Have you ever worked on a problem with such intensity that you lost track of time? Then something snapped you out of that trance-like work state, and you realized that you hadn't had an introspective thought in some time. It almost appeared as if you weren't there. These, and several other qualities, describe a creative state called flow. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the flow achieved during creativity is “an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.” During this state, you can move through the space of a problem, suspending self-criticism and trying multiple ideas without self-censoring.
Flow is about a vivid awareness of the moment but an almost lack of awareness of the surrounding environment and task. During flow, the sense of self and self-consciousness disappears. While experiencing flow, people become too involved in their activities to worry about protecting their self-image or ego. As a result, their work output flourishes—they produce better results.
Let's try it. Take a second, look up, and adjust your mind's eye to view the scene in front of you in the whole. Literally and figuratively “sit back” to experience the scene. Now, focus in on one specific piece of the landscape in front of you. Try to block out everything else from your periphery, drilling as deeply as you can into that one object. Think about it in as much detail as you can; see if you can flip it over in your mind and see it from multiple sides.
When your creative perspective is broad—often when you are well rested and without stress or anxiety—you can literally see more things in your field of vision. You're more likely to feel an active curiosity, look for things to learn about and experience, and be open to new ideas, actively. You can traverse relationships between ideas in a playful way.
Conversely, when you are concerned or anxious about something, or when you are coping with chaos, or solving a problem—you can feel your vision constricting. You might find yourself ignoring your surroundings and focusing on a single, narrow problem. A laptop or whiteboard becomes the sole focus of your attention—it actually becomes an extension of your thoughts. It enhances the tunneling, making it extraordinarily hard to attend to outside influences. You pay no attention to the world around you or outside influences. This is a productive perspective.
Neither perspective is better than the other, but the deep and narrow focus is the one that's deeply related to flow. Expertise and an appropriate amount of challenge are two factors in this narrow perspective. The onus is on you as a creative director to stretch your team's creative limits and prevent boredom.
Next, flow requires a feeling of effortless control. This comes from safety—a feeling that nothing is actually riding on the results, and so the results are ends in themselves. This means finding ways to hide, at least temporarily, deadlines and the relative importance of creative output. Showing your team how critical their work is to the business while giving them space to forget that while they work is a tricky line to walk.
Finally, flow takes blocks of undisturbed time. A culture that recognizes the importance of flow can create a virtual barrier around a creative team. If you empower the team to act autonomously, they can move quickly and produce things faster. Conference calls, meetings, check-ins, standups, email threads, bug-lists, IMs, and other distractions, on the other hand, can make it impossible to enter this flow-like state. Someone who is checking in with the team or waiting for consensus cannot enter this state.
The actual rules of the business prevent entering flow, too. For example, many companies force employees to use locked-down computers, obey various security protocols, and even enforce their ability to organize their own creative space. Some companies even prohibit staff from hanging things on the wall.
These rules are often in place for good reason. The company may need to comply with industry regulations or to actively protect intellectual property. But these policies oppose the seeds of creativity. Company leaders must understand that compliance can have a negative effect on creativity. A company that supports a policy through aggressive restrictions on technological freedom shows that it values IT data protection over creativity.
On the other hand, when a creative team feels free to make independent decisions, creativity flourishes. They experience the joy and flow of intrinsic motivation—the idea that the work is an end in itself. They've embraced because it is interesting, personally challenging, and satisfying.
Takeaway: Protect your team's time, so they can create in uninterrupted blocks.