When Design Thinking specialist, Liv O’Connor, and I met with no agenda, no objectives, no pitch, we found so many synergies and connections where we knew we wanted to continue the conversation. The blank page allowed us to build ideas together.
We saw that each of our specialisms require a blank space to be most effective – in Liv’s process, it’s called ideation, a change for ideas to percolate and form. It’s also the first step of my critical thinking compass: Reflection. Creating opportunities to ruminate and wonder, contemplate and consider.
To be their most successful, these slates must be clean – not biased by projections of ‘what the decision maker has already decided is best’. You cut off so many potential avenues if you already know which route you’ll take.
Modern life is all about filling space – more information, maximising space and effective, efficient scheduling. But a moment to ponder without turning to your phone, a space that is allowed to be empty, or a cancelled meeting, let’s allow it to sit for a while before we rush to fill it.
Thinking time is something we all need more of but our schedules and gadgets often disrupt and distract us.
The blank space is also crucial between stimulus and response. I help people understand system 1 (automatic, reactive) vs system 2 (considered, proactive) thinking. This is sometimes characterised as primary vs secondary thoughts, or gut vs logic. Our immediate response is often unconsciously biased and dismisses an idea before we ask ourselves “why?”. Letting it sit in that blank space can help us unpack what we really believe, why we believe it and what is truly possible. Often the best ideas challenge our assumptions and can seem crazy when they first appear!
An agenda-less meeting may sound like a waste of time. But lockdown has shown us that we crave connection and many companies have successfully created time in the week for people to connect one-to-one, with no agenda, as a way to foster relationships, leading to greater employee engagement.
Like unstructured play time for children, this “free time” is where the magic happens. It can be interstitial space in architecture; the rest days between heavy loads in marathon training or space to write your notes in the margin, the concept of blank space can be applied as a ‘mental model’ to all parts of life.
How do we create more blank space?
Switch off your phone.
Pull out a notebook and pen and just write whatever comes to mind.
Allow yourself 10 minutes to daydream or doodle (put a timer on and stick to it).
Make an appointment with yourself with no fixed agenda.
Allocate random pairings for short meetings between colleagues.
Plan a tech free hour, afternoon or day in your week.
Identify your best thinking time and protect it from interruption: In the shower, while driving, out walking, washing dishes, on the toilet! Ensure podcasts, music and notifications are off and let your thoughts wander.
As a leader, allow and encourage your teams to do the same. Trust your people to manage their thoughts and take short walks or create tech-free whiteboard spaces to capture ideas.
To learn more you can catch Bethan Winn at upcoming events on Critical Thinking, Decision Making and Problem Solving here.