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Flow Theory and Experiences

Our name, Flow Associates, is in honour of ‘flow theory’ created by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who died last month aged 87. He was a Hungarian-American psychology professor, interested in mental states for creativity and productivity. He wrote the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience after 10 years of international research. The core theory can be explained with this diagram below, which shows the different mental states around the flow state, which can be achieved with the right balance of challenge and skill. It shows that the opposite of flow is apathy – not wanting to engage at all. 

 

I founded Flow Associates in 2006, when I realised that I can’t work full time within an institution. I work very well when I am intrinsically motivated and free to do it in my own way, but I become very stressed when working under conditions set by other people. I need to spend plenty of time doing activities that get me into a flow state, such as drawing from my imagination, expressive dancing and singing.

I was reading this book at the time of founding Flow, so the company naming was partly about timing and chance. But, the theory does guide us. For example, we (myself, Susanne Buck and Alex Flowers) always make sure to choose work we are challenged by, and that we are equipped to do. We particularly enjoy projects where outcomes for people develop:

  • Their sense of agency to effect change in their world
  • Capacities of knowledge, skill and meaning-making
  • Positive and compassionate values and behaviours. 

Flow theory hinges on the development of capacities, and how conditions can be designed to enable people to achieve their full potential. This thinking can apply to all the people we might work with, whether staff in client organisations or their audiences. It isn’t the only theory we use, and our thinking is growing all the time, but flow theory offers a basic and motivating concept to help anyone designing experiences and services that will engage people and develop their capacities. 

Flow theory lies behind our Engagement model, as we view engagement as more than boosting numbers or reaching certain groups of people. What matters most is the impact that this engagement has on people and communities. As people pass through each threshold they develop their skills and abilities to improve or cope with their context. If any activities intended to engage people are not designed with some components of flow theory in mind, they are less likely to succeed. 

This article goes into more detail into the nine components to achieving the flow state, to provide inspiration for designing successful experiences.

The best known is achieving a good balance of challenge and skill. Enough challenge might mean that the activity offers lots of room to keep improving skills, or to be creative with its forms. Good enough skills might mean having resources or the right place, time to practice, confidence, dexterity or knowledge. Without enough challenge you become bored, and without enough skills, you will become anxious. I used to be very anxious about painting because I got the lowest possible mark for my A level Art exam, but I have found methods and materials that suit me so that I can get into flow when doing it. 

The merging of action and awareness is all about learning through doing. It’s about laying down muscle memory through thoughtful practice. Doing could include speaking, writing or thinking with others, not just acting with your hands and body. It involves a balance of just enough action and just enough reflection on what you are doing. If you overthink you will get stuck, and if you rush at action without checking on yourself, you will struggle to do a good job. 

Clarity of goals might seem an obvious one. However, you need to approach this the right way. If your goals are too limited and closed, or too unachievable, you will lose motivation. A good goal might look like “I will build a chair that my children will want to sit in, and it will be safe for them”. You might not know how to do it, but you have the tools, and this is where the exciting challenge lies. A less clear goal would be “I fancy building a chair like a rocket that rocks and spins around.” If you start with the goal to build a safe, attractive thing for a defined user, you can still shape it like a rocket and add fun features, but you have to ground the goal in real needs.  

Immediate and unambiguous feedback is related to component number 2, the merging of action and awareness. But this is particularly about ensuring you get feedback from others and think of their views. Imagine you’re a costume designer for a big themed event. You can enjoy the creative process on your own but you have to ask the opinions of your clients and co-workers, at the right time, to be able to keep moving on in your task. These voices can tell you what you need to know, especially if you ask clear questions: will people want to wear the costumes? Do they fit the theme? Will they bring the right balance of humour and elegance? 

Concentration on the task at hand is all about creating the right conditions for focus. This might mean creating a defined space or time for an experience, or removing distractions and deciding to tackle only one task at a time. It’s a basic practical component, but one that can be quite hard to achieve. Some people are much better than others at blocking out all disturbances to focus – and this is very likely to be because they are highly motivated by their chosen activity. 

