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Going with the flow

His favourite four-letter word begins with an F. Phil Parrish goes with the flow to talk Michael Jordan, positive psychology and the ultimate example of people engagement.

Wednesday June 3, 1992. The Chicago Stadium. The first game of the NBA Finals between Western Conference champions the Portland Trail Blazers and Eastern Conference winners the Chicago Bulls.

The visitors, inspired by shooting guard and star player Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler, roared out of the blocks that evening, making their first seven shots, ratcheting up an eight-point lead and sending the Windy City’s home crowd into a funk.

It didn’t last. Early in the second quarter, Bulls number 23 Michael Jordan responded with one of the most virtuoso displays of hoop shooting ever seen, scoring six consecutive three-pointers before half-time, setting a new NBA record and leaving the Trail Blazers, well, for dust.

The game, and maybe the entire series, was decided with those six flicks of Jordan’s wrist. The Bulls rampaged to a 122-89 victory, unleashing a momentum that would end with a 4-2 series triumph and the team’s second NBA Championship.

The game was memorable for another reason too: a wonderful moment just after Jordan nets his sixth three-pointer, when he turns to the court-side commentators and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, ‘I don’t know how I’m doing this’ (featured below).

A Hungarian positive psychologist thinks he does. When researching some artists’ tendencies to neglect food, drink or sleep while absorbed in their craft, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi developed the concept of ‘flow’. It’s a mental state where “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Michael Jordan’s infamous shrug became a highlight reel mainstay.

Often referred to as being ‘in the zone’, flow is characterised by total immersion in your activity, a sense of über-engagement when you’re oblivious to anything unrelated to the challenge at hand. Think Ayrton Senna in his prime at Monaco, Pablo Picasso chain-smoking his way through the creation of Guernica, John Coltrane freestyling with his saxophone. And Jordan masterfully finding his range on court.

Is a state of hyper-engagement like flow possible in the business world? Csíkszentmihályi believes three conditions are necessary for flow to exist: a clear set of goals – purpose, immediate feedback so performance can be adjusted – measurement, and a task suited to a person or team’s abilities that’s neither too challenging nor too easy – personalisation, these are the three foundations of any effective piece of communication.

As engagement specialists, we may not be competing for sporting glory or avant-garde artistic excellence, but the lessons of flow are still invaluable for writers, designers, strategists, managers and presenters alike.

The next time you’re looking to engage, inspire or simply be the best you can be, why not ask yourself the three flow questions. Why are we doing this? How will we know if it’s working? And is it right for us and the audience it’s intended for? It’s only three simple points, but as the Trail Blazers found to their cost, regular application of three points can be the difference between success and failure.

Whereas with Michael Jordan (and every other high performer) it’s simply a matter of habit.

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