Friday, January 20, 2012

Flow and Creative Spaces

In one company I worked, they didn’t quite know what to do with me. I ran a machine that created objects like magic from three dimensional computer models I created—like magic—from the drawings of engineers. I wasn’t quite an engineer. Nor was I a tool maker or graphic designer. Yet, what I was doing was all three.
So they stuck my desk in an alcove in a hallway. There, I got to enjoy people walking past me roughly every minute of the work day. I almost cheered when six months later I found myself in the first round of layoffs.
In another company, some nimrod bought into the concept of Collaborative Workspace. It’s the cubicle concept turned inside out. You take your engineer, programmer, graphics designer, office clerk, and sales-marketing dude and stuff them into a larger cubicle, all with the desks facing each other. The sales pitch—clearly to sell office partitions—was that these professionals could now be free to collaborate on creating new products on the fly, without having to schedule time-wasting meetings. Instead, it brought productivity to a screeching halt. No one could get work done while being stared at by several other people. On top of that, the company couldn’t hire any creative professionals needed for the creation and design of new products. The moment someone walked into the office and saw the work environment, they would walk right out again without even bothering with the interview process. When the employees finally complained to the management, they were told to love it or leave it.
They left.
A third place I worked had a traditional cube farm. A family owned business, they seemed to feel that no one would work without proper supervision. They made it a point to make regular circuits around the office and glance into everyone’s cubicle to ensure they “were actually working.” These routine checks would happen every fifteen to twenty minutes. Worse, the CEO apparently read somewhere that it was important to “acknowledge” employees. So, he would call out each person’s name as he walked past their cubicles.
Every fifteen to twenty minutes.
This time range is important.
Remember it.
None of the above companies exists anymore. None of them fostered the creative environment needed to bring ideas from concept to product. If anything, they quashed it. The environments created at each of these companies were structured in such a way that no one could truly focus on a given task for any length of time. Before anyone could really get going on an idea, a distraction would be introduced stopping that thought process needed to bring that idea to fruition.
Humans have a particular mental state, whereby they are able to completely focus on a task with such intensity that they completely lose any sense of time, environment or self. It is a state of active meditation, where in order to keep up with the activity, the brain disengages those parts that monitor the passage of time, the external environment and even personality in order to bring those extra resources to bear. It is a state of maximum creativity and productiveness.
This is the state you are in when reading a book and you cease to see the words on the page and the story plays out in imagery in your head. When you are playing music and you are no longer aware of the notes on the page or the instrument in your hands; the melody just comes out of you and you know just when to hold this note a little longer or slip the key to bring out a new layer of emotion in the song. When you’ve thought of a new way to work an algorithm and create the most exquisitely elegant code. When the other players seem to be moving in slow motion during the game and can’t keep up with your moves, every step placed perfectly around your opponents. When you are carving the canyons on a 600cc and all you can feel is the perfect balance of the bike and seamless transitions between gears as you glide through the curves.
As a writer, you sit down and the story just seems to flow out of you. Your fingers clattering away at the keyboard just trying to keep up with the story as it creates itself before you.
During all this, you completely forget yourself and the passage of time. Hours seem to pass in a moment. These moments merely are composed of the event and your action to accomplish it.
Psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied this state of consciousness and labeled it Flow. (Note especially the list he shows at 14:30 in the video. Does any of that feel familiar to you?) He called it flow due to several people he interviewed as part of his studies described their experience as being carried along by the activity they were engaged like being carried by a current of water.
Creative people tend to be most capable of entering this state. People who turn inward to their minds for contemplation. Introverts.
Many years ago, I remember reading an article about office spaces. In this article was a comment that just stuck with me because it really hit close to the target. The author made a comment about not wasting money on building out office space. “Leave it open,” he said. “If your employees need an office with a door, tell them to go work for Apple.”
Or something to that effect.
That was well over ten years ago I read that piece. Today , the counterpoint to that author’s statement is enormously clear: if you want your company to be as successful as Apple, give your employees offices with doors they can close!
As business executives running companies push to increase their take home pay by decreasing services available to employees, they are actually cutting the very thing by which their most creative product inventors and producers need: privacy and quiet.
A study by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister looked at the production performance of a number of computer game publishers. Probably the most intensive work environment in technology is the development of computer games. Between companies with the same resources, they found huge disparities in the quality and production output. The key difference in these companies? The companies with the biggest hits, highest quality and production output were those where the programmers had privacy, quiet, and freedom from interruptions.
