – it is work for its own sake
  3. End goals which are clearly defined
  4. Skills which are in balance with ever increasing and complex challenges posed by the jobs
  5. A Rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing; immediate performance feedback is provided
  6. Concentration that is intense on the one thing at hand

And this typically results in a strange state of consciousness where there is:

  1. Complete loss of self consciousness
  2. A feeling of becoming one with the job at hand
  3. Action and awareness merge
  4. Time collapses
  5. There is heightened productivity

The last few hundred years of technological advancement, especially after the advent of the Industrial Revolution (and dare I say, Capitalism, but that is a whole different discourse for another time), have systematically reduced the conditions required for flow at work. To boost productivity in the industrial era, jobs have increasingly used the division of labour principle to compartmentalize and specialize. There is also increasing automation. Work has now become more tedious, less complex and challenging, and is filled with more interruptions and distractions.

All these factors make it more difficult to create opportunities for flow in today’s work environment. It is against these backdrop that we are starting to see examples and evidence of a few teams and organizations starting to focus on Flow and improved productivity.

In a HBR article earlier this year titled “Help your employees find Flow”, the author Terri Griffith, a Professor at Santa Clara University (https://hbr.org/2014/04/help-your-employees-find-flow/), states how Stefan Groschupf, founder and CEO of Datameer, a big data analytics company, talked about how he tries to reduce negative interruptions and increase “flow.” His industry is one of the most pressured to recruit and retain top talent. He’s finding that the organization is more productive (e.g., has more leads generated in marketing or has engineers moving through projects more quickly) with active management of interruptions and engagement to enhance flow.

I believe that we have reached an inflection point with respect to division of labour in jobs and productivity, especially in the software and knowledge work domain. In the software start-up world, it is quite clear that smaller teams of 7-9 team members are routinely more effective, productive, creative and innovative than larger teams. This may be due many reasons. I however, suspect that a large part of it is attributable to a small group of people owning the entire “soup to nuts” cycle. This fuels many of the flow conditions including better-defined goals, intrinsically driven motivation and concentration/ focus. In turn, we see these teams routinely put longer and more productive hours in their jobs than their counterparts in larger companies.

I believe it is still early days for companies and managers to think that one of their primary responsibilities is to create “Flow” conditions. But a few enlightened managers and teams are starting to make the transition. As for the rest, a few simple, yet profound actions in our workplaces today can help to create better conditions for flow:

  1. Companies can create shorter and more visible challenge-and-reward cycles and projects
  2. Managers can give the entire team gets a sense of connectedness and ownership to the end goal
  3. Managers and individuals can keep distractions at bay
  4. Individuals can avoid multitasking
  5. Managers can avoid too many reviews, and they can just set clear goals (and allow the rest to flow!)

Raghunath Basavanahalli
Sr. V.P. & Head of Business Development and CS

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