Flow for Organizational Effectiveness & Increasing Innovation

Finding “work-life balance” has become a theme in modern life. According to WebMD, there are five steps to achieve work-life balance: 1) set good priorities (this requires knowing what you value), 2) eliminate unnecessary distractions, 3) set boundaries, 4) accept help, and 5) plan times for fun and reflection. The Mayo Clinic provides even more ideas for how to achieve the balance. Some people have even observed that perhaps work-life balance is the wrong problem – and achieving a sense of inner peace and purpose boils down to prioritizing effectively.

But finding joy in work can be equally important, and sometime even more important. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the “unsung heroes of quality” in my opinion, has spent his career researching the psychological characteristics and impacts of this feeling. In a September 1996 interview with Wired, he defined flow as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow has three defining characteristics:

  • Merging of action and awareness – “You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”
  • A sense of control – You’re comfortable with the level of ambiguity of the problem you’re solving, it has been sufficiently constrained so that you’re empowered to make progress, and you’re not worried about your ability to perform – you know you can do it.
  • An altered sense of time – You’re so immersed in your task that there is no room for boredom, and time flies by.

Flow emerges from a intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the feeling of wanting to do something. Extrinsic motivation describes the situation of having to do something. Csikzentmihalyi says we need both – we need the personal stimulus that comes from wanting to perform a task, and the environmental stimulus that comes from other people caring about what we contribute. Many obstacles prevent can people from feeling flow: job burnout, having too many tasks (when you are “stretched too thin” and feel like you’re on autopilot), having too many competing priorities, and lack of boundaries (either work and life blend into one another, or there are “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” working on a problem).

“Understanding how flow works is essential for social scientists interested in improving the quality of life at either the subjective or objective level. Transforming this knowledge into effective action is not easy.”

Finding flow – even occasionally – is one key to achieving organizational effectiveness. Flow is also critical for increasing innovation. No flow, no grow.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow. In Elliot, A.J. & Dweck, C.S. (Eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, Guilford Press.

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