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The Digital Project Manager's Guide Creating Flow for Teams

In the sports world, athletes often refer to being “in the zone” when their performance is lifted to another level. But you don’t have to be an athlete to tap into this state. It can show up anywhere, including at the workplace.

It’s called Flow, and it is simply the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment. The idea of flow was first introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychology professor in the 1970s. Csikszentmihalyi wrote that you’re in flow when the work you're doing is effortless - you feel inner clarity, you are challenged yet confident and deeply motivated.

McKinsey & Company found that if executives increase the amount of time they spend in flow by just 15-20%, they would double their productivity.

Whether you call it flow or being in the zone, it is a desirable state to be in and undeniably produces results. A 2013 study by McKinsey & Company found that if executives increase the amount of time they spend in flow by just 15-20%, they would double their productivity. Why? Because individuals who frequently experience flow are more productive and get greater satisfaction from their work than those who don’t.

“We talk about flow in pretty much everything we’ve been doing lately,” Christine Ballisty, Senior Project Manager at Blue River says. “And for us, it’s more of a philosophy than anything and we want to have it as much as possible.”

For Ballisty and her team, she says that flow means setting concrete goals and making sure that everyone has an accomplishment they can reach. It also means communicating clearly and effectively, mitigating stress and fear, and creating challenges for her team’s specific skill sets. “We don’t want to bore them obviously, we want to challenge them so they continue growing as productive members of our workforce.”

So how can we produce more flow in the workplace? Flow states have triggers that lead to more flow. Some are psychological, while others are environmental or social.

Here are Ballisty’s Seven Keys to Achieving Flow:

1. Plan for everything

“I use many tools in my toolbelt to be able to accomplish key number one,” Ballisty says. “I have to have my ducks in a row at all times because we’re a rapidly growing team.”

Some of Ballisty’s favorite tools to achieve flow include Google Calendar, Wunderlist, Evernote, LiquidPlanner, Trello, Harvest, Slack, and Email.

To start, she utilizes Google Calendar every day in both her professional and personal life. “I share my main calendar with everyone in my company so they can see exactly what I’m up to and know what my availability is,” Ballisty says. “I block off time when I need to dedicate focus. I put ‘out of office’ notices. If I have to go run an errand at lunch or have a lunch date, I block that off. I literally put everything in Google Calendar.”

She also keeps to-do lists in Wunderlist and takes notes about everything - even quick 15-minute meetings - in Evernote. For project management she uses LiquidPlanner for generating timelines, keeping track of projects, and resource allocation. And she uses Trello to collaborate with her team by creating Kanban style boards to manage workflows that include lists, due dates, and files. She also keeps track of her time and her team’s time using Harvest. Plus, her team has also jumped on the Slack bandwagon and use it for all communication. And like everyone else, she uses email but tries to use it as efficiently as possible. “I try to be zero inbox,” she says. “So each email is filed away, action items have taken place, or notes have been taken.”

But when your to-do list is miles long, your inbox is overflowing, and you have a full calendar, how do you actually use these tools in an effective way? “I try to work smart and I try not to multitask,” Ballisty says.

She suggests starting by working on your most important thing first thing in the morning. And while it doesn’t work out that way every day, it’s something that helps Ballisty create flow because she’s able to get in the zone right away. And while we can’t predict when emergencies might come up, Ballisty says it’s important to determine what is a priority vs what is pressing and manage your time in that way.

2. Practice gratitude

Showing a little gratitude in the workplace could be the simplest, yet most effective way to boost morale, promote a healthy culture, and ultimately create flow.

Research shows individuals with a positive mindset are 31% more productive than those with a negative mindset. 

In fact, according to UC Davis psychology professor and author Robert Emmons, gratitude is vital in the workplace. “Most of our waking hours are spent on the job, and gratitude, in all its forms, is a basic human requirement,” he says. Plus, studies have shown that creating cultures of gratitude transforms people, which, in turn creates flow by increasing productivity, job satisfaction, and physical and mental health.

