Get With the Flow

By Mary Lou Tierney posted 05-03-2010 11:20


The recent running of the 114th Boston Marathon sparked thinking about the conditions of "flow" as manifested in sport that Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi so often refers to in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  

Five conditions of flow:
•    Clarity
•    Choice
•    Concentration on the task at hand
•    Intrinsic motivation
•    Challenge

For the marathon runner who has diligently trained for, qualified for, and then runs and finishes the Boston Marathon, the quality of the “Boston Marathon Experience,” is the totality of the events  leading up to race day.  The experience may be made even more satisfying for the participant who has overcome obstacles in their journey to cross the finish line – injury, personal commitments that compromise training schedules, volcano ash.  Csikzentmihalyi makes the point that, “like all adventures worth having, (optimal experience) will not be an easy one.   …  The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”   

Just like the runner who crosses the finish line in Boston, competing for a research proposal at The MITRE Corporation is a challenging, competitive, "marathon" (5-month) process.  Competitors and Spectators have reason to cheer when competitors cross the finish line.  The task of re-designing the annual competition processes for MITRE’s Research Program using an enterprise Web 2.0 innovation management platform provided a unique opportunity to use Csikzentmihalyi’s conditions of Flow as a framework for "optimizing" the competition experience.  Here is some insight into how we applied the conditions of Flow to prepare for and run the annual competition:


  • Schedule, Rules of the Game - the use of an innovation management platform was helpful in forcing some process stabilization.  The new processes/new competition environment forced the need for clear communication of the competition schedule and "Rules of the Game" at the outset of the competition.
  • Feedback – Two key motivators for moving to a Web 2.0 environment were to 1)improve the transparency of the ideas submitted and 2) allow the corporation-at-large to bring our expertise to bear on those ideas with the intent that ideas be improved through collective intelligence.  In doing so, the opportunity for broader feedback on ideas was enabled.  Prior to moving ideas to a Web 2.0 environment, there was no way for staff to comment on ideas.

Choice  - levels of participation

  • For Competitors: If staff wanted to compete for funding, they had to use the new environment.  However, unlike submission requirements in prior years, we introduced the notion that "seeds of ideas" could be submitted, requiring only 3 of 7 fields of the template be completed in the first stage of the competition.  The desire was to encourage early-stage ideas that could be shaped by the community.
  • For Spectators (non-competitors): with broad participation ("reach") as a goal, staff could contribute input to ideas by voting or commenting.  The platform also afforded the ability to keep track of visitors to the site (by employee) as well as traffic on idea pages.   By using a Web 2.0 environment, we could obtain metrics on site participation.

Concentration on the task at hand – keep the technology transparent to the user, if you can, so users can maintain a state of "flow." 

  • Simplify the interface - Like a mobile phone loaded with features that often go unused by the average user, the innovation platform we license is also extremely feature-rich.  Deciding to simplify the platform and remove features/capabilities that were just too difficult to explain or did not fit the competition-process model proved to be a very smart move.  Introducing overly complex features can disrupt flow.  Just because you can (add a feature) doesn’t mean you should.
  • Help the user navigate bumps in the road … and get back to flow – In software – no application is going to be perfect.  There remains a bug between our vendor’s text editor and IE (Internet Explorer).  When this bug rears its ugly head, the technology becomes very apparent to the user … and frustration/anxiety ensue (an "anti-flow" condition).   Quickly responding to support inquiries from impacted users and providing a work-around solution on the site are ways to help users get back to the task at hand.

Intrinsic motivation – why people engage in a challenging task in the first place

Csikzentmihalyi  says, “… in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life.” He also reports that people realize optimal experiences four-times more at work than in their leisure time.  Extrapolating the first quote to read "optimal experiences add up to a sense of participation in determining the content of work-life" was one way of understanding our audience. Winning funding for a MITRE research project presents an opportunity for staff to determine the content of their work life by doing work they are passionate about and deem worthwhile.

Challenge – the user should be able to focus their skills, attention, and energy on the competition, not on how to use the technology that hosts the competition

  • While staff will take on and accept the challenges and rigor of the competition processes that test their domain expertise and stretches their professional skills, they don’t want to struggle with the technology that supports the competition
  • In the context of flow, the job of the development team and the community management team is to keep technological challenges experienced by participants minimized. Analogy: keep the race course free of debris.

Reputation and word of mouth – how to keep competitors coming back and to attract new participants.

A final commentary on why paying attention to the user experience is so critical – word-of-mouth "marketing" by staff.  When the goal is to attract and keep quality people participating year after year the focus on providing an optimal user experience is time and effort well spent.   Reputation is built over time and attention to detail early on will pay-off during the race.  

Approved for Public Release: 10-1835. Distribution Unlimited
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#changemanagement #Motivation #web2.0 #culture #challenge #marathon