I.e.: private offices with doors they could close.
Even Steve Wozniak—the other “Steve” behind Apple, Inc.—pointed out that the best production environments were those where the creative people could intermingle socially, but then retreat to their hovels to create.
One of the key things needed for a creative individual to reach the Flow state is privacy and freedom from interruption.
Once a creative individual has  begun work on their task, it takes about fifteen to twenty minutes for an individual to actually enter flow.
Remember that number from above? Where the executives prowled the office looking for slackers? They did this three or four times an hour. If you can’t do the math in your head: every fifteen to twenty minutes.
So, each time they would slink out of their office, poke their head into the cubicles of their employees and ask, “What are you doing?,” they were killing any possibility of their employees actually entering flow state. And effectively shut down any possibility of their employees entering the most productive mental state by which they could have created money-making products for the company.
The anathema of productive creativity is a micro-manager. Most micro-managers are people who have never actually produced a product in their lives. They have no understanding of what it takes to make a product. I even knew a few executives who had absolutely no idea what it was their companies did. All they wanted to see was Engineer A output something on Paper B and get it to Toolmaker C, pronto! Without ever knowing what their employees actually did. Those companies never survived.
Put an individual who knows the product—how it is made, what it does and what it is used for—and you will have a company that will succeed. Every company I worked in that was lead by someone who had worked in the production line of the company’s product development has succeeded and is still in business today.
The absolute textbook example of this is the current reigning champion of the technology world, Apple Inc. When they ousted Steve Jobs from the company and put business and finance people in charge of the company, Apple all but failed. When Steve Jobs returned, focus on product and development was returned and Apple is now the biggest success story today of American companies.
One of the first things he did was give private offices to the creators in the company so they had a quiet place to retire to and come up with ideas for the next big thing. The idea for the iPod did NOT come from a committee in a brainstorming session!
Google took it a step further and they actually told their engineers to apply 20% (one workday for those of you bad at math) of their time to a pet project that interests them. The result of this “Go forth and daydream on the job” command has resulted in over half of Google’s product line! Including that moneymaker of theirs that everyone is trying to copy, AdSense.
An extrovert with a “Type-A personality” is the kind of person that does well in sales. They are aggressive and always seeking external stimulation. These are the kind of people more likely to go jumping out of airplanes, driving expensive and overpowered sports cars, playing golf, schmoozing around, hitting the bar chugging beers and shots, while sticking dollar bills in a dancer’s G-string with their teeth. They generally don’t care what other people think of them. Traits that are usually excellent for approaching strangers and engaging them to buy a product.
Often, extroverts get advanced into low and mid-level management fairly quickly, because of the money they bring in through connections they forge with customers and more through the fact that they are always engaging other people, particularly their superiors in the company. They are often seen as go-getters.
Introverts, on the other hand, tend to be more passive and reflective. They’d rather be piloting the sailplane than jumping out of it, seeking out the next thermal and enjoying the expansive view below, considering lines of prose to explain the exhilarating scenery of the farm fields below, riding quietly down the back roads and enjoying the scent of the pines after a summer rain shower, hiking to a hidden lake and watching iridescent colored fish swimming in the crystal clear waters. At the bar, sipping a fine scotch, they’d touch the dollar to their forehead and with gentle flourish, allow it to drop to the stage in appreciation of the dancer’s artistic endeavors. Then the introvert will leave when the music started getting too loud for conversation.
Introverts are not often promoted in a company because they don’t bring attention to themselves, being quiet and introspective. Because of the retiring nature of introverts, their contributions to a company are often overlooked by more extroverted upper management. More often than not, the only way creative introverts can get a promotion or pay increase is to leave the company for a new job.
A simple way to explain this would be this way: an extrovert is like the barker at a carnival. It’s his job to draw in the crowds and get them to buy tickets to the show. An introvert is the performer in the show that the people come to see. One draws people’s attention to the product, the other actually creates the product. Which one is more important to the show (company)? (I could write an entire essay on this paragraph alone, but it diverges from the subject of this post.)
The key difference between extroverts and introverts is neurological. To oversimplify, it lies in the way their brains process dopamine. The nerve cells of an extrovert don’t work very efficiently with dopamine. So, extroverts tend to engage things in a way to increase stimulation. The nerve cells of introverts, on the other hand, process dopamine too efficiently and they tend to become overstimulated too easily. So, introverts tend to seek ways to reduce stimulation. Otherwise, an introvert becomes overstimulated and worn out too quickly.
Put an extrovert in a loud party at a club, and he’s likely to walk out with several business cards and sales connections in an hour. Put in introvert into that environment, and in an hour they’ll either be looking for a rock to climb under or the exit.
But, turn this around.
