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The substance in silence

Why this is the perfect time for your biggest innovation

About nine months ago I learned how to breathe. “That’s nothing!” I hear you quip from the side of your snarky mouth. “I’ve been doing it since I was born!”

But when was the last time you thought about breathing? Deep, focused breaths relax and de-stress us; extra oxygen increases energy and when you focus on inhaling for 1…2…3…seconds and out for 1…2…3….4… seconds then whaddaya know, you just meditated. And forgot to think about the spluttering pandemic that’s ravaging the globe for just one tiny moment. Sorry, I reminded you again, didn’t I.

I’ve worked in innovation for over a decade and for a few years I forgot to breathe. In fact I ran out of puff chasing technologies in my endless quest to be first. First to create a VR showroom, first to embed facial recognition on a client’s website, first to create the world’s first branded real-time 360-degree interactive hologram. (I never did that last one, but I tried.)

In the thousands of meetings I’ve attended over the years I have never heard a perfectly innovative fully-formed thought, a paradigm-shifter, a revolutionary proposition emerge from someone’s mouth, off the cuff. There’s every chance I was in the wrong organisations but in meetings there’s too much potential for negative feedback and derision for people to be brave. It’s no one’s fault, this is just the essence of social dynamics and the omnipresence of that trusty devil’s advocate who will happily piss over anything new. “There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” says Susan Cain in her book Quiet, about the beauty of silence and introversion.

This is why I’m embracing this period of solo working so hard. With such periods of intense reflection, could we be on the cusp of another renaissance? A cultural rebirth, filled with new and challenging ideas? I hope so. And I’m hoping around 99% of those ideas come from me, but you should give it a bash, too. Whether we like it or not, we’re stuck here. So let me help you be the most innovative self you can be.

Creative solitude

Some of the best, most revolutionary minds worked independently. Rollo May, the existential psychologist and author of the influential book Love and Will said “In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”

Being on our own, in silence, allows a level of intimacy with our thoughts and space for critique that is impossible in an office environment. Use this time to come up with your wildest idea. That product innovation that’s been niggling at your imagination. The theory you’ve wanted to test for years. Even a new job description! And instead of shouting it to a room full of blank faces, write it down, critique, and then write it again. (I have a confession… around a third of my upcoming poetry collection House of Weeds was written while I was drunk on my own one Tuesday night to Wednesday morning. It’s the oddest, most poetic portion of the book. Am I calling myself a genius? Absolutely. No one else is.)

Invent a problem

Some of the best innovations come from problems that didn’t even really exist. My perfect example is the iPad… no one needed the iPad, it was just a combination of a couple of different products. (Of course it was later discovered that the problem was: children.) And just like this short story printer at a Canadian airport… it’s not life or death but oooooh! How cool!

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When I’m running workshops I like to play a game called What’s Your Problem? Everyone in the room has to think of a personal problem (keep it light) and then decide how technology might solve it. My problem is the ferocity with which I type when I’m angry. People can hear my violent tapping in the next room. How would I solve it? I’d place pressure sensors on each of the keys that activated a lavender emission (calming smell) when my fingers got too tough. Aaaaaaand chill.  

Watch real people

No shit, we live in a bubble. And with self-isolation, that bubble’s getting a hell of a lot smaller, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to watch people, and listen. Susan Cain also said: “We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”

Watching people in real life is creepy, watching them online is totally cool. Use this time and this space to do some bloody research about what people think about your business and/or brand. Look at Twitter, look at forums, read reviews, establish some hypotheses, ask some people! Too many of us don’t listen, we wait to speak (myself included, sometimes)... use this time alone to learn to listen. This will fuel more ideas then you could ever imagine just barking all day.

Don’t speak... draw

I’m embarrassed but I have to admit: this week is the first time I used Mural. Mural is an online tool that helps you visually collaborate. As a team you can all draw and chart and write notes and move stuff around at the same time. The other day we ran a silent working session on Mural to appeal to our inner introvert, and it was one of the most productive meetings of my career. Shut up! (No offence). Write. Draw. Collate. Park it. Come back to it. Re-write. Re-draw. And then think about making when all this madness is over.

Invest time in innovation therapy

OK, so we’ve had an idea. Our founder Rob had it, on his own, with no one around him, so we must assume it’s genius. We want to help. So a team of us at &us have decided to use our spare commuting time (circa 2 hours a day?) to guide some businesses through an innovation project, for free. Why? Because we’re surrounded by doom and gloom and want to share a bit of positivity, and because we hate to think that some amazing projects haven’t got off the ground or lost momentum because this new working situation is hard to grapple with.

There’s no real T’s and C’s…. At the beginning, middle or end of the day would be easiest… and we’ll do it for as long as this self-isolation stuff is going on. Possible scenario? No one wants it and we spend that time playing computer games (win). Ideal scenario? We get to help a few people through a weird, challenging time. (Win/Win.) We’re calling it innovation therapy because you may just want to bounce a few ideas off us with zero judgement, or you may want a few tips on how to come to cool solutions. Whatever it is, get in touch at [email protected]