Making your business hyper-productive – Part I: Flow

flowing river

The 3 Fundamentals

I have found three fundamental elements to creating a productive team within a business environment, or, for that matter, any environment, as these same principles can be applied to a start-up, a fully-fledged enterprise, a household, a family camping trip, or just about any endeavour. These three elements are: Flow, Emergence and Empathy. Instilling a team with these ways of thinking will greatly increase the chances of success. Let’s begin with flow.

What is Flow?

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend.”

Bruce Lee

Flow is movement through a system. It can apply to a group of individuals or a product.


Traditionally businesses created a goal and a plan to reach that goal, then they stuck to both the goal and the plan whatever happened and however long it took. Some businesses, especially larger less-flexible corporations still employ this method. Flow is the opposite method: a goal is defined but with an undetermined path. The team is always fluid and conscious of its environment and the impacting forces, constantly asking how to make the goal possible or how to work better. The question is never “Can we?”, only “How will we?”

The movement from predetermined to responsive is exemplified in business by the move from waterfall to agile. Even fast food is going in this direction. Gone are the days of brightly lit, single menus with fixed selection, now are the days of Lemonade and 800 degrees where fast food is designed iteratively, fixing the end goal with the path to get there.

Psychological flow – for individuals

Brought into the zeitgeist through “gamification”, it describes a way of designing systems and experiences to get users into the zone: into flow. In neuroscience it is known as transient hypofrontality. In this state, the perception of the passage of time changes. When flow is achieved, many hours can pass by unnoticed, or a single moment can extend in slow motion. While complex and multi-faceted, at the most simple level, to achieve flow the system needs to deliver a balance between frustration and boredom; it is just hard enough to keep the player engaged, but not so hard that he/she grows frustrated. As the player’s skills improve, the game must increase in difficulty to allow “flow” to happen.

Facilitating flow

In the work environment, enabling individual team members to enter “flow” is the result of striking a balance between enjoyment and challenge. Good managers facilitate flow. They give the employees control over their workload and schedule, while simultaneously creating boundaries that are solid and clear but within which creativity is allowed and encouraged. A great example of this is Virgin’s recent decision to allow employees to choose the frequency and length of their own vacations by negotiation with their colleagues.

Many brainstorming and management techniques, as well as tools and services exist to help create flow in a team. The core of it comes down to have clear company-wide goals and creating a culture that encourages adaptation to achieve those goals.

While seeking to climb a mountain, one can look at neither the ground directly ahead nor the horizon, lest she bumps her head into a tree or falls into a chasm; be aware of one’s surroundings and the ultimate goal, then adapt.

What you can do now to achieve flow

  • start tracking team happiness: a daily email asking employees to rate their satisfaction, a weekly retrospective meet-up to improve team practices or just checking regularly with individuals
  • set clear, achievable goals at every level: for the company, the department, the team and the individuals
  • give your team/staff control: actively look for ways to give more freedom, a self-managed team produces better and sticks around longer

You are now on your way to flow and a more productive business.


Recommended reading:

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers” by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo

“How to get into the zone” by James Aldworth



cauri runs rhubarb studios, a technology incubator in downtown Los Angeles. He is instructor fellow for product management and user experience at General Assembly; he also designed the curriculum and teaches at General Assembly product management. cauri loves technology and thinks longevity is a inevitable outcome of technological advance.