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Flow the key to innovation and insights

We have all experienced a moment of flow, in the zone, focussed on the task everything else just falls away. Flow allows us to achieve otherwise seemingly impossible things, skiing down the black run or surfing the big wave. But how does flow affect us in our everyday lives, in the workplace?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist was the first to research and write about the state of flow with extensive work from 1975 - 2014. His work was expanded by many others including a ten year study by McKinsey which found that top executives were up to 500% more productive when in a state of flow.

Flow has continued to be an area of significant research with a number of trials being conducted. One small study in Australia was conducted where 40 research subjects were presented with an exceptionally tricky brain teaser—the kind that requires a deep creative insight to solve. None of the research subjects were able to solve it. But when flow was induced artificially using transcranial magnetic stimulation, 23 of the 40 subjects successfully solved the puzzle and in record time. Additional studies have been conducted which have shown similar impacts of flow on creativity and innovation, as well as the more typical productivity.

"most of us spend only 5% of our working life in a flow state"

While our understanding of flow is expanding, it remains a mindset that is tricky to control and regularly operate in. The research is fairly varied, but it is estimated that most of us spend only 5% of our working life in a flow state. There are a wide array of things that have been identified as contributing to the ability to enter flow state. In my own experience the keys have been:

  • Intense focus - no distractions, solitude and a singular challenging task

  • Immediate feedback - the ability to try, play and adjust

  • Rich environment - an environment with variety or complexity

In a work environment, I really enjoy looking at the operation of a business to identify what needs to be modified to drive performance (rich environment) and this is the space where I most often experience the flow state. When I am doing this, or similar work, I try to ensure that I have a quiet place to be able to work alone and where I won’t be interrupted (intense focus). I turn off all notifications and take email offline. Once I have my environment ready, I can get the tools and information I need prepared. For me this is generally tools where I will be able to drill into the information, to review and test ideas that come to me (immediate feedback). It is that immediate feedback that I really need to be able to innovate and explore and where most of my innovation and discovery originates.

Spending time to identify the triggers to your own flow state is a worthwhile investment. Trying to consciously create those specific conditions, within your own working environment may allow you to more regularly enter your flow state, which can lead to higher productivity and more creativity in your own work.

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