Walking gives your ideas legs
When you are stuck for inspiration, it may be best to leave your seat and stroll around the street to get the creative juices flowing
Creative thinking is as easy as a walk in the park — or a ride on a train. Executives struggling to solve knotty problems should step away from their desks and ask the street for answers, according to David Pearl, co-founder of Street Wisdom, which runs learning sessions on the roads and footpaths of several cities.
“Bring to mind the question that you want answered, that you want a fresh perspective on,” he said. “Keep it in mind as you wander, and you notice what happens. It is a way of using everyday life to answer things . . . and of taking the streets you hurry through on the way to work and using them to learn something new.”
Sometimes the answer can be amusingly literal. One participant who was wondering whether to sell his house walked past a shop in London’s Chinatown called Hang On, and took it as a sign not to move. But it is more likely the experience will spark an unexpected connection or insight.
Often participants realise this only at the end of the three-hour programme, when discussing the experience with others. “Many people don’t realise what they have learnt until they reflect on it. Wisdom whispers as well as shouts,” Pearl said.
Research at Stanford University suggests that most of the creativity could be induced by the walking itself. The study found that people who walked outside or indoors on a treadmill came up with twice as many creative ideas as peers who were asked to think while sitting down. People who walked in the fresh air did a little better than those who did it indoors, but not significantly so, said the authors of Give Your Ideas Some Legs.
Kate Griffiths-Lambeth — who paid her way through university by running a fly-fishing school — suspects that simply being away from the office makes a difference. “Part of the success of Street Wisdom is based on the escape from the constant interruptions and pressure for long enough to think in a meaningful way and to reflect,” she said.
Griffiths-Lambeth, HR director of Stonehage, which advises high-net-worth individuals and families, admitted: “I don’t necessarily get my best ideas in a meeting room.”
Her Street Wisdom mission was to learn how to prioritise professional and personal tasks better. “At the end I had a much clearer sense of what was important and what I needed to do, and a greater acceptance that sometimes it is OK to go with the flow, that I don’t have to plan out everything.”
The best way for people to see if this approach could work for them is simply to try it, she said. “This is a way of getting your head into a different space, which is what you need to do to come up with different, creative ideas. In the future it will not be technical knowledge that makes a difference, particularly in areas such as professional services, but creativity, wisdom and how you apply them.”
Most Street Wisdom participants come from creative industries such as PR and media but anyone looking for a new perspective on a problem would find the approach useful, said Pearl, who set up the not-for-profit group with Chris Baréz-Brown. “We’re also getting interest from teams who are looking for ways to refresh their thinking collectively.”
Griffiths-Lambeth is one of them. She has run mini-Street Wisdom programmes for two staff, and has plans for team events. “It’s a good way to get people to step back from the day-to-day pressures and give them space to think things through,” she said. In keeping with the founders’ philosophy, which keeps the programme free but asks participants to give something back, she will lead open sessions in Edinburgh and London.
While the truly time-pressed may find it hard to take a three-hour break to listen to the street, Andy Green will not accept such excuses: he wants people to see their daily commute as an opportunity for inspiration. “Your jour–ney need not be downtime in your schedule but can instead be one of the richest times of your day for new thoughts,” said Green, author of Tubespiration.
People’s reliance on computer programs and mobile apps can lock them into prescribed ways of thinking. He gets annoyed when he sees commuters glued to their phones or tablets. Consciously exploring ideas presented by the outside world can help people to break out of those parameters.
“It’s about taking on board everything around you and feeding that into your thinking,” he said.
Stephen Waddington, a director of the PR agency Ketchum Europe, was astounded by how many triggers Green found in the Tube trip between London’s Liverpool Street and Aldgate stations. “He told me to come with a creative problem, which was a situation I had with trying to build a community for one of my clients,” Waddington said. “We started travelling and around every corner he would pull out an idea or a source of inspiration.”
Even a dating ad on one train contributed a new way of considering the issue: “He said, is there a way that partnering with someone could solve your problem?”
While Waddington did not solve his problem on the spot, the new ways of looking at it got him thinking about it differently, and eventually contributed to the result — which did include working with a partner.
Finding analogies between things spotted on the journey and the problem in question can be effective, said Green. “At Borough station, 14,000 people slept there for four years during the Second World War, so that might get people thinking about providing safety and security, or even about who is the equivalent of the Luftwaffe in their problem.”
Waddington does not treat every commute as a brainstorming opportunity — switching off altogether can be a good thing, he said — but he does use some of the techniques when searching for ideas.
Green would like executives to use their commute for inspiration more regularly, such as by making a habit of “Thinking Thursdays”.
“The idea is that at least one day a week you sit there with your notepad out and just put down your thoughts — even things that might not, on the surface, seem to be concrete solutions,” he said.
“It’s often the things that don’t look like much at first that turn out to be your intuition showing through.”