A meeting designed with Flow


According to  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi the Flow model maps a persons mental state whilst involved in a task dependent on capability and complexity. The ideal state to be in is that of ‘flow’ where flow is the complete immersion into a task or activity, this implies complete motivation to ensure that the job is done. According to Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi flow can be defined by following 6 factors:

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Unfortunately ‘flow’ is not the only state an individual can find themselves in, where a challenge is perceived to be too complex they could find themselves getting anxious or worried and where a challenge is perceived to be too simple they could get bored and apathetic.

For any short collaborative intervention flow is the epitemy of mental states for participants to achieve during the session for three major reasons:

  1. More willing to share all ideas, even the perceived ‘bad’ one
  2. Accelerated delivery of work given the short timescales involved
  3. The flow state will create a desire to continue the work following the intervention

The question that remains is a simple one the the answer is somewhat more complicated. How do you enable participants to achieve this mental state?

To answer this question, let us first look at the criteria for achieving a flow state:

  1. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. This for me is the most critical, the challenge must not be too easy or it will be boring and at the same time it must not be too hard or it will be frustrating. The important thing to remember here is that it is the perception of the challenge not just the challenge itself. What might appear a simple challenge to one person is not always seen the same by another. A person’s perception is the real world distorted through a number of filters that have developed over time and as such is hard to measure and understand. To create a ‘flow’ challenge you must match task difficulty to individual capability.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. It is one thing to match a task difficulty to soumeone with the right capability at any given moment in time but how do you determine when the challenge is no longer ideal? Clear and immediate feedback allows the system to self correct and adjust the challenge to align with the capability or to reallocate resources to shift the capability to make the challenge seem more achievable.
  3. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This provides structure to a session and enables the participants to understand what they need to achieve in order to achieve it. For me, this helps to contain the perceived challenge, ensure that it is attainable and make certain that the individuals involved know how they are progressing against it.

Having understood this we can follow some simple guide lines that will enable participants to achieve flow in collaborative interventions:

  1. Ensure you understand as much as you can about participants capability – knowledge, skills, training, experience etc.
  2. Ensure you identify an achievable yet stretching set of goals or objectives for the session, consider a number of stretch goals to increase the challenge if required
  3. Avoid complicating the process where possible to ensure that the participants dont perceive the challenge to be harder than it really is
  4. Once the session has begun ensure you monitor the participants mental state, keep watch for behaviour that might suggest boredom or frustration.
  5. Where you see boredom in a group of participants it is important to increase the complexity to stretch the participants as far as possible
  6. Where you see frustration and anxiety you need to understand what is making the challenge seem too dificult. Is it the complexity of the challenge or is it the lack of capability in the group? The work might need explaining again or the group might need a specific bit of information or skillset added to it

If you want to know more about flow see this TED talk video by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.


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