flow hacks

Flow Hacks

Courtesy of Lead Agile Solutions, please enjoy an unedited chapter of ‘Unlocking the Science Behind Agile’ for your reading pleasure…

Flow Hacks
Source code of ultimate human performance

“A lot of the best work I’ve ever done started out as something completely different because I gave myself permission to have space around my time and expectations.”
~ Merlin Mann

You may be familiar with Google’s infamous ‘20% time policy’ where employees are encouraged to spend at least 20% of their time working on projects that may or may not be outside their traditional role. This has been credited with the creation of Gmail and touted as a model innovation program for companies across the globe. Similarly, Atlassian incorporates a ‘ShipIt Day’ encouraging their employees to work on whatever they want for 24 hours every three months. No doubt inspired by these practices, many companies now employ their own innovative techniques such as ‘Hackathon’s’ and ‘Codefests’ just to name a few. Additionally, Scaled Agile Framework® models advocate staging a dedicated Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration every 3 to 4 iterations. Imagine the possibility of not only you but your entire team being tasked with, well, more so encouraged to work on whatever you want, a consecrated space for pure innovation? Sounds appealing no doubt, but what do you think companies really get out of this?  What do you think is the true benefit?

Science Fact – The Flow state:

To find the answer, we need to defer to the neuroscience. Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced /ˈmiːhaɪ ˈtʃiːksɛntmiːˌhɑːjiː/), a leading researcher from the University of Chicago, has spent over 40 years studying this and found that a peak performance state, which he refers to as ‘Flow State’ sees a person’s actions and decisions lead effortlessly and fluidly to the next.  You may know this peak performance state by other terms such as ‘Runners High’ or ‘Being in the Zone’, or something else again.  Basketballers know this state as ‘Being Unconsciousness’, while Jazz musicians refer to it as “Being in the Pocket”. Even stand-up comedians describe peak performance as “Being in the Forever Box”. At its core, ‘Flow State’ is a technical neurobiological term where we feel our best and therefore can perform at our best.

Following Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research, Steven Kotler (a notable sports journalist and author) has made some incredible discoveries in the field of sports. He found that while world records in traditional Olympic and Pro sports were taking years to break, records in the field of Adventure Sports were being broken not only more consistently but far more frequently, often every several months or in some cases every several weeks! Additionally, records that were previously thought as ‘untouchable’ or ‘impossible’ were being toppled with continual amazing results, one after another.

In the world of Kayaking, dropping down a waterfall was originally considered suicide.  But in the late 1990s, a kayaker deliberately plunged down an 80ft waterfall and survived. Since then kayakers have plummeted themselves down waterfalls over 189ft high! In the world of rock climbing, climbs of 2000ft would previously take days to ascend. Twenty-two-year-old climber Alex Hannold now completes such climbs in a matter of hours, and without a safety rope. Another climber Jimmy Chin likened these extraordinary feats to that of a pro basketball player having to successfully sink 1000 free throws, 100 three-point shots and finally a half-court shot all in the final game of the season to win the championship!  Imagine the physical and mental exhaustion of this, combined with the pressure of knowing that every single shot must go in because any miss when relating back to our extraordinary climbers, is lethal. When explained in these terms, the incredible achievements of Adventure Sports Athletes are quite simply astonishing.

Athletes who manage such amazing feats all have the following in common:

  1. Time distorts (either slow down or speed up).
  2. Serene calmness amidst extreme danger.
  3. Incredible pattern recognition ability and flawless decision making.

Peak performances, such as those accomplished by high performing athletes, have been studied for over 250 years. However, it is only in the last several decades where findings have produced concrete evidence validating the attributes of such. For example, one particular study found that snipers had an increased learning capacity of 470% when they were in the midst of their Flow State. Another study from the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that individuals who experienced Flow initiated more original ideas and creative solutions than those who did not experience Flow. Furthering this point, a 10-year study at the McKinsey & Company (one of the largest business consulting firms in the world) revealed executives who experienced Flow reported being 500% more productive in the workplace than those that did not! Imagine for a moment only having to work one day in five while your colleagues toiled away the rest of the week in order to achieve the same result you achieved in a single day. With these findings, Steven Kotler questioned if an average person could achieve Flow and reap the same benefits in much the same way as our record-breaking athletes did earlier in this chapter. In doing so, he found the answer within the latest science on Flow and the methods of action sports, and subsequently established 4 stages of Flow cycle:

