Thursday, March 07, 2013

Innovation and the concept of Flow

For years I've been a fan of the idea of flow, and have felt that the concepts apply very specifically to success in innovation.  If you aren't familiar with flow, the concept arises when individuals are engaged in experiences where they are highly skilled and highly challenged.  You may think of this when people refer to themselves as being "in the zone", so highly engaged and so proficient that an individual delivers exceptionally high quality work almost effortlessly.

While the concept of being "in the zone" has been recognized for years, psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined these concepts in his book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  The book is a bit dense, and like many books that seek to reduce cognitive concepts to everyday practice, can be a bit of a stretch, but the key points that Csikszentmihalyi makes are important.  Flow happens when people are engaged in work or leisure activities where their experience levels and engagement levels are high.  Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with the graphic he posts in his book.  See below:

Flow is achieved when the challege matches the skill.  If the skills are too high, boredom ensues.  If the challenge is higher than skill, anxiety and frustration sets in. 

Flow and its relation to innovation

In his book Csikszentmihalyi talks about work and the concept of flow.  He notes that many people experience flow more consistently in their work than they do in their leisure time, probably because people become bored with leisure - their skills are higher than their engagement or challenges.  Innovation, I think, is often quite the reverse.

For 30 years businesses have focused on driving inefficiency and variability out of the organization.  There's been successive waves of management theory, including the quality movement, business process re-engineering, right sizing, outsourcing and so forth.  Our skills are exceptionally high when it comes to efficiency, and exceptionally low when it comes to innovation.  Likewise, we've become so accustomed to efficiency, and we understand it so well (and are compensated so well for it) that our engagement to innovation is low, regardless of what we say about innovation. I wrote about this in Relentless Innovation - focusing on the tyranny of business as usual. This means that many organizations start off very low on the skills/challenges axis, and then management places undue pressure on the teams to do innovation quickly and successfully, without providing more skills or knowledge.  Following the chart, this places the team very quickly in a position of high anxiety - they really aren't as engaged as they should be, they are unprepared for the challenge and most importantly lack skills.  Innovation seems risky, difficult and dangerous, and teams can't achieve consistent success, let alone innovation "flow".

Achieving Innovation Flow

How then does a firm or a team achieve innovation "flow"?  What does it take for a team or an organization to create the conditions for innovation to "flow", where innovators are always in the "zone"?

Clearly two factors are at play.  First, team selection and engagement.  Finding the right people, those who are open to change and uncertainty, and placing them in a position to do more innovation is paramount.  Don't choose the available people, or the "best" people, but people whose perspectives and temperament make them the right people for innovation, who are interested and easily engaged in challenging innovation activities.  There are plenty of assessment tools to find the right people, including the Innovator's DNA, the Foursight Model and the Kirton Adaption Index.

Second, skill development.  For this team of innovators, build their skills and competencies so that they are ever increasing their knowledge of innovation tools and methods.  Engage them frequently so their training is activated in actual projects, and perform after action reviews to learn what went right and what should be changed in the next innovation activity.  Teams don't learn in a "once and done" model - they need to repeat their successes and learn from their mistakes.  Unfortunately there is no agreed body of knowledge that spans all of innovation.  You should invest in innovation training, but be careful of "certified" programs that are popping up everywhere.  Look for innovation training offered by experienced trainers who also provide innovation consulting services - you need real world examples, not academic perspectives about innovation tools, methods and their applicability and success rates.

Why is innovation so difficult?

The reason innovation seems so difficult to many organizations is that it is virtually impossible for anyone or any team to get anywhere near the "flow", to get into the innovation "zone".  Innovation teams are placed under inordinate pressure to deliver valuable results with little time and no training, often with poor direction and no tools or methodologies.  Instead of defining skills and finding the right people, we corral the available people and kick off projects with little forethought or definition.  Then executives wonder why innovation seems so difficult or returns results that seem so incremental.

Find ways to get your teams and your organization into the innovation zone.  Use the concept of Flow to improve WHO you select, HOW you direct them and WHERE and WHEN you offer training and skill development.  Then you'll find it much easier for your teams to achieve innovation flow.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:49 PM


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