Put an extrovert in a quiet, dimly lit room with a comfortable chair and a piece of paper on the table, and in an hour he’ll be foaming at the mouth going insane with boredom and crumple up the paper airplane he made forty minutes ago. Put an introvert in this room, and something magical happens.
The introvert, now shielded from outside distractions, will begin to turn their thoughts inward and consider the possibilities. In fifteen minutes, their eyes will be focused at something beyond the walls of the room as the ideas begin to race and their mind enters the flow state. When you open the door at the end of the hour, the extrovert would leap out thanking your for freeing them while the introvert will scream at you to close the damn door! After four or five hours, the introvert might be driven out of the room for the call of nature or the need of food and you’ll find the piece of paper contains the diagram for some fantastic device, a new algorithm for predicting the stock market, or the open lines of the next great American novel. The ceiling would have a painting of the Hand of God reaching out to give life to Adam with just a touch, and the walls would be covered with mathematical formulae working out the relationship between mass and energy.
Without interruptions to disrupt their thinking process, the introvert will begin to generate their own stimuli in their mind and enter the flow state. In this state of maximum focus and productivity, they will begin to create. What gets created depends on what the introvert was focusing. What they intended to address. Or what might have suddenly popped into their mind at that moment.
A person in flow state—in the zone—can momentarily leave the task, attend to a need such as food or drink or bathroom, and return to the task. They tend to walk around like a zombie, as though they are extremely distracted by a thought and aren’t paying attention to what is going on around them. They will neither talk nor try to initiate talk. When they return to their task, they will immediately drop back into it. However, if you stop and interact with them such as asking a question, they will immediately drop out of the flow state and back into the here and now. When they return to their task, it might be a considerable while before they can actually reenter the flow state again.
This is idealized. A person in a flow state can interact while still in this flow state, if the interaction involves the problem they are trying to address. Explaining and discussing the task, bouncing ideas off their audience. These are things that generate input for the task. I can say from experience, it is highly likely that should some key point surface, the individual may drop deeper into the focus of the flow state and zone out on you. At that point, you just quietly excuse yourself and walk away. Let the magic continue unabated and await the amazing output that will eventually appear.
Companies are beginning to discover that the whole “Groupthink” concept doesn’t exactly work as promised. In a group brainstorming session, most of the ideas tend to be thrown out and the most dominant person in the room steers the whole thing to their own ideas. And group dynamics will tend towards the low-hanging fruit among the ideas, the more lofty and difficult concepts rejected due to lack of understanding among the participants. These are the very ideas that usually result in a new product or paradigm. Such ideas usually are more effectively brought to reality by individuals than by a teams.
When Steve Jobs told his engineers he wanted an MP3 player, it was Jonathon Ive working quietly, alone, who came up with the form factor of the device that would revolutionize Apple, its products, and a number of industries. It was not a design that came up in a committee meeting having a brainstorm session.
So what is the solution?
Creating creative space begins with you first determining your tolerance for interruption, interaction, and distraction. If you are doing this for others, then you need to have a one-to-one discussion with each to determine their tolerance levels. Doing this as a group will only work in so far as getting your point across that you want to improve their working environment. Many creative introverts are uncomfortable discussing personal issues in a public forum.
Tolerances vary. Some people want a hermetically sealed isolation chamber before they can cut loose. Others are perfectly fine plunking themselves at the kitchen table with the two-year-old and three cats rampaging around them. I know one author who wrote at night and slept during the day while his wife edited his work. I generally do my writing in the morning and then again in the evening, when interruptions are fewest.
You will find that the vast majority of creative people need only two things: privacy and quiet.
Myself? I need freedom from interruption. Noisy areas aren’t so bad, so long as it isn’t a location where someone is going to be walking up to me every fifteen minutes or so. In fact, the background noise has an isolating effect that actually helps to make it ignorable, so long as it isn’t too loud. I love sitting on a porch when writing. Especially when it is raining out. There is something I absolutely love about the sound of a good steady rain.
I once thought up a design for a private workspace/personal office that jutted off the corner of a house into the trees on the property. One corner had a forty-five degree wall across it, hiding a bathroom and a storage cabinet behind a wall of bookshelves. The walls opposite were completely sliding glass windows, that could be slid open leaving the office completely open to the air. It gave the illusion that the office was floating in the treetops and left the owner completely isolated from view of the house or yard. The only entrance was from the corner behind the angled wall, which meant no one could easily just pop into the room and interrupt the work at hand. The feeling of isolation and privacy would enhance the opportunity to drop into flow state and get some real work done. At some point, I guess I should pull out my design software and actually build a model of it.
And if my books turn out to be a success, I may actually build it.


