Monday, May 12, 2014

Cultivating Engagement & Flow

Looking back on my involvement in startups, I often wince at some aspects.

I realize that what some credited as drive or described as focus, creativity, resilience, intensity and a sense of urgency are descriptions more of how consistently I was to be in the “flow.”

It took me years of trying to unsuccessfully breathe fire, passion and urgency into teams of various co-workers to finally understand that this rarely works.

It turns out that I was not alone.  A study by McKinsey shows that “few executives have mastered generating it reliably in the workplace.”

It was difficult for me to accept that everyone isn’t as naturally capable of being in a state of “flow,” which is defined as a state of concentration and consciousness so focused that “every thing else falls away” and “time slows.”

The answer also was not for me to dial down as a few were always trying to make me do.

The study of executives over 10 years found that someone in the “flow” can essentially do in one day what often takes others five days to accomplish.

According to Steven Kotler, the co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project, whose definition is in quotes above, this is a state where “Action and awareness merge.  Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear…time slows down.”

Most of all it was hard for me to learn that everyone doesn’t want to reach that state and that I had to work harder to select employees who did, especially those who already grasped what it meant and thrived on challenge.

Because everyone, though, cannot always be in the flow, Kotler blogs in Harvard Business Review that what is crucial to flow is finding the right ratio of challenge and skills.

He cites a finding that “4% appears to be a loose rule of thumb” meaning that a challenge given to less engaged or inspired employees must be no more than 4% greater than the skills he or she brings to it.”

In other words, continually challenge people in increments just beyond their comfort zone.  But it may not be possible to “stair step” all disengaged employees into a state of “flow.”

Many seem not only lost in but content to be in a near-constant state of “frazzle,”  including manufacturing un-work related distractions that go far beyond the 75% on average of all workplace distractions that have nothing to do with work.

But if they respond to getting the challenge/skills ratio right and practice a few tricks to improve concentration they just might find themselves in a state of “flow” where “their “sense of self and self-consciousness disappear.”

It is a “sweet spot” according to Kotler.  Researchers who are part of “The Good Project” have found that only 1-in-5 workers who are engaged get there once a day or more.

Productivity goes through the roof if you can get everyone on a team into a state of “flow” once or twice a week.  For those who are high motivation-performers that challenge is teaching them to modulate so they don’t overshoot “flow” and risk burnout.

Of course challenge/skills ratio is just one of seventeen triggers to flow noted in Kotler’s new book entitled The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.

Part of Kolter’s new book reviews scientific findings about the drivers of motivation.

After basic survival needs, they include autonomy - the desire to direct our own life, mastery – the desire to learn, explore and be creative, and purpose – the desire to matter, to contribute to the world.

“Flow feels like the meaning of life for good reason.  The neurochemicals that underpin that state are among the most addictive drugs on earth…Flow forces you to evaluate life through a different lens.”

“It gives you reason to live – but live this way long enough and those reasons become more important than dying.”  Kolter warns that being fully alive and deeply committed can become a risky business if not managed.

T.S. Elliot wrote in his Harvard doctoral dissertation, “It is obvious that we can no more explain passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind.”

Learning to manage it is as important as reaching it.  All of this of course comes too late for my now concluded career.

But it does help me understand that the flow that still inhabits me during the six or so hours I spend researching and writing for this blog each day is a gift that, while rare, can still be cultivated.

Hopefully this one breathes a little fire.

1 comment:

Alex Sayf Cummings said...

My name is Alex Sayf Cummings, and I'm an assistant professor of History at Georgia State University. I'm working on a book about the history of the Research Triangle, and I'd love to speak with you about your work in Durham. I expect to be in the area late in May in case you'd be available to chat. My information can be found here: