Flow and Complexity

I’m currently enjoying the book Good Business: Leadership Flow and the Making of Meaning by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try spelling that after a couple of beers!)

Some good material in here as he stands up for the idea of meaningful work. His research suggests that sustained happiness is more likely to come from engagement in satisfying work than the pursuit of pleasure, a theme taken up by Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness (also in my intray).

I’ve been reading the book and enjoying Curt Rosengren’s posts on climbing which echo Csikszentmihalyi’s thinking on flow states – the power of being in the present and focussed on the immediate next step.

And here’s a chunk of the book that really resonates for me. He explains that complex systems combine differentiation and integration. (So in the human body we have lots of different organs, that are highly integrated to make the whole system highly effectively; less complex life-forms have much less differentiation and function at a lower level.) He continues:

Groups of people can be described as being more or less complex. A crowd is neither differentiated nor integrated; a bureaucracy is usually the latter but not the former. Is the typical department that is run along “command and control” lines a complex system? Probably not, because by not utilising the employees’ unique skills it is not very differentiated. It may be well integrated in that everyone knows his duties and collaborates smoothly, but maintaining order in such a system is both costly and inefficient…

However a very laissez-faire organisation would not be complex, either. It may be differentiated, but its components would not fit well with one another or work together seamlessly… One of the key tasks of management is to create an organisation that stimulates the complexity of those who belong to it.

I really like that thought: stimulating the complexity of the people you work with. That isn’t “making their lives complicated”; but it is (for me) respecting their diversity and giving them scope to bring their own unique gifts and skills to bear.

Predictably, I’m going to point out that this is what Improvisation is largely about. In Improv, people experience that paradox of Structure (the simple rules of each activity, standing for Integration) and Freedom (the scope for each player to bring his/her own authentic voice and idea, standing for Differentiation).

Of course, you don’t need to understand any of this to really get Improv. It functions implicitly because – I’d argue – it taps into our basic human talent for rubbing along together.


(as Mark at Fouroboros would say.)

3 thoughts on “Flow and Complexity

  1. Chris Corrigan

    Great book! Some wonderful practical suggestions to go with the great theory.

    You might like to explore Ken Wilber’s work if you haven’t already to get more insight on the differentiation and integration process. Start with “A Brief History of Everything” and move on from there. Wilber isn’t every one’s cup of tea, and he has a lot of hubris, but I’ve have found his ideas very important in thinking about everything from facilitation design to organizational structure and development.

  2. 800CEOREAD Blog


    On my long list of books to read is “something” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In Re-imagine, Tom Peters recommends Becoming Adult. In May, The Monday Morning Book Club at the Miami Herald reviewed his book Good Leadership. You might also recognize…


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