Monday, December 1, 2008 by Dave Blum

A few years back, I attended a NASAGA conference session led by Bernie DeKoven. He spoke to us about the elusive quality of “flow”, a term much-popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  According to DeKoven, the “flow” state is that feeling of being “in the zone”, when we feel like we’re at one with our task — whether it’s hitting tennis balls, making presentations or leading team building activities.  One of the main requirements for “flow” to happen is that the challenge closely matches our abilities.  In other words, if the challenge is too high for our capabilities, we’re likely to check out in frustration. Conversely, if our abilities are too high for the challenge, then we’re again apt to retreat, this time from boredom.

Getting the balance of difficulty right can be challenging.  I recall a hunt I was presenting at the Museum of Science in Boston, in which my group was excelling at their first set of treasure hunt clues.  Fearing that they’d be bored (and hence taken out of “flow”) by the next set of clues, I decided to raise the bar…perhaps too high.  My initial instructions were that they had 90 minutes to complete their task (of 7 puzzles); after half an hour, however, I rushed in with the announcement that management (namely me) had decided to bump up their deadline by 30 minutes, from 90 minutes to one hour.  As you might imagine, chaos ensued; teams scribbing madly on their clue sheets; people bartering frantically with other groups; tempers flaring.  By flipping the rules, it seemed I had escalated the challenge beyond the group’s existing ability to succeed. In short, I’d taken them out of “flow”, and they didn’t like it!

Thankfully, just about everything that comes up during a training is “debriefable”.  Some of my follow-up questions included, “How is this like work?  When management sets impossible deadlines, how do you react?  Conversely, when work is too easy, what do you do to create suitable challenge for yourself?  etc.”  I’m hoping my group learned something from the experience. I certainly did: whether running corproate team building activities or something completely different, be careful how far you push people for the sake of “teachable moments”.  There’s a lot to be said for allowing people to experience and revel in that rare and elusive state of “flow”.

Have you ever experienced FLOW in your life?  I’d love to hear about it!