Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Going with the flow

If you've ever been working on a task or a project when time passed by in an instant, or so engrossed in a hobby or game that you forgot to eat or sacrificed sleep to continue, there's a good chance you were experiencing "flow".  Flow, that is, as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimum Experience.  For those of you who have experienced "flow", or who have been in the groove, or have been so engaged in an activity that time slipped by almost unnoticed, you know what it feels like.  You are doing something that you enjoy and find intellectually challenging.  Your worldview narrows.  Few things can distract you.  And you are operating at near peak performance.

Flow occurs when you are engrossed in an activity that you find challenging and stimulating, and at the same time an activity where your skill level is very high.  If the activity is challenging but your skill level is low, the result is that you feel anxious, because you are aware that you aren't doing a good job.  If, on the other hand, you have a high skill level but don't find the work challenging, you experience boredom.   Flow occurs when an individual is engaged in an activity that is meaningful to that person, challenges them to do their best and calls on their experience and skills.  This is why "flow" happens so often when we are pursuing hobbies or activities we greatly enjoy.  It also explains why flow happens so rarely in most people's professional lives.  They are either afraid to be challenged - seeking only to perform in tasks where they have great skill, or their managers and executives don't challenge them, leading to boredom.

I reach flow when I am deeply engaged at innovation, but I know that isn't the case for a majority of people.  There are two major issues that block people from doing innovation well, much less achieving flow.  The first is skill level.  After over a decade of working on innovation tasks and projects, many of the innovation tools are second nature to me and my teammates at OVO.  We are constantly learning new tools and expanding our knowledge.  We are working with clients to discover what works best and what doesn't work so well.  Our skill level is relatively high, and hopefully getting better all the time.  Contrast that with the average middle or senior level manager, who is called on to manage people, processes and dollars.  A manager or executive who is constantly pulled from one topic to another, never developing expertise in any specific industry or function, and who rarely or almost never gets to contemplate new ideas or the methods and tools that support innovation.  These managers and executives are expected to innovate, but don't have the time or availability to develop the skills.

The second barrier is challenge and engagement.  While many innovation experts love the challenge of creating new ideas, most managers and executives don't enjoy it.  Creating ideas is fraught with risk and peril, requiring a lot of experimenting, mistakes, recursive work and learning.  It can be messy and uncertain, and most people don't find it engaging or challenging.  They find it frustrating and confusing, and want to return to clear cut processes and predictable workstreams.

In simpler terms, the vast majority of people trying to do innovation will never achieve flow, primarily because the challenges are too off-putting, leading to anxiousness or fear, and secondarily because their skill levels and focus are limited.  They recognize that they don't know what they don't know, and don't believe they have time to learn the tools and skills appropriately in order to do a good job.  There's a reason so much innovation activity in large corporations results in ideas that are similar to existing products.  The lack of engagement and lack of skills leads to anxiety and apathy, and since no one enjoys living in those conditions the innovation teams resort to creating quick and simple ideas so that they can return to something that's closer to flow for them - the sameness and predictability of their day to day work.

If you want your teams and your company to be good at innovation, if innovation and its resulting benefits are important and valuable to your company, you need to help people reach this concept of "flow".  That means giving them interesting, challenging and engaging challenges or problems to focus on, and ensuring they have enough time and enough skill to do the work well.  When these factors exist, innovation can flourish.  When any of these factors are missing, innovation will be conducted as a brief foray into enemy territory.  The team will be anxious and uncomfortable until they are relieved from duty or return with relatively simple ideas.  Their goals aren't to create anything truly new and different, but to return to familiar and comfortable work and routines.

Executives are always asking questions, seeking to understand how their people and teams can become more innovative.  Tell them it's all about flow.  Creating interesting challenges and developing people with deep skills and the time to deploy those skills on the interesting problems.  That's what will create innovative people and creative cultures.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:57 AM


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