Looking Cool…

I was told this morning by one of the professors at my University that she’d used me as an example in a seminar…as ‘an organisational ethnographer who dressed appropriately to study advertising agencies and creative businesses’…and told me ‘not to be offended’. I don’t think I was; it’s a compliment in a way I suppose (although I was ripped by @pace and @HayleyS simultaneously upon notifying them of this fact: (HayleyS @joeadamfry you and your ‘media glasses’); (pace @joeadamfry I always thought your dress sense was painfully, painfully cool. You weren’t even out of place sitting next to me!)).

Moreover, it illustrates an important point about impression management in the creative industries. I didn’t have to worry too much about adapting what I wore or how I spoke etc as it pretty much corresponds to the industry I research. But the point goes beyond the perspective of the organizational ethnographer. Remember those videos you watched in PSE or whatever at school telling you ‘how to dress for an interview’, ‘what to say and what not to say’, how to conduct yourself and so on…these are in many ways obsolete in the media/advertising industry – and in a wider post-modern, post-industrial context, for several reasons.

Firstly, I am not advocating the extremely self-conscious and almost pretentiously ‘creative’/’laissez-faire’ ‘dress-down’ places that seem to proliferate (where essentially, the uniform just moves from shirt and tie to designer brand polo-shirt, jeans and loafers, and management styles barely change at all: only in how they represent themselves), but am rather making the point that in my experience, creative people, or people who perceive themselves to be creative, in an organisational setting, tend to dress in a way that expresses this: that tangibilizes it and externalizes it.

Mothers offices

Mother's offices

Above: The offices at Mother

What is interesting for me is how creative agencies use this device. It is necessary in a lot of ways: creativity is a relatively slippy, abstract and intangible concept, and is essentially the core offering of many of the creative, digital and advertising shops around – particularly the majority of smaller agencies that have been springing up. They are on the periphery of the ‘core-peripheral’ networked industry (imagine this as a diagram if you can) and hence position themselves as flexible, innovative and creative etc….but how can they communicate this. Obviously in their work, in their tone of voice and so on – but mostly through their most valuable asset: their people. Their culture. Their location; their premises. How their employees and subsequently the organisation looks, acts and talks, all aid the communication of what the agency ‘is’ and ‘does’.

Secondly, when the agency goes to the client, they have a responsibility to their perceived cultural capital, and are seen to present themselves, act and talk as such. This in turn allows them to talk and act in certain ways (a ‘facilitative’ boundary between the local worlds of ‘the client’ and ‘the creative agency’) but simultaneously restricts them from behaving in others. It preserves the mystique of the creative genius (eg the black-boxing of processes – which if you remember we are trying to avoid) but more importantly facilitates a mutual understanding of what each organisation ‘is’.

Thirdly, when the client comes to the agency, they see a ‘funky, creative’ etc environment, more relaxed than the culture at their place of work perhaps, maybe with beanbags or whatever and music playing, people with their shoes off – and this serves to reinforce and confirm their choice of ‘creative’ people – or should do at least. They have an opportunity to relax and dress down themselves, and potentially become immersed in and part of this part of the creative process.

This is perhaps the most important point, as paradoxically whilst ‘creative people’ may express themselves in certain ways in an attempt to tangibilze their cultural capital in the form of creativity, they simultaneously must represent themselves as both credible and also manageable, in an organisational sense; again my argument reverts to the integration of management AND creativity – a combination of divergent AND convergent thinking, and the representation of such an integration through appearance, manner and discourse.


Flow: Interpretations of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Creativity & Flow…

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity”.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is this state achievable in work or play, characterized by the following seven requisites:

1. One is completely involved in the task; you are both concentrated and focused.

2. They feel a sense of ecstasy, in the sense of the original Greek meaning of the word; to feel ‘outside of reality’.

3. ‘Great Inner Clarity‘ – you know firstly what needs to be done, and secondly, how well you’re doing in achieving what needs to be done.

4. Knowing your skills are adequate for the job; that the job is doable.

5. Serenity – no worries of oneself; a perspective transcending the boundaries of ego.

6. Timelessness – time flies by as one is caught in the moment, a total focus on the present.

7. Intrinsic Motivation – whatever activity produces flow; becomes its own reward.

The diagram shows the states leading to and complimenting or contrasting the state of flow.


Studies conducted measuring respondents’ perceived levels of happiness in different situations provided data capturing to what degree they felt challenged and to what degree they felt skilled at any given time. Subsequently it is possible to establish an average level of challenge and skill for an individual (this will be different to anybody else), forming the centre point of the graph as shown. It is argued then that in knowing this it can be predicted when and how the individual can reach a state of flow. Again this will always be different as flow states are dependent on what that particular individual really likes to do – for example, it might be playing a sport, designing, playing the piano.

And so flow becomes this optimum state; arousal and control are both OK and lead to flow: Arousal is where we do most of our learning as the challenge complexity is higher than our perceived level of skill with which to deal with the situation, and so we must learn new skills to achieve flow. Control conversely requires an increase in the complexity of the challenge to avoid reverting to boredom or apathy, generally considered aversive (Csíkszentmihályi mentions that TV is responsible for most apathy states, along with having a shit…although interestingly 7-8% of TV watching causes flow too…).

His conclusive point is concerned with integrating channels of flow into every day life more – ways in which flow states can be stimulated and promoted both intrinsically and extrinsically. From an organisation’s perspective, the issue of fostering a culture in which flow channels can proliferate is of great importance; particularly in creative industries such as the digital advertising industry on which my work focuses. Issues of projectization, the division of labour and generally ‘picking the right man for the job’ take on new meaning when contextualized by the notion of trying to achieve flow in the workplace. How can organisational culture and management encourage states of flow to be pursued out of states of arousal, control or worse; apathy, boredom or anxiety? The answer lies in defining the context in which people are supposed to complete tasks – particularly creative tasks. Leaving the space open and blank provides no structure; no boundaries to the process, and as such, flow is unachievable: it doesn’t fulfill the criteria of ‘knowing what needs to be done’ and ‘knowing the task is doable’. Further, too concrete a structure to the process may prevent flow channels being utilized where individuality and independence in producing the task are restrictively bound, result again in mediocrity. Again, a balance must be struck between control and creativity, between divergence and convergence, and between complexity and skill.

To extend the whole idea of flow further, one can in my opinion shift the notion up to a new level of aggregation, and consider organisational flow, rather than individual flow in very much the same way. Organizations could review their previous work and aggregate how complex they felt the challenge was, and how adequate their skills were in each circumstance. Again, an average centrepoint of challenge complexity / skill could be attained, and organisations could work to shift their state to a state of flow on more of a day to day basis. Digital Ad agencies caught in longer term relationships may resort to states of control or relaxation – and further away from flow – and many up and coming agencies are pushing from control or arousal in continually innovating and exppanding their knowledge bases, in order to move towards flow.

Either way, the idea of putting mechanisms in place in order to cultivate both individual and organisational level flow states sounds to me like it makes a lot of sense when trying to engage and develop organisational culture. Indeed, whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.


Click here for Csíkszentmihályi’s TED talk on flow.

This is what wikipedia says about him.