Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Understanding flow… in plain English


As practitioners of whole-systems thinking will find, we talk about achieving ‘flow’ as one of the goals of practicing the thinking. But it’s important to reflect on what ‘flow’ is, and what it is not.

Flow: What It’s Not

First of all, flow isn’t apathy. It doesn’t denote a withdrawal from the world. Quite the contrary, in fact. A lack of passion, apathy, is one of the spades we use to dig the holes in which we find ourselves stuck. Whole-systems thinking is about climbing out of those holes, so flow isn’t apathy.

Flow isn’t fatalism or Stoicism. It’s not a surrender to God’s will, if by that one means a detachment from our responsibility to cooperate in making the world a better place. Flow isn’t a false or forced irenicism in the face of impending catastrophe or in the aftermath of tragedy. Flow isn’t fairy tales about how wonderful – or how terrible – things are. It isn’t a posture or a pose. It can’t be feigned (well, it can, but if it is it’s not ‘flow’). Flow isn’t a knee-jerk response based on ideology, tribal identity, class, or religion. It isn’t a set of rigid, linear, zero-sum plans.

So, you’re wondering, what the hell is it? What is ‘flow?’

Flow: What It Is

The greatest point guards in NBA history are those who excelled in what is known as the “transition game,” the quicksilver switchover from defense to offense, usually marked by fast breaks and quick scores. Players like Magic Johnson, John Stockton, and Oscar Robertson all managed the rapid, unpredictable series of events between steal or rebound and goal in an effortless way that suggested almost supernatural powers, as if time slowed down for them, or they possessed more than the ordinary five senses.

Of course, there was no supernatural power involved. These players had natural talent, yes, but they also worked hard to achieve the court vision that allowed them to smoothly negotiate the most difficult part of a difficult game played at the highest level.

Flow is the full range of sight, both in space and in time. It is ‘whole sight.’ It is life’s court vision.

Watch old film of Magic Johnson in transition. His head is up at all times. He’s simultaneously using both his peripheral and direct vision. As he takes the ball he mentally maps his spatial relationship to the other nine players on the court. As a leader, he knows how his teammates will react without observing them. Having studied the opposition, he knows how they will react, too. And as a student of the game, he knows how basketball happens, how points are scored.

We see ten large bodies moving down court in a desperate, chaotic scramble to score or defend against scoring. We can’t take it all in, and don’t even appreciate the moment until it’s over, when we can see it replayed in slow motion. But Magic is flowing. He seems to know where everyone is, and how they’ll all react. He does exactly the right thing with the ball at the precise right moment. And when the basket is scored, he’s the least surprised person in the building. It’s as if he saw it all happen the moment he touched the ball.

That’s flow. And that’s something that whole-systems thinking can help us achieve in our own lives (if not on the basketball court). By mapping and updating our conditions, both current and emerging, on a constant basis; by re-training our minds to think in terms of scales operative in time; by assessing our networks and the strengths and weaknesses they represent; and by consciously practicing the kinds of feedback loops that keep our whole sight clear; we can learn to flow with change as effortlessly as Magic Johnson.

Life is one big transition game; and the movement from offense to defense and back again occurs many times daily, and thousands of times throughout our lives. Obstacles appear, only to mysteriously dissolve. Clear space opens and then closes. Time seems limitless one day, and impossibly compressed the next. Rarely do we have the luxury of playing a set-piece, half-court game. We need court vision. We need whole sight. We need to learn to flow. By practicing whole-systems thinking, we can.

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