Paradox of control is a really fascinating component. Have you ever tried something like dancing and singing at the same time? If you are too conscious of all the steps and lyrics, and are determined to stick to the exact routine, you are in control. BUT, you will feel tight and are likely to stumble or forget your place. If you tell yourself that it’s OK to lose your place, and let the sense of enjoyment take over, you can move more towards a state of arousal. But if you aren’t in control of your routine, you might improvise too much and lose it all. It’s a paradox. So, what works is a constant pulsing of letting go and coming back to the plan, letting go to enjoy yourself, and back to the plan. 

Transformation of time is all about how when you’re in flow you don’t notice the time passing. You’re not thinking about when you can have a break or what else is on your To Do list. You’re not worrying about something in the past. Without those two markers of the past and future as barriers in your mind, you can immerse yourself in the process of the moment. I go to an expressive dancing class for three hours on Saturdays, and the time goes by in a flash, whereas if I spent three hours running it would feel like 12 hours instead!

Loss of self-consciousness is very similar to losing track of time. You might lose a sense of embarrassment. You might stop worrying about an issue that has been preoccupying you. You might not think about your appearance or what others need from you. You almost become the task, or the experience, for a while. 

Autotelic experience is all about enjoying an experience for its own sake, because it’s enjoyable or fulfils people’s own intrinsic needs, rather than being required or expected from outside (or extrinsic) demands. Some people can be more autotelic than others. Autotelic means self-motivated. Autotelic people don’t need to be rewarded, as they find their own rewards in their chosen activities, and they might refuse to do activities they don’t enjoy. A well designed experience is autotelic, and also encourages people to find experiences for themselves where they can feel the same again. Good experiences might create more autotelic people – which can be a challenge to our society if education or work requires people to do things they don’t want to do. And then again, if there are more autotelic people, education and work will have to change to accommodate their highly motivated personalities!

What have you taken from this set of components? Can any be useful for you in your role, or in the design of experiences that really engage people? 

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Flow’s Thrivable Culture toolkit

It’s not always simple to describe what we do at Flow, when we respond to a wide variety of contracts and adapt very flexibly to what our clients need. Over the past 11 years we’ve been in roles that include ‘learning partner’, ‘evaluator’, ‘audience researcher’, ‘programme planner’, ‘critical friend’, ‘trainer’ and ‘change facilitator’. Central to all of these roles is our ability to help cultural organisations develop and narrate a Story of Change, and to help them design experiences that power the changes they want to create.

 

Through these many projects, we’ve built up a set of tools for planning and tracking change. A major resource that we’ve developed is the Thrivable Culture toolkit. We’ve called it this because we believe that ‘Cultural’ opportunities help people, places and planet thrive, and that in turn, a thriving world allows rich and diverse ‘cultures’ to grow. By ‘Cultural opportunities’ we mean a very broad set of things – having freedom and resources to learn and enquire, to cherish our shared heritage, to express feelings, be imaginative, make things and innovate for the future. This contributes to wellbeing in the wider ‘culture’ – in all the ways we communicate, celebrate, critique and create as a society. Cultural opportunity is driven by the public Arts and Heritage sectors, but also by the Media and commercial Creative Industries, by Science Engagement, and by the Education and Health sectors.

 

By the term ‘Thrivable’ we are referring to an approach to growth that favours wellbeing for the many over wealth for a few. So, a Thrivable Culture is one where people and places flourish by pursuing what they love, helping each other and looking to the future. This is the big Story of Change that makes Cultural organisations so valuable. We hope that working with us using these tools will enable you to tell and realise your own part of this Story of Change, in ways that are meaningful to you.

 

The underlying philosophy of these models comes from our namesake, the idea of ‘flow’ or optimum engagement, developed by Csikszentmihalyi. This helps us analyse how people are both supported and stimulated by any experience, and what the barriers are to engagement. In order for organisations or their projects to inspire people, overcome challenges, and design for learning and change, we need to pay attention to how people can feel really absorbed, inspired and empowered. This is all about improving the qualities of experiences, places, materials, questions, processes and relationships so that staff, partners and audiences are both supported and challenged. From the zone between too much anxiety and too much boredom, people draw their energy to change. Improving quality in these conditions is just as important as impacts such as measurably increasing income or creating jobs. Or rather, in the Cultural sector, improving quality is the best way to achieve those quantifiable impacts.

