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Timeout: the key to killer ideas

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I was impressed to read last week of a bold initiative from ad agency Wieden + Kennedy. The agency – or at least the London office of W+K – has banned email in the evenings and weekends, and meetings can only be booked between 10am and 4pm.

They’re doing this because – in the words of Iain Tait, Executive Creative Director at the agency, in a plain-speaking blog in Creative Review – creative brains need time off. Tait argues that, while you need to feed your brain with information and input, you also need to give it time off, both to recover AND – and here’s the really important bit – to figure stuff out. To let your mind wander to the place, as he puts it, where the better stuff is.

Iain (if I may) supports the decision his office has taken by citing the excellent book Wired to Create, and a piece from last month’s Huffington Post on silence. Both, he identifies, major on the creative brain’s need for solitude; on why silence is good for the brain and ideas development.

At Insight Agents, we’ve developed a model of ideas generation and insight development called the STEP Prism of Insight. We’re so proud of it we’ve even trademarked it. So that’s the STEP Prism of InsightTM, then.

Ours is a four-stage process to get us thinking about thinking. It’s designed to help generate the breakthrough creative ideas so many of us are required to develop in response to the mountains of data that surround modern businesses.

  1. Sweat – really work away at problems. Specifically for the brief at hand, and generally as an attitude of mind and an approach to life. Be curious and absorb content which you can’t tell when it’ll be useful, as well as stuff that’s obviously going to help you understand this week’s challenge.
  2. Timeout – step away from the problem. Many people work and work away at a problem, expecting insights to spring fully-formed out of respect for the sheer hard work they’re putting in. Ideation and insight mining doesn’t work like that.
  3. Eureka – recognise what it’s like to uncover an insight – physically and emotionally. Know how this makes you feel, be ready for inspiration to strike at any time, and learn how to capture it succinctly but comprehensively.
  4. Prove – once your idea is properly articulated, put it up before your harshest critics and your biggest competitors in your organisation or network. Or your mother. Get them to rip it to shreds – and try to understand it. And if it stands the test of these critiques, it’s likely you’re onto a winner. If not, go back as step or two or even three.

Whenever I run STEP Prism of Insight training, the second stage is the one we spend most time on. It’s the hardest to accept (particularly for bosses), the most counter-intuitive, and the most beneficial to the creative process. And of course, it’s the one that the busyness of business usually fails to factor in time to permit.

Now I’m not – necessarily – advocating that you take the afternoon off, have a duvet day, go on holiday, or have a sabbatical. Particularly if you’ve got a pitch next Thursday. But I am recommending very strongly that you step away from your desk, go for a walk, go for a run or a swim (those work best for me), work on another project altogether, have a meeting in a museum. Whatever works best to distract your conscious mind from the task at hand to allow your subconscious to take over and do what it does best: testing different solutions to complex problems until it comes up with the best and most parsimonious answer. It’ll then knock on the door of your conscious mind, present you with what it thinks is the solution, and you can test it to destruction.

The STEP Prism model was inspired by the work of Graham Wallas, a cognitive psychologist, one of the founding teachers of the London School of Economics, and author of an impenetrable 1926 book called The Art of Thought; it’s OK, I’ve read it for you. Wallas had a four-stage process for idea generation, whose stages he named preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. This was taken on by James Webb Young in his (very readable) 1940 pamphlet, A Technique for Producing Ideas, and then championed by the granddaddy of all Mad Men, Bill Bernbach. The approach was the foundation for DDB’s nascent insight and planning functions in the 1940s, though of course they weren’t called that then.

So I’m delighted that the smart folks at Wieden + Kennedy London are championing the benefits – more than that, the absolute necessity – of taking time away from work in order to do better work. Timeout rocks, and if you factor it into your working day, you’re very likely to find you work shorter hours and produce better, more insight-driven answers to the problems you’re challenged to solve. At work, at home, in life.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.

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