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Getting in the Creative Flow Zone

It's "World Day of Creativity and Innovation!" In honor of the day, I'd like to offer an excerpt from my book, Keep Innovation Simple - Lead with Clarity and Focus in a World of Constant Change, discussing one of the keys to unlocking creative potential...
Going with the Flow

A phenomenon related to mindfulness is what psychologists call a state of “flow.” Athletes will call it “being in the zone.” Bill Russell, my all-time favorite basketball player, described the feeling like this:

“Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical…When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter, or more…

At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken...

My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.”[1]

Ever had your innovation work cause chills to pulse up and down your spine? There is evidence that mindfulness increases an individual’s ability to perform in a state of flow, and thereby have overall better performance.[2]

Flow is an essential component of the kind of creative problem solving that leads to innovation.[3] When innovators get into deep problem-solving mode, they have intense focus on their objective. The challenge they face is difficult, pushing the skills that they have to their limit. They enter a mental state in which their actions and their awareness are simultaneously focused on the task at hand; no daydreaming about how it’s Taco Tuesday, or that latest episode of Dance Moms.

Time has no meaning when in a state of flow. Hours go by like minutes. Focus is so intense that external distractions go unseen and unheard. You forget that you are hungry or thirsty. You forget the external world altogether…it’s just your mind against the goal. The creative act itself becomes self-rewarding. It’s not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

The point of all this quasi-mystical psychological story-telling is this: to maximize your innovative potential, and to maximize your team’s innovative potential, you need to create the conditions for flow to take place.

It’s not something that you can force. You can’t tell everyone “hey team, I’m going to get into flow now…talk to you later!” You can’t schedule a meeting with flow on your calendar.[4] But you can help to create the four conditions that allow flow to happen.[5]

First, clarify the objectives. The task needs to be clearly understood, with any necessary background information, both to help reinforce understanding, and to identify open questions for exploration. The task should have meaning, linked to the existing motivations of the team – in other words, linked to the mission that they support.

Second, create an environment for immediate feedback. The flow state is engrossing, so the feedback needs to be a part of it. This is different than creating a prototype, sending it out to customers, and awaiting their response. This is in-the-moment, providing real-time information needed for adjustments and course corrections.

In the creative process, the feedback is somewhat more challenging. You don’t have a customer standing over your shoulder saying “wow!” and “ugh!” with every action you take or thought you express.

Creative flow requires innovators to be so immersed in the customer and business needs that they are capable of “internalizing the field’s criteria of judgement to the extent that they can give feedback to themselves” in the moment, while in the state of flow.[6] That’s not a substitute for later feedback from the business and customer, any more than Bill Russel’s game-time feedback was a substitute for coaching and practice. They build on each other.

Third, match the challenge to your capabilities. The challenge needs to be both difficult and meaningful (mission-oriented), while the skills and capabilities need to be up to the task. If the challenge is way beyond the capabilities to handle it, stress and anxiety occur. If the capabilities drastically exceed the challenge, boredom, frustration and annoyance result.

Growth in skills, abilities, and accomplishment occur in the space where challenge and abilities are similar. As the challenge is pushed just a little beyond the current capabilities, the innovator seeks out new knowledge and skills to compensate. As they become more adept with those skills, the challenge becomes easier. When the challenge is too easy, they pursue the next level of challenge, repeating the back-and-forth cycle.

Fourth, create the paradoxical environment for creativity, with two opposing characteristics: one for stimulating novelty, and the other for undisturbed immersion in concentrated activity.

In most organizations, the former is much easier to get than the latter. Stimulation is all around us. Data is everywhere. The problem usually isn’t insufficient stimulation as much as it is filtering the stimuli for relevance and meaning. The trick for having a stimulating environment is to have the right kind of stimulations...those that may lead to creative connections. Seek diversity. Meet new and interesting people. Go to museums, art events, movies, concerts. Read books outside of your normal area of interest. Get out of your office and work in a coffee shop, near a busy urban square, or at a park – wherever there is a variety of activity going on. Don’t allow yourself to get in a mental rut.

The need for an immersive environment tends to be more of a challenge. Finding the physical space and time to separate yourself or your team from all the other obligations of life, whether personal or professional, is darn difficult. It is also darn valuable to creative problem-solving. It can happen anywhere,[7] but you need to have the opportunity to get into and sustain a state of flow for an extended period.

Organizations looking to raise their innovation capability should consider creating these opportunities, or at least allow their innovators to create them for themselves. Block off chunks of time devoted to solving creative problems, alone or in small teams. Schedule a long meeting with yourself so that the Microsoft Outlook calendar shows you as unavailable. Get yourself to a good thinking and action space (like Bill Russel on a basketball court or a surgeon in the OR, flow takes place while doing, not just thinking).

Keeping innovation teams in the “flow zone”[8] helps them to not only solve problems creatively now, but to build the capacity to solve bigger problems in the future. This is why having experienced people on a team drives faster and more effective innovation outcomes.[9] They simply get better at it. Give them the four things they need – clear goals, deep grounding in market needs to enable self-feedback, matching of task to capabilities, and a balanced stimulation/immersion environment – and watch them innovate better and faster.



[1] William F. Russell and Taylor Branch, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, Random House, New York, NY, 1979.

[2] Ying Hwa Kee and C.K. John Wang, “Relationships between mindfulness, flow dispositions and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytic approach,” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, July 2008.

[3] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, HarperCollins, 1997.

[4] You could, however, schedule time with either Tramar Lacel Dillard, the obnoxious waitress at Mel’s Diner, or the Progressive Insurance representative, but they are all “Flo.” I’m talking about “flow,” which is different.

[5] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Sami Abuhamdeh, and Jeanne Nakamura, “Flow,” Handbook of Competence and Motivation, edited by Andrew J. Elliot and Carol S. Dweck, Guilford Publications, 2005.

[6] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, HarperCollins, 1997.

[7] I once had a “eureka!” moment on how to solve the balancing-nails-on-a-single-nail-head problem (see it online at while driving alone down a long stretch of highway, observing the shapes of telephone poles. I did not, however, figure out how to set the world record. Alexander Bendikov apparently has way too much time on his hands. And too many nails.

[8] No, the earth does not have a flow-zone layer with a formerly-growing-but-now-shrinking hole in it over Antarctica. That’s a different thing entirely.

[9] Nagaraj Sivasubramaniam, S. Jay Liebowitz and Conway L. Lackman, “Determinants of New Product Development Team Performance: A Meta-analytic Review,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, September 2012.

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