  1. The most deadly thing for my creativity is silence. Silence lets all the channels of my brain compete for attention.

    The second most deadly is music. I wind up humming along, or worse, singing along and thus typing what I'm singing instead of writing...which makes for some very interesting drafts of prayers and other portions of a liturgy :)

    What's most effective and has been since I was very little is to have television or talk radio/podcasts on in the background. I am amazed at how often I've missed hours of shows because the Flow came as I was half-tuned in to a sitcom, a documentary, or a movie. Even the commercials rarely interrupt!

    1. I'll often have music playing in the background. But music that was designed to be used in the background, such as Brian Eno's ambient experiments like "Thursday Afternoon" or "Music for Airports". Soft, low tempo jazz also makes a nice background. Just enough to create a sensory input, but not enough to draw my attention away from my focus.

    2. But you don't have to watch it the TV, right?

      I have a weird thing where it has to be "radio with pictures" that's on in the background. Just music won't do it. It's like my eyes need to know somewhere the visual spectrum is being churned up - just like the auditory one is. Hulu has become my #1 productivity booster as of late.

      Of course, no one would believe I'm not really watching stuff if I told them...

    3. Instead of "often" I should have used "occasionally". The purpose is to drown out distracting noise and music does draw on my attention. Ambient style music tends to be without rhythm or beat, so it nicely fades to the background for me. Gregorian chants have the same effect for me. The nice thing about chants is they are usually recorded in large rooms and therefore give the sonic illusion of being in a large space and the people singing are farther away.

      Some people—as mentioned by both of you—prefer the TV as background noise. I think it is that some people can better filter out speaking voices better than music. I tend to be opposite that, where I can't quite ignore voices as well.

      While there are broad categories that most people fit into, within those categories will be a wide range of techniques suited for each individual. Some need quiet. Some need noise. Some need isolation. Some, oddly enough, need hustle and bustle around them. It seems counterintuitive until you consider the source of the activity. In a café or Starbucks, there is a lot of activity, but none of that activity will result in an interruption because the patrons are focused on getting their coffee or snack and ignore other people around them. In an office, any part of the activity around the individual could be someone needing their attention. So activity in an office can signal an approaching interruption, where activity in a café merely acts as the background noise to drown out distractions. Absolute privacy in public space.