Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Finding flow for high performance

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is
stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I was deeply impressed by Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about flow when I first came across them. Flow is completely focused motivation and we all know it when it’s there. You might experience flow mode when trying to beat an opponent at tennis, or preparing a big presentation.

For me, flow mode, and doing the best I possibly can, always needs a deadline, a clear target and some way of knowing what progress I am making.

Csikszentmihalyi identified a number of factors that were important to flow mode:
  1. A challenging activity that requires skill
  2. The merging of action and awareness
  3. Clear goals and feedback
  4. Concentration on the task in hand
  5. The paradox of control (not being overly worried about failing)
  6. The loss of self-consciousness
  7. The transformation of time (losing sense of time)
Computer games immediately come to mind as an activity where you can easily lose yourself in concentration for hours on end, but writing, studying for an exam or playing a competitive sport are equally likely to be absorbing.

Performance management, and measurement, is all about finding the right environment for people to do their best work. Csikszentmihalyi’s point about clear goals and feedback is most obviously pertinent to how we work – good leaders work hard at making goals and feedback clear and unambiguous. Yet providing an environment that encourages concentration, rewards good work and learns from mistakes would also inspire better performance. So it seems that in a work situation it takes at least two to flow and achieve greatness:

  1. Ensure tasks are stretching but achievable
  2. Make goals crystal clear
  3. Make feedback immediate, visual and for improving rather than controlling
  4. Create a culture where it is OK to push, even if it sometimes means failing
  1. Be willing to fully concentrate on the task
  2. Desire excellence, don’t settle for “good enough”
  3. Give a task body and soul attention to get it done on time
Paradoxically, research shows that tasks where all of these things come together are some of the most satisfying. So creating an environment for high performance is well worth the effort – for both the organisation and individuals.


  1. Caroline

    The idea of flow state is something I realy find very real.I am not sure a computer game does it me personally though, rather a challenging piece of work and the satisfaction of getting it just so.
    I tend to think of it being a state of mind for individuals raherv than groups or teams, is that right? Is that level of focus not what we'd love to achieve in our teams?? What makes or helps us find that perfect place?

    Another thought is the perfect place an efficient place and does the time and effort we expend justify the time?

    Finally like to add my best wishes for a successful 365 days of blogging. Did you see the film Julia and Julia which I thought fitted your approach to food and blogging,a good film I thought.


  2. You are back from globetrotting! Sorry about the snow!

    Absolutely agree that flow is something for an individual, the question is what we can do to encourage flow in our teams. Clarity of objectives and culture appear to be the two biggest. As for effort expanding to fill the time, that's a really interesting one and something I'm looking at currently with a fascinating book on order from Amazon. Will let you know what insights it yields.

    Thanks for the birthday wishes and the film recommendation - will go check it out!