Most of us have fleeting familiarity with flow: the sweet spot where exertion and boredom are diminished and focus and performance are optimized. When we reach that state, we become lost in the task at hand and all else falls away. Most importantly, in flow we perform at our optimal state, and creativity, critical thinking, innovation and productivity flourish.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state when the ideal balance of challenge and reward is achieved. Flow is often referred to as a serendipitous moment when someone becomes engrossed in the task at hand. But it's not just something that happens, it is a state that can be created.
Csikszentmihalyi has said, “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. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
While flow is often discussed in terms of creative or athletic endeavors, it can also be applied to the workforce. According to a recent Gallup poll on the state of the U.S. workforce, 70 percent of workers do not feel fully engaged at work and thus are not reaching their full potential. Not only does this have a serious effect on overall well being, but it also has grave implications for the economy and performance of companies.
With the majority of workers lacking engagement at work, businesses have a huge opportunity to unleash workers' flow. When businesses nurture employees and align the company to reach group flow, it can increase productivity and satisfaction and lead to success.
So how can business leaders create an environment conducive to flow?
Set clear goals. By setting clear, attainable goals, employees know where to focus their attention. When they know when and where they need to focus, concentration and motivation flourish. Creating concrete goals across all departments allows employees to have something to work toward and measure their success against.
I've found that aligning marketing with concrete goals tied to conferences and product releases can provide an intense challenge and reward cycle that is highly motivating, if successes are celebrated.
Gamify the task. Flow theory is heavily used in game design with companies using big-data analytics tools -- such as my company, Datameer -- to measure the engagement of players. By tuning the game to ensure it meets the ideal balance of challenge and reward, players are kept in a state of flow.
Certain activities, such as software development, naturally support a flow experience. The continuous nature of product development punctuated by ongoing release cycles creates a balance of challenge and reward over time. While each upgrade or project update poses new challenges for engineers, their achievements are recognized when finished products are successfully launched to the public or used by others.
That said, when a software release gets too big or complex, or a company’s size or methodology results in extended release times, it interrupts engineers’ flow, and they are more likely to become frustrated and ultimately less productive. Consider how can you gamify other tasks to help cultivate employee flow.
Create short and intense reward cycles. Flow can be nurtured in other departments beyond engineering and software development. For departments such as marketing or administration, flow is less natural and the challenge and reward cycle needs to be designed and proactively promoted.
Flow must also be tuned at the individual level, and most good managers naturally tune the challenge-reward cycle for each employee. To achieve the flow channel, a wave -- or balance between challenge and reward -- must be achieved.
If an employee feels in control of a task, but does not see iterative reward in accomplishing that task, then he will flounder in a state of boredom. If a task is too challenging, or the reward does not match the challenge, then he will spin in anxiety. Consider where you can apply rewards like quarterly-driven enterprise sales cycles, hitting a quota or admission to president clubs to promote an experience of flow.
As CEO of a fast-growing startup, I am constantly thinking about how we can both increase our capacity and hire great people, while heightening our capabilities to make us more effective as individuals and as an organization. By building our corporate philosophy around the state of flow, our employees are able to reach a peak state where they both feel their best and perform their best.
I challenge you to work toward unleashing employee’s flow. If we can create more engaged and happy workers performing within a state of flow, then we can truly push the boundaries on human innovation.
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