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How Coaching Creates Creative Flow

In my last post I described psychologist Mihaly [tag]Csikszentmihalyi[/tag]’s concept of creative flow. Now I want to focus on how coaches and managers can help creative professionals achieve [tag]creative flow[/tag] more often in their work – and by doing so, produce creative work of a higher standard.

If you are responsible for managing or developing professional creatives or artists, I invite you to consider how you use the following behaviours, which can help you engage their full enthusiasm and continually raise the bar of creative performance.


Flow can be unpredictable and elusive. It requires a delicate balance of many different elements, so it cannot be controlled – in fact, a controlling mindset tends to interfere with it. But through coaching it is possible to influence performance in a way that increases the likelihood of achieving flow. And it should be taken as read that the following needs to be applied with sensitivity to the needs of each individual.

Creative [tag]flow [/tag]is defined by Csikszentmihalyi as “An almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness” that occurs when we are working at the peak of our creative abilities.

See my previous post for a more detailed description of the nine characteristics of flow. Below I’ve listed these characteristics again, with each one followed by ways that you can influence it through coaching to help people achieve creative flow:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way. Goals are central to coaching – it has even been said that without a goal, you are not coaching. For any given task or project, ensure that the goal is clearly understood by all parties, and has the right balance between an inspiring challenge and a measurable target.
  2. There is immediate feedback to your actions. Delivering genuinely constructive feedback is another fundamental coaching skill. By providing clear feedback on people’s creative work and their professional behaviour, you help your team to gauge their performance relative to the agreed goals. When dealing with highly skilled (and sometimes sensitive!) creatives, it is critically important to deliver feedback in a way that is appropriate to individual motivations, personalities and working styles.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills. Take care to match tasks to people’s abilities and help them them to develop their skills, through coaching them yourself or offering other training or development opportunities. You should also notice whether someone is trying too hard or not enough, and compensate by switching to a supportive or challenging style of coaching accordingly.
  4. Action and awareness are merged. When we are congruent, our actions, thoughts and feelings are all directed towards a single goal. Every person you manage or coach will be giving you many verbal and nonverbal signals that indicate their level of congruence. If you are sensitive enough to notice incongruence, you can address the concerns or conflicting priorities that are interfering with focused work – see 5.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness. If an individual is finding it difficult to focus on his/her work, you can use coaching as a forum for resolving the distracting issues. If there are perceived conflicting priorities, you can negotiate or explain the real priorities. If the individual is being held back by a lack of confidence or personal problems, you may be able to help by coaching them, or referring them to an appropriate specialist. If there is interpersonal conflict, you can address it by coaching the people involved and mediating between them. As a manager or director, you may have the authority to minimise external distractions such noise or demands from other workers.
  6. There is no worry of failure. Coaching works on the assumption that it’s OK to make mistakes – as long as you learn from them. By delivering accurate feedback about performance and demanding that people learn from their mistakes, you ensure that failures become less frequent and less damaging. By creating an accountable but supportive environment, you help your people to spend less time worrying about failure and more time pursuing excellence.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears. All artists and creatives have had the experience of being fully absorbed in a creative task, and entering the altered state of consciousness called ‘flow’. As a coach, you can raise the individual’s awareness of the flow state – such as the elements of visualisation, auditory imagination and physical sensation – and help identify the actions, environments and other triggers that lead to flow.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted. Although it is possible for a coach trained in hypnosis to use suggestion to create an altered sense of time, this is not necessary or desirable in a business context! For practical purposes, it’s best to regard this element of creative flow as a by-product of the other elements, and to simply notice the signs in others. For instance, are people clock-watching and eager to leave, or do they seem absorbed in their work and oblivious to the passing of time? Remember, this is not about monitoring their ‘timekeeping’, but noticing how absorbed and self-motivated they are.
  9. The activity becomes ‘autotelic’ – meaning it is an end in itself. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’ – a wise coach will bear this in mind, and pay attention to the levels of enjoyment within a creative team. This doesn’t just mean whether people are nice to each other or can share a laugh (although that certainly helps) but whether they find the work itself enjoyable and stimulating. If they do, then you don’t need to worry about ‘motivating’ them – and you can all concentrate on creating work that exceeds expectations.

[tags]business coaching, management, creative teams[/tags]


  1. Thanks Mark! I especially like the feature no. 4 ‘Action and awareness are merged,’ which describes creative flow. I find that meditative brain wave entrainment CDs help me a lot to prepare for creative sessions.

  2. Thanks Geoff, yes CDs are good for helping you reaccess the right state of mind – whether meditation or music, once your brain/body starts to associate the sound with a particular state of mind, then each time you play the CD it can act as a trigger for that state.

  3. Hello Mark,

    Was in need of some inspiration for my own work and remembered your site. What a wonderful inspiration you are! We ‘spoke’ some time ago when I was starting up my business and it’s going well – slower than I’d like, but moving. I’m also using drawing in my coaching practice since I qualified as a coach last April and I’m finding that very sucessful especially in clients who seen uncomfortable with direct eye contact.
    Have you heard of the Vizcommunity@vizthink.com? I went to great evening seminar that they put on in London last month.
    Keep up the great work and very best wishes to you.

  4. Hi Lee,

    Nice to hear from you again. A couple of people have mentioned vizthink to me, I should check it out.

    All the best,


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