Finding Flow in Your Product Management Career

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A few years ago, I wrote a couple of blog posts about working as a consultant in product management. At that time in London – we’re talking 2011/2012 – it was, dare I say, a bold step to leave a full-time, good product position to go freelance.

I’m happy to say that over the past few years, I’ve never once regretted making that move.  Five years on, I’m still independent and have had a chance to work on some amazing projects that have given me the opportunity to learn so much and extend my dossier to mentoring, coaching, teaching, organisational design and transformation.  It’s been a good run and I find that I truly enjoy the challenges that this variety of projects has brought me.

Throughout this time I’ve continued to hear from product managers who read those original posts and are curious about taking that step into freelance. Typically, there’s a spike in contacts at the start of a year, and yet again in the last few weeks many people from around the world have been getting in touch to ask about product consulting and freelancing.

New Year, new you?

The trend makes perfect sense, as many of us take time out over the holidays to consider changes we may want to make in the new year.  New year, new you, right?  What I find intriguing is that the interest in the topic seems to continue to grow; I receive more emails every year.

In the spirit of continuing to educate myself as to why consulting works so well for me  – and why it may work for you – I’ve done some research into what can bring us fulfilment and happiness at work.

Before I continue, full disclosure that I’m neither an organisational behaviourist, nor a psychologist.  I’m just an interested party who loves to understand what makes us and the organisations we work in tick.

Caveat complete – on with the research! There is so much available about being happy and more efficient at work (but not always a direct correlation between those two, by the way).

Find Your Flow

One of the areas that caught my attention was flow theory, developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For those of you unfamiliar with the theory, Csikszentmihalyi describes a flow-like experience as: “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

According to Csikszentmihalyi, when in flow people report “feeling more active, alert, concentrated, happy, satisfied and creative. “  Not a bad way to feel, eh?

Like many of you, I’ve tried to create products that enable users to enter flow, sometimes with more success than others. As a consultant, I’ve also seen many organisations try to create a culture in which their product, design and development teams can live in a continual state of flow and be “in the zone”. Again, some with more success than others.

Hopefully, we can all attest to the sort of highs that we experience with moments of flow, but have we thought about what is the optimal situation to create flow for ourselves? Personally, I was curious if there is a relationship between the style of work that I have with consulting and feeling flow.

flow

Obliged to Work

With those questions in mind, I recently read an article called “Optimal Experience for Work and Leisure” by Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre (1989).  For those of you interested in more details of the study, you can read it here. For those others of you who want to jump to the findings, here’s a summary. Contrary to Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre’s initial expectations, flow occurred three times more often for the study participants in work environments than leisure. (Leisure was defined as activities like reading, watching TV, socialising, daydreaming, games and sports). The study concluded that “the most positive experiences in people’s lives seem to come more frequently from work than from leisure.”

There were two noted exceptions – in areas of motivation and relaxation, participants were much less “sensitive to flow“ at work.   This led Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre to a great paradox that I’m sure we have all felt: while we have many more positive feelings at work than when we binge watch the latest series on Netflix or browse Facebook, in general, we say that we wish we were doing something else when at work.

Here’s where I felt this study became really relevant, at least to me – Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre hypothesised that this was because we feel an obligation toward work that we don’t feel at play. “Apparently the obligatory nature of work masks the positive experiences it engenders.”

So, it seems, if we don’t feel obligated to work but instead see it as a way to bring fulfilment to our lives – we may enjoy it more.

All About Choice

For me, this was a Eureka moment! As a consultant I don’t feel obliged to have a regular day at an office, and if I’m at an office regularly it’s my choice. The projects I work on are my choice. In my mind, I’ve brought a sense of free will to my approach to work that makes it feel much less of an obligation and more of an opportunity. And, while I’m often working more hours as a consultant than I did in my full-time job, I don’t mind, because it doesn’t feel like an obligation. It doesn’t feel like work.

I’m not saying that everyone should go freelance, or that it’s right for you. Only you can answer that. I think Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre’s findings provide a great suggestion that can be applied to your existing work experience. Can you shift your mindset about work? Realise that work is a place of opportunity for fulfilment and flow – not an obligation.

This may not be an easy thing to do, and for me it took changing my way of working entirely to make it happen. When you get there – your own career flow – it feels great, and I do believe my opportunities to experience flow at work have grown significantly.

Now, it’s up to you. It’s a new year – filled with 12 months of opportunity. How will you approach your work in 2017?

If you’d like to see more from Csikszentmihalyi, check out his Ted talk here.

 

 

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  • Yevgeniya Guthrie

    Excellent article, Kate. Such great insights!

    • kate leto

      Thanks very much Yevgeniya 🙂

  • Tania

    So spot on. When you love what you do you find time to do it too. Sometimes we end up doing 7 days a week because we want to see our achievements delivered successfully. But unfortunately certain environments make it feel like a chore rather than a pleasant experience.

    • kate leto

      Thanks, Tania! Yeah, the trick seems to be trying to get organisations to recognise when their environment is making work a chore, and then getting the right minds together to help them change it. Not an easy task.

  • vic

    i would like to know more details on where or how to find the work. ive tried going freelance several times and find that there is no market for freelancers with 5-8 years of experience :s

    • kate leto

      Hi Vic –

      I hear that a lot – no matter how many years experience, it’s tough to get that first freelance project (that first one usually makes it easier to find the second, third, etc.) Personally, I started out just by putting the word out there to all of my product friends – past and present. Thankfully my network answered back. It wasn’t right away, and it wasn’t from the people that I expected, but it happened. If i remember correctly, it took a few months. In the meantime, I attended a lot of meet-ups to build my network with product people, VCs and start-ups (the audience I was most interested in). If you really want to do it, just hang in there and keep letting people know what you’re looking for. Sooner or later you can crack it.

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