You are a developer, working on a tricky problem, but you can’t seem to get into the right mindset to solve it. You keep getting distracted by meetings / instant messages / emails, and when you come back to it, the ideas you had have gone out of your head and you spend 10 minutes (or longer) remembering where you got to before you can make any progress!
We have all been there. It is a common and frustrating problem.
But there is hope!
In this blog, I will talk about being ‘in the zone’, or achieving ‘a state of flow’.
This is the state of mind which is the ideal state for innovation, thinking creatively, and learning new skills. In short, it enables the maximum contribution from each team member. This mindset is really important when you are trying to solve a complex problem or working on something with lots of variables. But it can be very hard to achieve and maintain this flow, even for a short period of time. Being able to slide back into this flow can seem to be always out of reach.
Note: The flow I am referring to here is the mindset of a person deeply focused on a task. It is not related to the speed of delivering software change from development through to operations.
Another way of thinking about flow is as a state of playfulness.
Think about a small child playing with her toys. She is immersed in her activity, fully engaged, and focused. Her mind is in the optimum state to learn new skills. She seems to be naturally creative and she does not require encouragement or coercion to solve problems.
Why is the state of flow (playfulness mindset) useful?
In short, it enables the maximum contribution from each team member:
- This mindset is the best environment conducive to learning new things. The team member has the headspace and capacity at that time to understand and really absorb new information. We all know how quickly technology is changing – there is no room for an employee who doesn’t learn new skills.
- In this mindset, team members are able think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to solve the difficult problems. This is what human beings are good at – much better than computers. In order to get the most out of people, we need to allow them to innovate – and automate the repetitive, low value tasks.
- It is good for employee morale. It is satisfying to be able to focus on something, work on, and achieve something at the end.
But as adults, particularly at work, we can struggle to tap into our playfulness mindset (flow), and we suffer for it.
What can disrupt the state of flow?
Being pulled in many directions with different obligations and responsibilities prevents team members from getting into the state of flow, or drags them out of it prematurely. For example:
- Instant messages popping up on the screen (often demanding immediate response)
- Not having long enough stretches of undisturbed time to get into a piece of work. An hour here and there in between meetings is not enough. (And worse is not having ANY time between meetings!)
- Having too many open tasks which take away focus from the task at hand.
- Management responsibilities can get in the way. It is difficult to switch from big picture thinking (e.g. project planning, chasing dependencies, engaging with stakeholders etc), to detailed thinking which is required to really focus on a technical piece of work.
Evaluation and pressure to perform
- Being closely evaluated or observed. This inhibits creativity and learning – thereby making it more difficult to solve complex problems and build good solutions.
- Strong pressure to perform to a certain standard or within very tight timelines can have the effect of encouraging the team member to deliver what they think the manager wants to see or what will ‘look good’ in the stats/ratings. This often conflicts with the freedom to gain a deep understanding of the problem and deliver the best solution.
- Stress is well-known to reduce creativity and inhibit performance.
So how can we cultivate an environment where we and our team members are able to achieve a state of flow?
The same principles apply to achieving a state of flow as a state of playfulness. Many organisations have introduced “serious play” methods as a way of increasing creativity and innovation in the workplace.
- Use time-blocking so you have long chunks of time to focus on a task. If at all possible, set instant chat status as ‘Do Not Disturb’, and close emails. Be disciplined and don’t check them until your time slot is up or you have achieved your goal (for an example, see Flowtime technique). If something urgent comes up, someone can always call your phone!
- Have fewer open tasks at any time. Use principles like Kanban boards to make all work visible and reduce ‘Work In Progress’ (WIP) as much as possible.
- Try to reduce management responsibilities for a techie.
Empower your team members and give them autonomy
- Make sure that the criteria for success is clearly defined. In the case of solving software development problems, this is usually clear – to fix an issue/bug.
- Give team members autonomy. Give them the time and space they need to be able to focus on a task and deliver it to the best of their ability rather than being dictated by another. Trust they will do a good job.
Reduce stress and anxiety
- Aim to reduce stress in the workplace by not putting unrealistic demands on team members and avoiding blame.
- Avoid publicly evaluating team members or ranking them. Of course there is room for evaluation and constructive criticism but ideally within a performance review process which doesn’t get in the way of technical work tasks.
Achieving this state of flow is one of the goals of a DevOps cultural transformation. Read more about how Sandhata can help you achieve DevOps success, start your IT transformation, or look at some of our previous customer stories.
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