“If we inject a little compassion and gratitude and kindness into the workplace you will find higher satisfaction and fewer sick days,” Ballisty says. “People will actually want to come to work and accomplish their goals, and that works wonders for flow.”

Ballisty suggests doing something as little as taking a coffee break with your coworkers or staying late at work with a coworker who has a deadline and could use some moral support. “You need to work hard and be nice to people,” Ballisty says. “It sounds very simple but it’s so powerful and it will create flow and make everyone much happier.”

3. Banish “The Ego”

Sometimes high-pressure work situations inflate our egos. We get frustrated. We get worried. We get afraid. We get self-conscious or intimidated. We get defensive. Sometimes your ego can get in the way of what’s best. You pour your very being into your work and when it comes under attack you get defensive.

“I like a little praise every now and then,” Ballisty says. “But I think there’s a difference between just a little appreciation now and then and what I call ‘chronic specialness,’ where everything is all about you and ‘we only succeeded because of me.’”

Learning to banish the ego and keep it balanced can be a big challenge, but it is well worth it and it helps you produce better work, become easier to work with, and creates flow for everyone.

“Focus on the end goal and the bigger picture,” she says. “Sometimes you just need to put aside how you’re feeling or what challenges you’re facing and focus on the end goal. If you think about flow with your team and put that ego aside you will find flow for sure.”

4. Health is wealth!

Encouraging people to tend to their own health and wellbeing in the workplace produces a number of benefits, including reduced sick days and turnover, reduced healthcare costs, happier employees, and greater productivity overall.

“Self-care is super important in life, in love, and in work,” Ballisty says. “If you're not taking care of yourself first, you’re in no position to take care of projects or your colleagues. So make sure that you’re taking care of yourself because if not, you’re not going to be able to create flow for your team.”

5. Set and shape expectations

There are two sides of expectations - what we expect from others and what we expect from ourselves. And how we manage those expectations is critical to creating flow.

“Make sure that your expectations fall in line reality and make sure that you’re constantly setting and shaping those expectations,” Ballisty says.

Ballisty suggests starting with four steps to help clarify expectations. First, start by just listening. Then, summarize what they just said to you and offer what can be expected. Next, communicate constantly throughout the lifecycle of your project making sure everyone’s on the same page. And finally, rinse and repeat.

“It’s a lot of work but you will find flow in your routine and you will also find that the people you’re interacting with follow the same model right back to you to set their expectations,” Ballisty says.

6. Choose your battles

You can’t take on every problem at work. If you battle over every little issue, you may not be able to get your point across when it’s something really important. Plus, speaking your mind about every issue can disrupt your flow.

“Focus on that end goal,” Ballisty says. “Fighting is never going to solve anything. So try to be calm and rational in your conversations.”

7. Have fun!

And last but not least, Ballisty says if you want to create flow, start by having fun. Research shows individuals with a positive mindset are 31% more productive than those with a negative mindset.

“Have fun as a team, however you can,” Ballisty says. “Because if you have fun and you get along you'll inherently create flow for each other as well.”

It’s generally agreed upon that the employees who are the happiest and the most productive have one thing in common: they frequently achieve flow. And while it may take some effort, flow is good for business, for the bottom line, and for individuals.

More from Blueriver

The role of a digital project manager today goes well beyond managing tasks, schedules and budgets.

DPMs are tasked with communicating direction, interpreting vision, foreseeing issues, managing dependencies and maintaining the health of their team during the process. DPMs are account managers, business analysts, project managers, scientists and sometimes therapists.Considering this rapidly changing role, there is a lot of opportunity for error.  

In this on-demand video presentation, Blueriver Senior Project Manager Christine Ballisty shares what it takes to be a digital project manager in this day and age, and provides insights on effectively creating Flow for her projects, clients and her team.