Have you ever found yourself in an athletic competition where you couldn’t miss a shot? Or a piano concert where your fingers were flying across the keys on their own accord? What about a writing experience where you couldn’t keep up with the thoughts in your mind?
Experts in various industries have their own individual terms for this unique state of being. Abraham Maslow called them “peak experiences.” Jim Fixx referred to the “runner’s high.” And Phil Jackson spoke of “being in the zone.”
In our product engineering business, we call this rhythmic zone “The Flow.”
When you’re working in a flow state, time slows down; three hours of hard work feels like only 15 minutes. It silences your inner critic and makes your project—whether it’s an athletic match, a concert, or a product engineering project—feel effortless, and productivity is at its maximum.
Getting into a flow state brings teams and individuals into their highest performance and most productive times.
However, too often we find ourselves and our teams in the opposite state; spinning our tires in the mud with frustration. For product management and engineering teams, this looks like feature creep: trying to build technology just for the sake of trying, unintentionally wasting time, and conducting low output sprints that aren’t aligned to business outcomes and incur increased costs without much to show for it.
Unfortunately, most teams either haven’t heard of flow or don’t recognize it when it arrives. The good news is that flow is a cycle you can learn to manage.
The Flow Cycle
The flow cycle does not have an on/off switch. Rather, it’s a repetitive, four-phase cycle as described in this video by Steven Kotler the co-author of the book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.
Here are the four phases of flow and how we generally think about them in the context of product development.
While you may find this surprising, the struggle phase is a prerequisite for flow. This is the stage where tasks are challenging and confusing, requiring extra concentration.
This stage is a critical phase in the cycle because it’s where your brain downloads the information it needs to tackle the task at hand. We recognize this stage when we are trying to make sense of a variety of complex concepts and tasks. We find ourselves struggling to figure out how to move forward.
The release phase is when you move out of the struggle phase. You let go of all of the complexity and just try to get tasks done. We notice this phase when we have identified a path and we are just starting to work down it. The inner critic settles and your focus switches to trying to accomplish tasks.
Once you realize the prerequisites to flow, you’ll find yourself here more often! Time starts to disappear, and your focus, solution understanding, and productivity are at there highest. This is the flow state. Go with the flow and focus on producing. You will be surprised at how much you accomplish! The phase is even better when you and your team are all in group flow. We love when this happens. We feel like we can accomplish anything we are working on with ease. For us it a happy and amped feeling.
Recovery comes when you slip out of the flow. Your ability to solve problems slows down and you become less productive. Things like bugs or other complexities begin to show up more often. Unfortunately, it won’t be long until struggle arrives again and the cycle continues.
How to get in the flow more often
As you might imagine, the amount of time spent in each of these four stages and how fast people go through the flow cycle varies. So, how can product teams get in the flow more often?
The solution involves bringing together the previous four topics we’ve explored in our blog series on Product Mindset.
Adopt a product mindset to start adding value right away in small increments, reducing time spent in the struggle phase.
Set measurable outcomes to ensure the product is moving toward success.
Get and stay in the flow!
Together, these processes foster the rhythms that help you and your teams spend more time in the flow.
Download The Product Life Cycle Worksheet
The six-week bet is integrated into our process. Take a look at this sample of how we go through a year of six-week processes with our clients. Click below to get your own Product Life Cycle Work Sheet.
Download a Blank Worksheet
Use the Online Spreadsheet