I got to know Betsy Burroughs of Future Catalyst a couple of years ago when we worked on complementary projects for a start-up client. An ad-agency veteran and marketing pro, Betsy is one of the most creative thinkers I've ever encountered. I was wowed by her approach to brainstorming and started attending her monthly Brainstorming Salons, where I met as stimulating a group of thinkers and doers as you'll find in the Bay Area--or anywhere. (One of last month's attendees was a zookeeper who'd assisted at the birth of a giraffe; other salonistes have included the Mexican trade consul, a product designer, a winegrower, and the founder of Blurb, the newish self-publishing company.)
Last weekend I finally got to participate in one of Betsy's other offerings, the Walking Workshop. It's a bit of a misnomer: We didn't do much walking, but we definitely moved through space and transported our thinking patterns to a different plane. I recommend the experience to anyone who wants to tap into unexpected creative reserves and find new ways to solve problems.
We met at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza, where the fog had lifted and the extraordinary Saturday-morning farmers market was in full swing. As we waited to board the Sausalito ferry, Betsy handed each of us a packet of 30 index cards and a pen and asked us to scan our surroundings and quickly write down one thing we liked on each of the cards, along with two or three reasons we liked the thing.
As with all brainstorming exercises, this one was easy at first: Bay Bridge--check; sailboats--check; little girl with curly blond hair--check. To fill out all 30 cards, however, requires a commitment to positive thinking I rarely experience. It took me the entire half-hour duration of the ferry crossing to complete the assignment. But it was worth it: As Betsy says, "You can't come up with good ideas when you're feeling bad."
When we reached Sausalito we disembarked in a different microclimate and architectural habitat...and then got back in line for the return trip. (As I said, there isn't a lot of walking in a Walking Workshop.) Once on board we received our next assignment: Flip over the cards and write on each one a problem or challenge in our personal or professional lives.
Next stage: Back in San Francisco, we walked around the farmers market (this was the "walking" part) and quickly scanned both sides of each card, seeing whether we made any associations. Was there a connection between "marketing my business" and a bicyclist's garden-gnome-in-landscape shirt? What did "blog ideas" have to do with "calm, happy babies"? "New clients" and "Golden Gate Bridge"?
If you think this sounds random, give yourself an A+: randomness is one of the cornerstones of Betsy's process. She's studied the "lateral thinking" work of Edward de Bono and the "inattentional blindness" study of Harvard psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, and she's added some insights of her own. (Future Catalyst's tagline, by the way, is "Bring Your Insight Out.")
Why a Walking Workshop? Because Betsy believes that changing your surroundings, using varied modes of transportation, forces you to change your habits of thinking. (She does another workshop that's a one-day trip to Yosemite Valley via Amtrak and bus.) "It's like changing the keywords in your Google search," Betsy says. And: "A room is a terrible place to brainstorm in."
Betsy is one of just 150 people invited to attend next month's Waldzell meeting outside Vienna; the annual confab is tagged a "global dialog for inspiration," and speakers will include Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Isabel Allende, and HIV researcher Robert Gallo. Betsy promised to blog from Waldzell; I'll send you a link as soon as she's ready. I'm sure whatever she has to say will be well worth reading.