Thursday, October 18, 2012

“Flow at Work” – not Workflow!

Did you watch the Obama-Romney second debate? On the “feisty-ness” meter, Obama started slow and ramped up to a higher level of controlled feistiness by the second half. Obama’s facial expression showed it all – tense at first and completely “in the moment” later.

Countless gurus have talked about living in the moment, being in the moment and so on. Being feisty (dictionary definition: full of spirit or pluck; frisky or spunky) allows you to be in the moment. When you are, you have all your resources available to you without being overly concerned about the environment you are in or the reactions that may come later. The Universe’s resources are at your disposal at that time! Mind you, feistiness has to be moderated for you to be able to marshal those resources – this is the difference between being angry or hyped-up and feistiness; it is a fine balance.

Feistiness resulting in “in the moment” moments also gives you “flow”. Flow is a concept discovered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I am told that the last name sounds like “Chick-sen-me-hai”). Csikszentmihalyi is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity (see his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”). Here is Csikszentmihalyi’s concept.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Concept of “Flow”

Adapting to our case, let us say you are assigned a task at work. The balance between the challenge of the task and your skill level determine how well you perform the task (and likely the quality of your output). Let us say the task puts you in the top-left red-colored section – ulcer time; you are faced with a massive challenge that you are ill-equipped to meet. Now consider the bottom-right green-colored section. There may be times in your career that you want to be here and coast a little bit; you just had your 3rd child in three years, 2 of them are colicky and the other one has not figured out the concept of sleeping at night. You may indeed want to be in the green section for a few calendar quarters. This may not be the optimum return on investment for your employer but at least the employer is not losing you!

Forget the bottom-left bluish sections – everyone loses. The extreme top-right sector is where the magic happens; “Flow” is where we want to be; you, your employer, your family and your friends. You are super-productive, you are playful and fun! Can you live in the Flow sector forever? That would be nice . . .

In the figure above, you “hopscotch through Flows”; life is made up of a sequence of dwell-times in Flow sectors – this is more than a charmed life! Anything remotely close rarely happens to most of us; more than likely, our lives are something like this . . .

Your work life will be all over the place with a few visits to the Flow sector if you are fortunate! The best we can hope for and work towards is something in-between these two scenarios. There are things we can do as (1) a worker, (2) a leader and (3) outside work to find Flow. There are also things we can do with dwell-times in the Flow sector: transient Flow and persistent Flow. Let us consider them in some detail.

Persistent Flow is the kind that is associated with work tasks such as involvement in a multi-calendar- quarter project. As far as Transient Flow is concerned, we already talked about one example – President Obama’s controlled feistiness that put him in the Transient Flow state. With external concerns gone, his temporarily-unavailable skills reappeared in the later portion of the debate and they rose to match the challenge of the situation. Feistiness is an innate trait; there may be other personality traits that will allow you to surface Transient Flow at will. External situations can also engender Flow in us. A common example is software coding and debugging. The activity draws you in so much that you forget the external world; you are in the moment and Flow state ensues (this may be why many young folks are drawn to software!). However, note that external situations are not always under your control and hence such Flow states cannot be called up when you want it. It appears that Buddhist monks and gurus can turn on Transient Flow at will by “being in the moment”; or perhaps do this continually (“permanent” Flow). Unfortunately, this level is not accessible to the average worker.

Flow as a Worker:
You are the best judge of your skills; you alone know the true level of it in a particular area. Having said that, we typically judge our skill level in the context of a challenge; there is nothing like an intrinsic skill level measure that is accessible to us. Challenges are similar; knowing the challenge level of a task a-priori is an art form; you and your manager must jointly estimate it. However, in both cases, by mid-career, you and your manager can get a decent estimate of a pending task’s challenge and your skill levels. Choose tasks that will put you in the Flow sector whenever you can; this is worth fighting for! At least, try to land in the yellowish sectors at every opportunity.

Flow as a Leader:
There will be many times in your career when you have the chance to, or play a part in putting together a team. I always try to deliberately put as many of my team members in the Flow sector as I can for as long as I can and explain to the team what I am trying to accomplish. Any project or organization has tasks that range over many challenge levels. So if you are in a position to hire fresh talent, hire people with skill levels that match task challenge levels. If you hire all geniuses, some of them will end up in the bottom-right sectors – when skills are under-matched by the task, attention wanders and productivity goes down. On the other hand, if the team members are in their own Flow sectors, life is good for the leader – team dynamics are great, people are super productive and the project may go even faster than the published schedule! One other thing that the leader ought to do is to explain when a team member has to make a side trip to the bluish areas temporarily due to special project circumstances – this is “taking one for the team” by the member; publicly acknowledge it and reward it.

Flow outside Work:
For most Americans in their middle years, work is life. However, there is life outside work! Flow outside work comes in two flavors. One is an escape and the other is a “calling”. For some of us (unfortunately), work is a pay check so that we can indulge in our outside passions – mountain climbing, going to flea markets or building furniture. These individual passions provide the Flow that they cannot get at work. Others have “callings” outside work – could be their children, a charity, environmental concerns and so on. As in the previous case, work is a paycheck that pays for their calling. There may be circumstances which make us think that Flow outside Work will compensate for the lack of Flow at Work; do not settle for either-or. Imagine spending half your life in Boredom and the other half in Arousal (bottom and top of Csikszentmihalyi’s picture) – not a very pretty picture.

Clearly, Persistent Flow at and outside Work as well as Transient Flows lead to “Flow in our Lives”. Hope you find it!

Dr. PG Madhavan was CTO Software Solutions at Symphony Teleca Corp. Previously, he was the CTO & VP Engineering for Solavei LLC and the Associate Vice President--Technical Advisory for Global Logic Inc.  PG has 20+ years of software products, platforms and framework experience in leadership roles at major corporations such as Microsoft, Lucent, AT&T and Rockwell and startups, Zaplah Corp (Founder and CEO) and Solavei. Application areas include mobile, Cloud, eCommerce, banking, retail, enterprise, consumer devices, M2M, digital ad media, medical devices and social networking in both B2B and B2C market segments.  He is an innovation leader driving invention disclosures and patents (12 issued US patents) with a Ph.D. in Electrical & Computer Engineering.  More about PG at

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