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New Ideas Needed? Try a change of scenery

Several years ago I observed something quite extraordinary. I was working with a leadership team helping them tackle their strategic, leadership and operational challenges and we were beginning to run out of ideas. I noticed I was hearing the same voices, saying the same things, reinforcing the current reality and witnessing the deflation of hope. Sound familiar?

We took a quick break and I framed a few key questions in order to stimulate a different chain of thought. The questions were pretty straightforward:

  • Are the problems we face primarily intellectual (what we know – knowledge deficits, diagnostic issues)?
  • Or are they emotional (how we act and behave – different agendas or dysfunctional relationships)?
  • If both apply, in what percentages does each contribute?
  • How do you know?

I then sent the team out on a 45’ walk. I was lucky it was a sunny day and the sky was big and blue and we were in a nice off-site venue that brought the countryside to our doorstep. I asked the team simply to enjoy the fresh air and just think about the questions, no need to talk about them, just collect thoughts.

The quality of the discussion over a cup of tea on their return was dramatically different and the team used the insights gleaned from the walk to develop workable solutions to those challenges that only an hour earlier had ground them all to a collective halt.

My ego kicked in and I thought how clever I was to frame such powerful questions, but that was a total misunderstanding of what actually occurred. I have since demonstrated the questions themselves are not where the power lies, the power is in the walk itself.

I discovered the quality of thinking dramatically improves when you put a change of scenery into the thinking process. The elemental power of nature, the wide open skies, the wind in your hair, the blood pumping around your veins all contribute to a different perspective and this is what is needed for new thinking to break through.

Try it in any session where you are hoping for new thinking to emerge, or you simply want a change of perspective. The key ingredients are:

·         A few simple questions that can stimulate people to think about the problem / opportunity from a slightly different angle.

·         Agreement in the team to spend the time walking and thinking, making sure they avoid the ‘Operational Treadmill’ trap, so all mobile phones must be left behind.

·         A reasonably challenging walk – something that will stretch the muscles without too much exertion.

·         An agreed time limit and follow up discussion. I find any time over 30’ and under 1 hour seems to work best and if you can assemble the group outside for the discussion at the end of the walk then even better.

There are of course no guarantees new thinking will emerge as prevailing mind-sets are often well embedded. But in my experience the chances of a breakthrough are dramatically improved. I used this approach to develop our ‘Conference on the Move’ concept which we used to break the habitual annual conference for one of our global clients.

On a personal level I know I have nearly all my best ideas whilst walking our dog Tilley a mad as a box of frogs springer spaniel. There is something about the explosive energy she exudes coupled with the scale and majesty of the great outdoors that reminds me of my place in the world.

On my walk with Tilley earlier this week I was chewing over a seemingly intractable issue that has been bugging me now for several days. I was listening to a TED podcast on the walk in which it was said that if you take the total time the world has existed and represent this as a timeline on a standard toilet roll, then the time humans have been on the earth represents the last 1 millimeter of the last sheet on the roll. It made me laugh out loud and instantly changed my perspective of the issue I was facing as I realised that with a simple re-frame my issue was cut down to size and a healthy perspective was restored.

Tilley then reinforced this perspective as she tore after a bird that simply flew into the air as she bounded through the woods after it in the hope that it would land and they could play the same game again and again. Onwards and up!