They are:

  1. Struggle
  2. Release
  3. Flow
  4. Recover

The first stage is ‘Struggle‘. Here we need to really amp up our focus and alertness, and we need to get the stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our system. As odd as it seems, it is best if our problems seem unsolvable and our efforts unsustainable. But how can this possibly be beneficial?  Research shows that if we want to obtain the flow, we must willingly tackle challenges that are beyond our current skill level, and we need to embrace the frustration that comes with that. Once we reach the point where we can no longer sustain this struggle, we then must release all thoughts relating to our tussle, which welcomes us to the second stage.

The second stage is ‘Release‘. Imagine if the innovation team you are leading had to pull the proverbial ‘all-nighter’ for a whole week straight in order to complete a pivotal task. How would you reward them? Perhaps with a dinner and a movie? While being a nice sentiment on your behalf, the reality is the method is unimportant. What is important is relaxation. The moment we mentally alleviate, our body releases a chemical called Nitric Oxide, which makes it possible for the 5 ‘pleasure drugs’ (Norepinephrine, Dopamine, Endorphins, Anandamide, and Serotonin – when combined they increase physical and mental performance) to flood our brains and allow us to access the state of flow. The message here is to learn the art of completely letting go and detaching yourself from your struggle

The third stage is ‘Flow State’. The Flow State is accessed by managing to detach oneself from your struggle. When in a state of the flow, the region of the brain associated with self-monitoring and self-editing literally goes dim. This is where your inner critic resides, and it is where that voice in your head tries to prevent you going any further. People who enter the Flow State, such as our Adventure Sports Athletes, have mastered the art of deactivating this part of the brain. What separates them from all other people though is the environment in which they are working.

Here are three main characteristics of their environment.

  1. High consequences
  2. Rich sensory experiences
  3. Immediate feedback

High consequences where often one wrong move could be fatal (think our rock-climbing friends). Amazingly an individual with social risk is on the same level of physical danger which is why the fear of public speaking is reported to match the fear of death. Therefore, if you want to experience the same level of consequence as an Adventure Sports Athlete, there is no reason to go bungy jumping from the Burj Khalifa! Instead, simply put yourself in a risky social situation such as public speaking. Or give someone your word and promise not to break it.

Rich sensory experiences are felt when plunging down a waterfall several hundred feet high or hurtling down a snow-laden mountain on nothing but a snowboard. The level of sensory input is simply surreal. This is all good and well for those who partake in such activities, but for the rest of us, rich sensory experiences are also felt through our everyday work lives, even by those working in novel spaces like a café.

Immediate feedback is experienced by all athletes. Every action they take is followed by an immediate reaction with their inner body. This, in turn, allows them to immediately make the required corrections for the next action.

Our goal is to make the feedback loop as fast as possible as we want the action result correction to occur quickly. This could mean visualizing your work in the form of sketches or doodles, for example. By doing so, you can see the results immediately and activate the automatic feedback in your brain. When you create all three of these conditions, you dramatically increase the odds of deactivating the part of the brain responsible for self-monitoring. Once deactivated, you access the flow state in which your body uses up the vast amounts of neurochemicals in order to keep you focused and increasing your pattern recognition ability.

Without large reserves of these two neurochemicals, you cannot gain access to flow. Therefore, you need stage four, the recovery stage. During this stage, you can recover from the flow hangover and restore your neurochemical levels by getting sufficient sleep and downtime. This means completely disconnecting from your struggles, particularly on weekends, and ensuring sleep is a priority.

Steven Kotler’s work in hacking the Flow is instrumental and clearly demonstrates how to provoke the Flow consciously and improve the creativity of a person by over 500%. This science is utilized in ‘work on what you want’ and ‘innovation’ days, such as Google’s ‘20% time policy’ and in fact, all large-scale organizations which employ lean-agile methodologies. If you truly understand the stages and triggers, you can (and should) use Flow in your personal life as well. Not only will you achieve what you once thought was unachievable, but you will impress your friends and family no end with your newfound abilities coming from, you guessed it, Flow!

