And a second guest post from Neil Gibb – this one is a revised version of a piece he wrote for his business blog. The second half concerns his time in Abene. It’s a long piece, but worth reading, especially if you’re feeling blocked with a project, with work, with life…and who isn’t?
My favourite quote:
It has always amazed me how people are able to contrive plausible reasons not do things that would be very good for them.
“My friend Simon who moved to Africa by accident. He lives in a mud hut and is the happiest man I know.”
What do you do when you desperately need to have a breakthrough? And by that I mean a real breakthrough. One that sets a whole new precedent.
I remember about fifteen years ago I was helping lead a design and tech team as we set out to conceive, then build a new giant online travel business. As a leadership team we’d established a culture that married a very agile and collaborate way of working with a structured delivery process that had the team working very effectively together. Things were going really well.
Then we hit a snag. We were working towards a point where we had to converge on a design direction and the team just couldn’t quite come up with something that any of us were happy with. As the day we’d agreed to present to our client started to loom things became more and more stressful – people were working later and later, we seemed to be having ever more meetings designed to make a difference that somehow didn’t, and the level of anxiety was building like the air pressure before a storm.
With a week to go I realised we needed to do something drastic, so I took the Design Director aside.
“You need to get them out of here,” I said. “Otherwise they are just going to go further down the hole.”
The Design Director was pale and looked like he hadn’t slept for days.
“But where?” he said, his brain clearly a muddle of thoughts.
I looked at them and thought for a moment.
Why were we here? To design and build an online travel business.
“Take them to Heathrow airport,” I said.
“What for?” the Design Director asked, slightly shrilly.
“I have no idea,” I said. “Just go there, now. Take them all. Hang out, have a look around, and don’t come back until tomorrow.”
And after some half-hearted protests off he went.
“And have fun!” I shouted after him.
As everyone filed out of the space so did the anxiety and I felt myself relax. I had no idea what they’d come up with, but to be honest if all it did was allow the team to decompress a little then I reckoned it would be worthwhile. It was the first day in weeks I was able really concentrate.
Even though my gut feel was that something good would come from the intervention, I wasn’t expecting what happened the next morning. We had instigated good discipline in the team so people were always there for the daily team meeting first thing. Over the last few weeks though they had been turning up sullen and tired looking. After their day out it was like a different team turned up. The collective feel of desperation that had started to infuse the whole team was gone. People rocked up in twos and threes. They looked well rested and were chatting.
After a little light hearted banter and a debrief of what they had done at the airport – which mainly seemed to have been great fun – the Design Director laid out the beginnings of their solution. They’d taken photos of signage, modelled some scenarios based on what they had seen, picked up on some new ideas the airport has just implemented, and even sketched out the basics of a visual design system. It was quite brilliant, an incredible breakthrough. When the client turned up a week later they were blown away.
Six months later the first version of the site was launched to great fanfare. To this day it is still one of the most successful online travel business in the world and even though the design and brand has evolved a lot you can still see some of the licks that were developed on that day.
I share this story as it came to me a few weeks ago when I myself was stuck. After a number of years researching and writing I had completed the final draft of a book I am quietly quite excited about. I’d put it out for peer review and the feedback was really positive. There was just one big thing everyone said – it needed an introduction. So while we put the books design and launch into process I set off to knock out an introduction.
But as I dug into it I started to end up in a very similar position to the team I had worked with fifteen years before hand. What I was producing was fine – but it wasn’t great. There was just something I couldn’t quite put my finger on it and the harder I tried the more stuck I seemed to get.
Then synchronicity seemed to play a hand. My friend Simon sent me an email. Simon and I had got to know each other a decade before hand when we were both living in Brighton in England – at the time I was running a fledgling management consultancy and he was running a social enterprise. We got on famously from the get go, our different areas of expertise and interests constantly overlapping and cross fertilising each other. Five years ago Simon hit a massive impasse in his life though and – in a similar way to what the digital project team experienced and now I myself was suffering – he had found himself stuck.
Much as Simon is a sticker and a grafter he is also a great adventurer, so when a friend suggested that he breakout of his day-to-day for a couple of weeks and look after his eco-lodge down in Senegal he jumped at the chance. At this point most people might have hopped on a plane but Simon went overland and very soon things began to unstick. His Facebook page became a beautiful montage of big skies and epic bus and train journey through Morocco and Mauritania. The couple of weeks in Senegal became a couple of months. And even though he did return to the UK briefly he was soon back there. Now five years later he is a man I refer to as “My friend Simon who moved to Africa by accident. He lives in a mud hut and is the happiest man I know.” Although everything in this sentence is true, to be fair the mud hut is a very impressive house he has built from mud bricks as the centrepiece of a small eco-resort he has literally hewn out of a small piece of bush he purchased for a couple of thousand pounds.
