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If you visit the Clarizen campus in San Mateo, California and drop-in on any of my team meetings, you’ll see talented and hard working people, an employee-friendly work environment…and oh yes: a little red bus.little red busNo, we aren’t having show-and-tell. And while we do take breaks every now and then, the purpose is to stretch our legs and refresh our minds, not to play with our toys. Allow me to explain:

The little red bus is a keepsake that I brought back from a trip to Clarizen’s London office. But the reason I bring it out during team meetings isn’t to invoke fond memories of my journey “across the pond,” or because it’s hard to get upset or frazzled when there’s a cute and friendly little red bus on the table (give it a try, it’s better than a stress ball).

Rather, the idea is to help everyone on the team – including me – achieve that most precious of all things on the business landscape. I’m not talking about capital, customers or competitive advantage. I’m talking about FLOW.

Introduced millennia ago by numerous “in the zone” advocates from various cultures and traditions, and popularized in the 1970s by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is the virtuous cycle that emerges when people are engaged in deep, concentrated and meaningful work. The deeper they go, the stronger the flow; and the stronger the flow, the deeper they go.

One of the core elements of flow is focus, which is tough to maintain these days. It’s almost as if there’s an anti-focus conspiracy happening, as people are driven to distraction by everything from an endless stream of smartphone pings, to interesting but extraneous conversations, to gazing outside the window at a cloud that looks amazingly like a frog smoking a pipe (uh, I guess you had to be there…).

What does this have to do with the little red bus? It’s simple. This memento also serves as our “focus reset button.” It’s what I turn to (or if necessary, point my team to) when we get distracted and lose flow. Instead of saying “we’re getting sidetracked,” I just say some variation of “red bus!”

And you know what? This simple, perhaps a little silly and 100% low-tech move WORKS. In addition to putting a smile on everyone’s face, it immediately pulls everyone into the present moment, and allows them to re-enter the flow. Because, really, how can you think about emails and envision frog-shaped clouds when you’re being asked to look at a little red bus? It can’t be done. The power of the little red bus is profound.

Of course, the little red bus isn’t a magic wand (or magic bus for that matter). There are other pieces of the flow puzzle, including having an agenda for the meeting, inviting the right people, ensuring that everyone is prepared, following-up with agreed upon action items, and using a collaborative work management platform to pull everything and everyone together. All of these enable flow or undermine it.

Yet regardless of how well things are set up and laid out, distractions will occur, simply because we live in a world where diversions (either mentally or sometimes physically) are the norm, and trying to stay focused is an increasingly steep uphill struggle. But there are strategies, tools and, evidently, toys that can make a difference.

For us, part of our distraction-fighting arsenal includes a little red bus. And no matter how many people we have in the meeting, there’s always room for another passenger who finds themselves off the map, and needs to journey back into the flow.


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