I’d like to peel back the curtain a bit on how I do about producing ideas. As I tend to be a creature of habit, I tend to participate in certain rituals that result in new projects, new writing or new directions for existing efforts. I make the act of Ideation a pretty enjoyable habit that I exercise with far more regularity and intensity than any other wellness regimen I adopt from time-to-time.
For the past three years of my work, some part of my week has been spent working “offsite,” usually at my home office. When I was an office worker as a normal routine, working from the home office offered me an opportunity to focus on things I couldn’t normally focus on as part of my normal working environment. In the past year, working from my home office has been my “normal” routine, and surprising as it might be for people who commute to work everyday, it turns out that there’s a whole lot of things I can’t focus on in my new “normal” work environment. Writing new material when I’m not already in the headspace for it is really difficult at home. I make it a point to hit a coffee shop at least one full day a week with my laptop and my iPad in front of me (to have Kindle, iBooks and GoodReader open) and just write (and jam out to whatever is on the coffeeshop’s stereo, and partake of some delicious caffeinated goodness). I’ve found this works really well for getting started on writing I do for ADL. It’s as if I give myself license to not respond to emails and to turn off Skype so I can open myself to other, more passive channels and close off the intermittently active channels (social networks, Skype IM, etc).
As my network has grown over the last few years, I’ve come to take more advantage of travel opportunities. Even though the bulk of my travel in the last year has been related to “Events” (like conferences), I tend to take an extra day (or more) not so much for sightseeing, though that is prone to happen. I make this time so I can have as much of an opportunity to hang out, unscheduled and unstructured, with people I know and admire, people I want to get to know and people that fate pushes my way. Many conference attendees fly out the last day of a conference and miss the best part: the lunch with the people you met who are still around. These people generally aren’t in a rush, have just come out of a closing general session that has put the rapid succession of events into a more reflective context. Having a meal where everyone is in a mood to reflect and in no rush to do anything else is the best, most enlightening panel you’ll find at any learning-related conference. After ASTD TechKnowledge ended, I prodded conversation with only a few questions and offered very little in terms of “content” to the discussion, but with Stevie Rocco, Clark Quinn, Karl Kapp, Alicia Sanchez, Judy Unrein and Damon Regan all sitting around me and going into the nature of how we build “wisdom” in others… I mean, seriously… you’re not going to get that in a forty-five-minute session. You can’t force that spark of intellectual fire… all you can do is set the environmental conditions for such ideation to happen.
To set those environmental conditions, it tends to require
- good rapport among the participants
- a shared context (usually enjoying good food and/or drink works)
- a setting that is at least pleasing, if not pretty, ornate or interesting
- a lack of constraints on time
- an ambient volume that allows voices (inner and vocalized) to be heard
I can cite anecdotal experience after experience that at least when the shared context is more engaging and the more constraints on time are removed, the greater the net outcomes stem from such events. The ideas that are driving much of the work I do now started at the after-hours from the Pensacola meetings for LETSI in 2008. They were significantly defined after spending a day riding roller coasters at Cedar Point, Ohio in mid 2009 with a whole other group of friends, many of whom work with me now. The exact structure of ADL’s Future Learning Experience Project was drafted by a few of us in the wee hours following the COINs 2010 conference in Savannah in October, 2010.
I share this with you because while many organizations are committing themselves to innovation, I feel the importance of setting the right environment for innovations to happen can’t be stressed enough. I’ve developed a certain style for curating people to bring together, and when we’re given an environment that breaks from the norm that allows for new ideas to come free flow and reflect off the group where ideas in draft form can be trusted to be respected as such… really good things tend to come out of such scenarios.
I don’t know offhand what the research or science behind this is that supports what I’m telling you. I know that it works, because it produces results that would be hard to imagine taking place any other way. Your next big idea, the one that’s going to save your organization and transform the market you’re in — it’s not going to come from a four-hour stint in one of your conference rooms. It’s going to come from getting good people that genuinely like each other and respect each other’s ideas and giving them a reason to hang out that doesn’t answer the question “what will be our next big thing?” That answer comes when they’re going tangentially to what they’re doing together.
My only advice is a) bring a pocket video camera; and b) use it. This is something I need to get better about, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.