Simon has been inviting me to come and stay with him for years and I have kept meaning to – but as is so often the way I have always managed to find some reason why I can’t. It has always amazed me how people are able to contrive plausible reasons not do things that would be very good for them. It has also amazed me how they don’t usually realise that is what they are doing. The thing that really amazes me thing is when I suddenly realise it has happened to me. Something about the timing of Simon’s email managed to create a crack of light – I remembered that team way back when and I remembered where Simon had been and saw what has happened next. Most crucially though I realised that I was in that place that actually is the prerequisite for a breakthrough – a breakdown. And that the only way to cause a breakthrough was to get myself out of the situation I was stuck in.
Over the next couple of days I was confronted how much I assume I know in situations I have never actually encountered. It was nowhere near as hard to get a flight to south Senegal as I thought. Much as it is a very underdeveloped region in is jus across the border from Banjul, the main airport in The Gambia. Every obstacle I had mentally put in my way either turned out to be simple or actually not a problem at all. Boom – flight booked with Thomas Cook, Boom – budget hotel booked at Gatwick the night before I flew, Boom – cheap travel insurance booked on line. The biggest challenge probably was choosing a new pair of sunnies.
Not long afterwards I was on my way. Breakfast was at Costa Coffee in the north terminal at Gatwick, by early afternoon I was in an old Land Rover making the border crossing from The Gambia to Senegal – an experience that was very easy but had the look and feel of an epic movie.
Already I could feel my brain unwind and body relax. I was suddenly in a completely different world. There was so much to see, process and take in.
Ninety minutes after leaving the airport we arrived at Simon’s place – in the village of Abene on the sea at the end of the long finger of south Senegal that runs under the Gambia, an area known as The Casamance – after the river that meanders through, creating a rich fertile land, very different to the sandy parched North.
I could wax lyrical about my experience, but I won’t – you can read about it of you are interested on Simons blog to go there yourself. Suffice to say it was rich and real, surprising and wonderful, every thing the vast wonderful place called Africa has to offer. What I will share though are a few random moments that together caused me to have the creative breakthrough I needed – confronting the fact that most people drink instant Nescafé (the idea of baristas with beards making espresso would probably make most local people giggle) and finding I quite liked it; figuring out where to find rudimentary Wi-Fi, them how to work with its incredible slowness and lack of bandwidth (the architect Richard Rogers once said true creativity is working successfully within tight constraints); the amazing effect on the mind that floating in a salty water river has as the sun sets; the wonderful vibe on the streets if Ziguinchor, an old French colonial city that now looks like it has been heavily bombed but is full of hustlers, hope and life; the effect the beautiful tranquility of the permacultured eco garden has on my neurones (my sleep was really deep); experiencing the vibrancy of the complex social network that makes up every day African life. Each of these triggered a thought, gave me a new angle, opened a pathway.
And of course none of them will make any sense to you. You had to be there, that is the point. It was a unique set of circumstances that allowed me to create something unique and new.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was that in seeming to slow down I actually sped up – a natural cadence emerged that flowed. It was creative, it was innovative, and it was great fun. It was also a damn sight cheaper than going from Starbucks to museum to Starbucks in London desperately hoping that might help me grind out something new.
The thing I was reminded is that creativity is actually a heuristic process – you take a step, build something useful, experiment, get feedback, then respond. Agility is all about movement, and if you get stuck need to do something else. Anything else, as long as you keep your eye on the big prize; I never forgot why I was here. To complete a piece of work. But I totally detached from how I should do it. This meant I was was able to experiment and play.
In his seminal book ‘The Selfish Gene’ then biologist (rather than atheist fundamentalist) Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of ‘memes’. Memes, Dawkins asserted, are the cognitive version of genes and morph and evolve in exactly the same way. So if you want to have a breakthrough in thinking then you need to create the same conditions that cause genetic breakthroughs – change you environmental conditions and put yourself in situation that will allows mutation and mixing of ideas, the strangest and further away from your normal experience the better.
Simon bought plot of jungle he cleared, he build a hut, it fell down, he dug a cess pit, it overflowed. Five years later he has this amazing oasis, powered by solar, a rich ecosystem of flora, forna and people. He has created something he could never have come up with on a drawing board – bigger, better and sustainable. What is more he has clearly been enriched and grown massively through the process.
And now I am doing the same. The brain that two weeks ago felt like a fused engine, is now like the stars in the clear big sky here – patters of light forming into beautiful shapes, connections I could never have previously conceived creating something I am really excited about.