The Dynamics of Creative Flow (Part 1)


Whether driving a tractor or making investment decisions, people like doing what they can do well.

When I was 21, I was selected to be part of a team of fire fighters called “hot shots.” We were a rapid response team, flown in by helicopter to fight forest fires in California. We trained hard. The work was dangerous, grueling, sometimes tedious and also exhilarating. The stakes were high. But I was often in a state of flow knowing I was good at what I did and that we were doing something important.

What was the key? It was my boss, Gary. He constantly taught us new skills and drilled us to handle all different kinds of fire situations. When he learned that I was good with tools, he gave me the freedom to help direct the renovation of our barracks.

Coaching and empowerment inspire creative flow. Praise inspires creative flow. Micromanagement kills flow. Good managers help people discover flow. They invest the time to get to know people, find out what’s important to them, and discover what they’d like to be doing. They provide a work environment in which experimentation is encouraged and communication is strong. As people do well, they get positive feedback, both from within themselves and from others. This feeling of excellence helps catalyze further feelings of flow.

Effective leaders focus on communicating the results they want the organization to achieve. Once that’s done, they step back and let creativity flourish – they don’t micromanage the details of how to get there. As general George Patton put it: “Don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

The most successful leaders model flow in their own lives. Katharine Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post, had a great blend of humility and intelligence. She loved the newspaper business. She had the ability to ask the important and fundamental questions: “Why aren’t we covering this? Why aren’t we challenging the administration on this? How can we make this interesting for our readers?”

Because she encouraged her managers and reporters to take chances, Katharine Graham unleashed creative flow. Reporters were unafraid. They knew they could try new things, even if they didn’t at first succeed. No surprise, then, that under her guidance the Post uncovered the Watergate scandal.

Southwest Airlines’ former CEO Herb Kelleher understood the importance of flow. At its inception, Southwest developed the toughest new employee screenings in the airline business. People said it was tougher to get hired by Southwest than by the CIA. Hiring focused on finding people who excelled at being “people” people. As a result, flying on Southwest was fun. Flight attendants told jokes, gave out extra sodas, and engaged passengers in mid-air trivia contests.

Southwest had invested heavily in maintaining a ratio of one supervisor for every ten employees, a tight ratio in an industry where the norm was one to twenty. When Southwest needed to negotiate a new compensation agreement with its unions, the investment paid off: Southwest experienced no work stoppages.

“This is why our supervisors are so important,” said a vice president of in-flight operations. “It is easier to walk out on people that you don’t respect than to walk out on a friend.”

More than 40 percent of the leaders in our surveys say they spend too little time working with individuals to help them unlock their creative energies. So ask yourself: “Have I found my own creative flow? Am I helping other people find their creative flow?” One of the operations managers at GlaxoSmithKline’s research facility in Palo Alto spends a day each year with each of his employees. “This time is yours,” he tells them. “I want to discover what you like to do, and what you want to get out of life and your work.” People spend the day with him, talking about life and career goals. Needless to say, the employees feel highly supported. The company’s track record of retaining key employees backs it up.

Related blog: The Dynamics of Creative Flow (Part 2)

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