Agile Science – How the Agile practice induces flow state:

So far, we have come to understand the stages of Flow State, and the triggers which are utilized to consciously invoke Flow so that anyone, not just athletes, can achieve amazing results. In the following section, we will see how Lean-Agile frameworks in large organization purposefully set-up these stages using the triggers, enabling peak performance from employees.

Agile's team execution schedule - flow hacks

3.1 – Agile’s team execution schedule

As shown in illustration 3.1, a typical high-level schedule of the multi-agile team will operate on a 2-week iteration having four execution iterations, followed by a dedicated innovation and planning iteration which is utilized to generate new ideas in addition to planning for the next execution of iteration cycles.

Flow State stages in Agile:

S. No Flow Stages Agile Stages
1 Struggle Four Execution iterations
2 Release End of the 4th execution iteration
3 Flow Innovation and Planning (I&P) iteration
4 Recover Break between the I&P and the next execution iterations

3.2 Flow state stages in Agile

Table 3.2 shows how the stages are set-up in the Agile framework. But keep in mind that without the flow triggers, the stages are not going to pay any dividends. Similar to setting the stage, then having no show, stages without triggers simply do not perform.

In Agile, this would come at the expense of sacrificing one entire execution iteration without any benefit, which from a financial perspective would be an expensive loss for any organization.

The flow triggers in Agile:

S. No Flow Triggers Agile Triggers
1 High consequences Iteration targets
2 Rich sensory experiences System demos
3 Immediate feedback Iteration feedbacks

3.3 The flow triggers in Agile

First, high consequences.  In an Agile organization, iteration targets are reviewed every two weeks as opposed to the end of the project cycle in conventional organizations. Thus, the significance of having to meet an individual or team target is significantly elevated throughout the execution cycles. Imagine if you will that you were part of a multi-team environment all working towards a new product to be released to the market. All the other teams have successfully met their targets and completed their tasks, except for you. For whatever reason, you have not been able to complete your work, and the consequence of this is delayed product release, lost company revenue and the entire set of company eyes focused squarely on your inability to meet your target. We all like to be recognized by our company, but certainly not in this way! This is practically equivalent to public speaking consequences we covered earlier.


Second, rich sensory experience. The expectation of each execution cycle in Agile is that a working product must be shown rather than a documented updated status. At the end of each iteration, the team are given the opportunity to stage their product demo (system demo) at a team level, and additionally an integrated system demo at the program level. This gives the team a rich sensory experience by showcasing their accomplishment and demonstrating that what they are working on is contributing to the overall initiative.


Third, Immediate feedback. This is one of the core elements of Agile ways of working. Every two weeks, feedback is provided by the stakeholders after the system demo, and by releasing the increment of the product to the customers regularly, customer feedback is both rapid and frequent.

These three triggers are designed to induce the flow state of every individual in the team, and the dedicated Innovation and Planning iteration that follows is set up to extract maximum benefits. It is when employees are in their flow state that the company wants them to perform their most creative and critical work for business success rather than engaging in the mundane. That is the core idea of Innovation & Planning (I&P).

In the preceding example, we compared the Flow science to one of the typical Scaled Agile Framework® practices to determine how the Flow State is designed to induce once in every 4 iterations. If you understand this concept, then you will know that it can be performed as often as required. Google ‘20% time’ and Atlassian ‘ShipIT’ are great examples of these practices occurring at differing times.


Through Flow Science, we have witnessed not just ordinary performance enhancement, but genuine performance amplification of anywhere from 250% to 1000%! Importantly we found that Flow Science does exist, and it is in fact relatively easy to evoke. Organizations worldwide are including Flow Science in their structures, predominantly through the implementation of Lean and Agile Transformations. If Transformation Leads are familiar with Flow Science, they can set up the cadence to take full advantage of lining up the stages and triggers which will return the best results. Additionally, Agile coaches who understand the importance of the Flow can take the necessary steps in ensuring nothing distracts or hinders the Flow enablement.

As a result, it is not only the company that benefits through the high performance of their workforce, but the employees themselves profit enormously by maximizing their potential and increasing their engagement with the overall organization.

We hope you enjoyed reading this chapter from ‘Unlocking the Science Behind Agile’.  For all of chapters and more great reading please follow the link and grab your copy of this wonderful Agile companion book today!