3.26 – Designing Flow Engines

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at four things; a first exercise to start the process of the Culture Matrix; a list of questions that help frame Indicator Events; a go-to technique for introducing the Customer into the centre; and finally a series of advanced exercises based on the Matrix.

I’ve been running something today (with Mark, James & Fraser) that made me write an instructional piece for workshop design about Flow Engines, the concept I explained yesterday. Making it less conceptual is probably a good idea, so I thought I’d turn my quickly whittled explanation into today’s post. I think it will help me design those four steps I referred to at the top, so in the name of open process, you might as well see how I get there…




This technique is for creating Flow Engines, focussed working templates for either individual or group work. The purpose of a Flow Engine is to focus creative energy as much as possible in order to turn it into productive forward motion.

It was initially based on the three environmental flow triggers by Stephen Kostler’ High Consequences, Rich Environment and Embodiment. Subsequently, it has expanded to incorporate functions of the other triggers plus factors drawn from both work with Smithery and Artefact Cards.

Using each of these three triggers in rotation as a primary, secondary and tertiary priorities throughout a three-step process allows constant reinforcement of the conditions within a design.

The three (modified) triggers can be summarised up as follows:

Consequences: People have a clear idea what is expected of them, how it challenges them, and the consequences if they don’t deliver.

Environment: They are being asked to work within a context where they have access to either new, unpredictable or complex information.

Embodiment: They are asked to work with their whole bodies – moving or creating in physical space, with methods and materials that fully occupy them.



1: Scene Setting

The key outcome when scene setting is for everyone to have a clear and focussed idea of what the problem to be solved is; what it is we have to do, by when, and to what fidelity and resolution.

Primary Trigger – Consequences

You should identify for people why this is hard, important, and skirts along the edge of their abilities (yet not too far beyond). Of course, it doesn’t just have to be something ‘difficult’. Time can be a great way to focus the mind; something you know you can do, but in half the time you might normally have. Alternatively, ask people to work with an unfamiliar method in doing a familiar task.

Secondary Trigger – Environment

Find a way to create a new world around people. For example, ‘pretending’ (creating a scenario in which people can quickly lose themselves) allows participants to drop the objections they might normally come up with, and concentrate on a purer version of the problem at hand. In order to do this most effectively, introduce new threats, unknown information, analogous comparison or anything else that makes it clear this is no longer ‘the routine day’.

Tertiary Trigger – Embodiment

Finally, creating a commonly agreed version of the problem people will work on is important (especially for group work). Having everyone write down a version of the task as they understand it gives people something to work against, gives the facilitator a view of the team’s goal, and uses the physicality of having ‘something to point to’ a way to advance their ideas moving forwards. Having everyone write it down can be key here; not only does it reinforce the understanding for the individuals, but it means that any differences between interpretations can be explored.


2: Exploring

During the exploration period of working, the aim is to supply people with a rich, diverse source of inspiration from which to pull. This should introduce novelty, unpredictability, or complexity, in any combination you wish. The more people have to play with, the more they will create unique, interesting solutions

Primary Trigger – Environment

Novelty should be centred on bringing something to the table that either hasn’t been seen before, or isn’t associated with the task at hand. Use of metaphor and analogy helps here. Unpredictability may be the things you expose people to, or the way you run the group; reveal the next task as people go, to maintain an edge in the atmosphere. Complexity is used to give people a large amount of information (plus that which they bring themselves) and encourage the understanding that things are the less binary and more dialogic; people must bear in mind that more than one thing is true.

Secondary Trigger – Embodiment

If all this material is delivered conceptually, or digitally, people will struggle more to see what it is they are working on. By creating physical manifestations of all information to work ‘within’, individuals or group can quickly and adeptly begin to spot patterns; the peripheral vision that exists when staring at a table or wall of ideas becomes massively important, as people make the links between the seemingly unconnected.

Tertiary Trigger – Consequences

At this stage, the urgency of the problem itself takes a little bit of a back seat; if people are too anxious, they won’t let their minds loosen up enough to explore effectively. To help them deal with this, you can use the initial problem statement to generate questions to use when interrogating the other information e.g. ‘What other sectors does this look like?’, ‘Who else has this problem?’, ‘Where might we find this sort of customer?’.


3: Creating

As you move towards conclusion, you want people to quickly turn their creative energy as quickly and as efficiently as possible into something that creates productive forward motion. It could be a proposal, a pitch, a prototype, or most usefully perhaps a combination of all three. What is it, what does it do for people, how can we make it happen… seek to create something that demands resolution on it’s future existence.

Primary Trigger – Embodiment

By getting either the individual or team wholly concentrated on the creative process, you can very quickly build a version of what it is you’d propose to others. Getting people to do this in a physical way means that all hands, eyes and minds are engaged in the process of synthesising the necessary information into material forms that others can see. You bring something new, physical and tangible into the world. This method of working has an additional benefit; by refraining from burning excess energy in non-essentially work (e.g. making PowerPoint pretty) you can maximise efficiency of the working process.

Secondary Trigger – Consequences

During this period of working, you should continually refer back to the problem as identified in scene-setting; how does what we are making answer the question? Anything that doesn’t directly go to addressing the question should be treated in one of two ways; is it either extraneous, and should be removed, or it tells us something important about the initial question, might could suggest a reframing of the problem itself.

Tertiary Trigger – Environment

Finally, you will find that the individual or group will start to filter out the distractions themselves, and peel away the parts of the rich environment they created in order to just use the pieces that really matter. You shouldn’t worry too much about this, but if there are things from the rich environment that were previously considered fundamental in the journey, but now have been left by the wayside, perhaps look back and question why they dropped away.



PREVIOUSLY – 3.25 – Flow Engines

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  3. […] been using the Flow Engines principles a lot since late August, when it arose from the Culture Mapping blog project. It’s […]