Under Pressure

Flow diagramManaging to encourage flow is sometimes a physical prospect. I live out in the countryside,  in a 30-year-old house which has been finally getting some of the maintenance which was deferred when resources were concentrated on raising our now-adult children.  Our plumbing system starts with a well, the pump for which is electrical.  We get our electricity from the grid, but we have a backup generator which is fueled by liquid propane.  It is also propane which fuels our furnace, our range, and our clothes dryer.

I think most of us are pretty clear about the ill effects of pressure which is too high.  When more pressure is exerted than a system is designed to handle, something always blows.  Well-designed systems have built-in ways for things to blow non-catastrophically.  Of course, this is true of our emotional lives, as well.    I’m grateful that my parents understood the value of tears for this function when emotional pressure was too high. I cry pretty easily, and generally feel better afterwards.  Along the way, I’ve also learned the value of exercise for “blowing off steam.”

This year has been one for learning about the hazards of low pressure.  In exchange for a break on our electric bill, we allow the utility to take us off-grid during high demand periods.  Our generator takes over – but we’d neglected to outfit the propane tank with the proper regulator for prolonged generator use, and as a result, without enough pressure to deliver the needed propane, the generator would poop out.  We needed regulators to handle both high and low pressure demands, and once they were installed, the system behaved as desired.

We put in a hot tub 20 years ago, and it, too, has needed a lot of maintenance lately. We gave it a new pump, and a new motor, and some new electronics which have introduced us to a new error code. “FLC” stands for “Flow Limiting Condition.”  The hot tub has been complaining that it isn’t getting enough pressure.  Clogged filters would be the obvious cause, but we gave it new filters, too.  We fixed a leak.  Still, the tub would complain “FLC” and stop running (this is a non-trivial problem when temperatures drop to the point that ice could form in the pipes, leading to the kind of high pressure that will blow things up!)   Our pals at the hot tub supply store did some research, and came out today with a replacement pressure switch.  We are hopeful that this change will bring proper pressure regulation back.

I have to smile, because I think there is some poetry to this.  Anyone familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on happiness and creativity has heard his description of “Flow” as that experience when we are deep into what we are doing – “in the groove”, as those of us from the 70’s would say, or “in the zone,” to use more up-to-date parlance.  The wikipedia article on Csikszentmihalyi  quotes him:   “To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results”   Challenge, of course, is a form of pressure.

Insufficient challenge is a flow limiting condition for us humans, just as surely as excessive challenge can be.  We are equipped with regulators from an early age, though.  Bright children who are not challenged at school will often set their own challenges by attempting to score 100% on everything, or alternatively, by putting off starting a project until the very last minute.  Adults, too, will turn to perfectionism or procrastination in an effort to create the needed level of pressure when it is not forthcoming from outside sources.

Are we managing challenge in our organizations?  Do we know where in the challenge vs. skill level space our employees are spending most of their time on the job?  Are there things we could do to encourage more flow in our own lives, and in those of the people we work with?