 

Logic Models used in processes informed by Theory of Change can help organisations to define and evidence how inputs and outputs of any project result in quantifiable outcomes and longer-term impacts.

However, in cultural and experimental projects, or people-centred areas such as education, it can be hard to predict and quantify these outcomes. Rigid application of this model, seeing it as a narrow pipeline of change, can cause anxiety, an inability to pull together around common goals and a sense of inevitable failure. It can also be tricky to start at the end of the line and to think backwards from desired impacts. As part of our toolkit, we’ve designed a new version of the Logic Model format to help teams plan for and evaluate change which we believe overcomes these problems. It is more circular, makes much more clear how planning and evaluation activities sit together, and it encourages more pause to think through the early steps of learning about your context and creating conditions for change.

The following explains an element of our framework in depth: What you do at the start of Discover phase of a project.

 

An important part of our approach is ‘front-loading’, which means thinking before launching into the hard or expensive parts of any programme or new project, taking time to build relationships, to clarify common values and to research the context around you. This doesn’t have to mean a long vague phase before implementing any project. It means distinguishing between the WHY and the HOW, or the Aims and Objectives. It means ensuring that all stakeholders are agreed on what you want to achieve, holding on to that vision while you test and develop a project, and being prepared for unpredictable contingencies as you go.

At this Discover phase of a project, we help you use Three Lenses to clearly think about your situation, which will then help you design interventions or planned outcomes. These Three Lenses are:

  • External factors: How you work in your wider context. How you optimise your use of resources and overcome external challenges.
  • Relational factors: How you design conditions for people to interact with each other. How you help people to develop their capacities for positive change by learning from others.
  • Internal factors: How your experiences or services can inspire shifts in people’s values and character, including your own. (These may not be easily quantifiable in themselves but can potentially create quantifiable change in people’s lives or the wider world).

These correspond to the three ecologies, environmental, social and mental, described by Arne Naess. The diagram below shows how the three lenses interact with each other continually, and in both directions. Relational factors are in the middle, as these connect and maximise the potential of the other two, helping individuals and organisations relate to the world around them and other people.

 

 

Why is it so important to look carefully at your situation? Looking ahead, the wider world is becoming more difficult, and resilience in the face of this is the buzz word. In some countries such as the UK and USA, Culture and Science sectors are struggling to be fully valued due to political change. Some other countries are investing properly in these sectors, but wider environmental or economic conditions might threaten their progress. To be resilient, it’s vital to be hyper aware of external threats and opportunities emerging now and on the horizon. Being hyper-aware does not just mean vigilance. It means thinking about how all these change factors interact in an increasingly complex and unpredictable system.

 

The next diagram shows the tool we use to help organisations analyse their situation, combining the Three Lenses, and with eight external factors presenting the threats and opportunities to achieving desired outcomes.

 

The 8 external factors are used like the PESTEL or STEEPLE analysis frameworks, but we have added the factors of Culture and Wellbeing. This new approach to analysing threats and opportunities is loosely based on Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, but uses an ecosystem instead of a pyramid to illustrate how all the contributing factors work together. In this ecosystem, Culture and Ethics sit at the centre of the circle, and Relational capacities and Internal values fall out of them and feed them.

By identifying the factors that offer the most scope for opportunity you can look for ways to overcome threats in other areas, to recognise where your project can have most impact. For example, the solution to overcoming an External threat – such as a change in Government that reduces funding – might involve working on Internal values or Relational capacities. In turn, the solution to fundamental problems with Relational or Internal factors might lie in leveraging an External factor, such as interventions to improve physical and mental health.

 

Here, we’ve broadly identified the kinds of Relational and Internal factors that might be nurtured if you want to effect positive change on any of the External change factors, overcoming the threats and generating opportunities. These are examples of ways these factors can be articulated rather than intended as a single correct path. Being a Values-based organisation means inviting your communities to explore and debate how values should be expressed and lived.

Contact us on [email protected] if you’d like to talk about how our work can help you.