Flow Game — Field Notes

Pete Cohen
Apr 6 · 4 min read

I recently participated in a Flow Game, which is a semi-structured activity whereby a small group of people each bring a question they are working through and explore it together. It was a unique and powerful experience, and something which I can see that the world needs more of at the moment. I came to it on the recommendation of my friend and collaborator Cass Spong, who has been playing the game with the same group of people every six weeks or so for the past few years.

The history of the Flow Game, from what I understand, is that was developed by some folks in Northern Europe within the last 10–20 years. Each game is run by a trained host, and there are a handful of ’stewards’ around the world who train the hosts. The community around the Flow Game are into things like Open Space Technology, World Cafe, The Art of Hosting and similar techniques aimed at bringing people together to have meaningful conversations.

The mechanics of the game I participated in involved each person bringing along items from nature (e.g. rocks, shells, leaves etc) and then creating their playing pieces or “boats”. Starting the session with a silent, creative act was a nice way to slow down and to get in the zone. More poignant for me was the realisation I had in the days leading up to the event, of how little time I actually spend in nature. My well trodden daily path traversing home, car, public transport, city footpaths and office buildings is decidedly void of even a blade of grass, so gathering some interesting items was not an easy thing to do. Around this same time I listened to my inspiring friend Sam Rye sharing on the Kumu podcast how much he draws on the wisdom present in the natural world to inform his work around complexity and systems thinking. It made me realise something important I have been denying myself of. Needless to say, as I write this post a week later I am sitting outside under a tree — trying to turn that particular boat around.

The board at the centre of the Flow Game is a piece of cloth with an image representing a spiralling river system. There are then coloured markers for north, south, east and west, plus heaven and earth — all of which carry a particular theme (leadership, community, vision, action, divine touch, nature).

Each player brings to the game a question from their life that matters to them, and writes it on a card placed on the table in front of them. With every roll of the dice, a card is picked up from the deck and the “boats” move along the river. On the back of the card could be something as ambiguous as an image of clouds or a car, or a very direct question or statement. The player who picks up the card speaks to what that prompt evokes for them in reference to their question, and each of the other players continue to dig deep and challenge and question from different perspectives.

In our game there were four players, and over four hours we had two rounds — so roughly half an hour of discussion per turn.

One of my main reflections of the experience was that it created an atmosphere and opportunity to enter into deep dialogue with a group of people. The group was supported by two very skilful facilitators — Hamish Riddell and Nicola Vague — who held the space in a very safe, delicate, yet powerful way. The structured nature of the game provided a sense of focus and kept things moving, however it was very clear that the players bring to it what they want to, and take away from it that which they need to. Every player’s question changed and was rewritten during the course of the game as their thinking was challenged and their perspective evolved.

As I shared in a post recently, I was deeply moved by hearing Peter Senge talk about dialogue and the need for us to think together. And following Peter’s advice I have studied Otto Sharmar’s Theory U which centres on this topic and talks about the sensation of how “the air thickens” when a group enters into deep dialogue. The Flow Game created that kind of atmosphere for me. As we built understanding and trust through the course of the game, the energy field in the room intensified.

It was interesting to have this experience so soon after doing the altMBA, which I also wrote about recently. There were some similarities related to the semi-structured design, and having small groups in extended discussion. One of the main points of difference was that the Flow Game experience was face to face, whereas the altMBA was all conducted over video conference. While I never found the remote nature of the altMBA to diminish the value of those discussions, there is obviously a much more depth and an intense dynamic when people are physically around a table together.

So, that was my first Flow Game experience, and hopefully not my last. I would recommend it to anyone who finds working through a personal question with others to be an effective way to process things and to grow. I’m also interested to learn more about how it can be applied for teams in organisations, which is apparently on the roadmap.

If folks in Melbourne are interested, Hamish and Nicola are offering more opportunities to attend — keep an eye out for tickets here.

Pete Cohen

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Systems innovator, collaboration strategist