A CTO’s guide to ‘the zone’: How to help your team understand and reach flow

‘The state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity resulting the loss in one’s sense of space and time.

‘Flow’ exists on both a macro level in terms of environment — presence, distractions and noise — and a micro level when it comes to the actual work being done. Engineers and developers must therefore be sufficiently challenged with interesting projects that are on par with their skill set, at the same time enabling growth and progression. Without this, boredom, apathy and anxiety reign.

In addition, engineers have to build a mental image of the software, architecture and problem space which requires both sufficient time to start and make headway with the task and freedom to concentrate. Things like meetings — which are important for management purposes — can be fatal to them as ‘makers’ and either prevent them from beginning an ambitious project (in the case of afternoon meetings), or being unable to get into the flow state after the morning being taken up by the requirement to participate and focus on something ancillary to their work.

As Paul Graham says: ‘For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.’

Why is ‘flow’ important?

Put simply, a happy team is a productive team; people who experience a lot of flow regularly also develop other positive traits, such as improved concentration, self-esteem, and performance — flow is intrinsic and the ultimate motivator.

While ‘engagement’ is fast-becoming an HR trigger word as the business world moves on from the standard (and somewhat misinformed view) that more input = more output, it can lead to limited thinking. Senior managers need to realise that employee engagement should be approached as an ongoing, global issue and integrate it into any business strategy. Engineers and developers create in a similar way to artists, with coding and software architecture a type of self-expression requiring creativity and imagination. It follows naturally that when they love what they do, they’re more engaged and therefore likely to innovate.

‘Flow’ is also vital to holding on to your employees. People are attracted to projects that excite and stimulate them, and evolve their skill sets. Slack’s Director of Engineering, Cynthia Maxwell reported losing some of her most talented people simply because they weren’t interested enough in the work on offer. She realised that she had to down tools, take a step back and reevaluate her tactics because it was up to her as a leader to nurture her staff and that helping them get into a state of flow and maintain it would increase commitment and loyalty.

How can ‘flow’ be measured?

It’s easy to assume that when engineers and developers are delivering well, they’re happy with what they’re doing, but it may be short-lived as a product evolves or projects change. A good manager needs to be able to pick up on warning signs, dig a bit deeper and tap into the inner workings of their team’s minds to find out what ‘flow’ looks like for each individual and do what they can to help get them there.

So, how can you measure something that has so many variables and looks different for everyone? Start with understanding what makes your technologist tick. During 1:1s, find out:

  • what they want from their work;
  • what they enjoy doing; and
  • what they don’t like working on.

Assess together what they’re best skills are and identify those that need either training or development.

Maxwell suggests using a graph (or an iteration thereof) developed by Google’s Chade-Meng Tan that enables people to plot where they are in relation to the line of flow. Chade-Meng believes getting individuals to talk about their future helps them envision where they are and where they want to be — known as the obituary writing exercise.

Feedback also plays a key role in measuring ‘flow’. Once you’re aware of what someone needs to get into the state, you can keep it under review by using engagement apps and surveys to identify process obstacles, management complaints and ineffective strategies or policies. The surveys should be simple, anonymous and easy to complete. Techniques such as ‘appreciative inquiry’ when used regularly, can help managers gain immediate feedback and pick up on trends. And while it’s always possible for management to make changes and fix any issues raised as a result of the survey, there will be occasions when it’s appropriate for the engineer or developer to propose the solution, because they are often best placed to comment on what’s happening and often have the best suggestions on what to fix.

Ready, set, FLOW…

Once you know what your engineer or developer needs to achieve their potential, it’s time to put it into action:

1) No pomp, just circumstance

People respond to their environment and noise differently. For some, ‘flow’ can only be achieved when in a zen-like condition with no people, sound or other distractions. For others, the mere idea of working in silence is enough to send shivers down their spine. But with ‘irrelevant conversation’ serving as a top distraction in the workplace, and one that can increase stress and inhibit productivity by 70%, it’s something that managers can’t ignore.

Being flexible and allowing employees to be open about how they can achieve the right environment for themselves, be it remote working, using headphones or stepping out and working in a meeting room when a difficult task is being done. Where possible it’s also worth considering the design of any office space to minimise distractions by using soundproofing materials and having dedicated loud and quiet zones.

2) Testing, testing

You’ve brought people on board for a reason: they have a certain skill set, fit culturally and will help create an exceptional product or service. Don’t let it go to waste. Mis-focusing a person’s talents or putting them on a project they could do with their eyes closed benefits no-one and leads to loss of motivation, over-engineered processes and indifference. To induce ‘flow’, you need to find the right balance between utilising and challenging their abilities. Too much of the latter will push them out of the ‘flow state’ and towards anxiety.

Accordingly to Nilli Lavie, a Professor of Psychology at UCL, there also exists an interplay between surroundings and the work being done which depends on the level of complexity. Tasks with high perceptual load will engage full capacity and avoid additional processing of irrelevant distractors. In contrast, tasks involving only low perceptual load will result in distractor processing because of the spillover of the remaining processing capacity. So, if a project is sufficiently challenging within the context of a technologist’s current or easily-acquired skill set, the less likely they are to be sidetracked and maintain the state of ‘flow’.

3) The only way is up

Even when in ‘flow’ every engineer and developer should be moving along the line and growing in confidence, skill and experience. Recognising and responding to cadence changes from completion of a previously challenging project, to a piqued interest in new area, will ensure that you’re able to orchestrate the necessary management response.

By doing this, you’ll ensure that your engineers and developers are both climbing the career ladder and producing their best work at every stage all because you’ve allowed them the space to flow and grow.