Over the last 6 months I have been running innovation workshops in out-of-the ordinary environments. I recently ran a design thinking day in a playground for adults, there was not a chair, table or flipchart in sight. I did this because science is telling us that stepping into unfamiliar spaces and being physically active are triggers for greater learning and innovation. Here's more about that and some hacks for your next project meeting, workshop, or innovation sprint.
Unfamiliar spaces are learning spaces.
Remember the last time you walked down the street of a new city or found yourself in an unfamiliar group of people – in these situations you learning accelerates, through observation, listening and question asking. Similarly when people step into the unfamiliar workshop spaces, their curiosity skills come to the forefront. They ask more questions, make less assumptions and their awareness levels skyrocket. These skills are critical for the innovation, specifically for empathy (understanding needs), ideation (co-creating new ideas) and experimentation (testing new ideas to learn at pace). In addition to triggering our curiosity, spaces without pre-set norms, reduce hierarchy or other power bases that can get in the way of inclusivity and creativity.
We think better on our (moving) feet.
Our ability to move and our mental cognition are strongly connected. The area of the brain which controls motor skills (the cerebellum) has nearly half of all the brain’s neurons and strong pathways from here connect to the areas managing memory and attention. This means that exercise doesn’t just build muscles in our body, it builds our brain’s capacity for learning.
It gets better, you don’t need to be a regular gym goer to get the benefits. In a workshop setting a short amount of acute activity improves attention, working memory, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency and decision making for up to 2 hours.
We need the right brain chemistry for new ways of thinking.
Physical activity reduces the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) which divert decision making to the most reactive, rather than the most rationale parts of our brain. When we are stressed, the chemical control centre of the brain (the amygdala) triggers activity in the parts of our brain which find the quickest solution, based on our past experiences. This happens at speed. It’s this part of the brain that ensures our survival and that’s useful, but not in an innovation workshop.
It means that under stress we are more likely to jump to decisions, make inaccurate assumptions and revert to old ways of solving problems. Innovation processes deliberately hold us back from jumping to solutions and challenge us test assumptions and discover new insights. Movement reduces those stress chemicals and literally opens our minds to build new pathways and new ways of thinking.
Interpretative dance does have a place.
Funnily enough the type of movement does matter. Dr Peter Lovatt, a professor in dance and at Cambridge University studied the relationship between dance and cognition. His research identified that people engage in improvised kinds of dance or movement are better supported with divergent thinking – where there's multiple answers to a problem. People engage in very structured dance or movement (marching, walking, repetitive) are better supported with convergent thinking – trying to find the single answer to a problem. So apparently interpretative dance can help.
Hacks for your next workshop.
If you are in Sydney, The Movement Republic is the perfect venue. A playground for adults, it opened just over a year ago in response to need to provide an inclusive space for people to build wellbeing and confidence. There is nothing familiar about this environment, but a great sense of play and a wonderfully supportive team.
If you need to work within your traditional four walls you can:
Open with a moving icebreaker such as throwing a ball or balloon to take turns, play balloon tag, or simply just start standing to make it the norm. Simply standing can raise heart rate (hence, blood flow) by as much as 5 to 8 percent in just seconds.
Hide the chairs and tables! Replace your chairs with balance balls, stools even a stationary bike or rowing machine. Find creative ways to let people take the weight off their feet.
Stand and stretch routines. I recently facilitated a leadership team who made it a habit to start every meeting with a ‘move for life’ sequence - a simple yoga-based moves that everyone could do while standing. Don’t wait till after lunch for the energiser.
Do a walking ideation. I try to avoid ideating after midday, but sometimes it’s inevitable and so I encourage teams to take a walk or do an activity which steps them into a state of flow. This can be done as individuals and or as a team.
A crazy (dress-up) corner. You'll be surprised how putting on a silly wig or a moustache gives people more confidence to suggest new and out there ideas. If you are looking for outside of the box, then don't create one.
Provide brain friendly foods that energise. You know the drill wholefoods, not fast carbs.
When you ask people where they get their best ideas, most might say things like: ‘when I’m from running’, ‘in the shower’ or ‘walking the dog’. Our physiology means that our movement and our cognition are powerfully connected and it’s time to acknowledge this in our work environments. It’s time to remove the walls, move and open our minds.
Jennifer Pangas is the founder of HRHack. You can experience HRHack's next workshop at the Movement Republic here .