Ian's blog

  • Get outside and get your shoes dirty

    Get outside and get your shoes dirty

    Until recently, I ran a regular workshop for teams of journalists at the BBC. Over 18 months I clocked up 26 sessions across the UK’s towns and cities: Belfast, Birmingham, Southampton, Cardiff, Salford, Glasgow, Leeds, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle and Swindon.

    There was one section of the day that stood out from the rest. When I designed the workshop back in 2016, I included this element as a bit of an experiment. I wasn’t at all sure how it would work out. But it proved to be the most popular part and participants always learned a great deal from it.

    And yet it was so simple.

    It’s my ‘Story Safari.’ At its essence, it’s an activity where participants wander around the streets for an hour in order to notice the world around them. They’re tasked with observing sights, places and behaviours on their walk. That’s it. Sounds so simple but it’s one that yields great results.

    I used to think that, as most of my participants were journalists, they’d always be venturing out and about. Of course when they’re working on a story, they are on location. But in their usual day to day work lives, often they’re too busy tied to their desks in a newsroom, and they just don’t have time to explore and wander the streets of their towns and cities.

    That’s why my workshop was such an eye-opener. After one Story Safari in Glasgow, a participant came back and told us she’d learned more about a neighbourhood in 45 minutes than she had in twenty years driving through the area to work. She had stumbled across a local café where she’d tuned in to conversations. In Salford, a couple of journalists explained they’d worked at Media City since it opened, but this was the first time they’d walked down the canalside.

    Unshackling people from their desks allows them to notice, question and be present in the environment in which they work. The Story Safari enables overhearing conversations at bus stops and in cafés; walking slowly and looking up; exploring and chatting to strangers.

    A business journalist in one city told me until he’d gone out on Story Safari, he hadn’t noticed how many construction cranes there were in the city, an indicator of economic development. After his walk he planned to do a story on that theme. In London, a journalist who used to work in town planning had ventured into a social housing development just ten minutes from his newsroom. He found the visit enlightening and fascinating. But he’d never thought of going there before. Not until the Story Safari gave him a licence to be curious.

    Staying at your desk — it’s not something particular to journalists of course. It’s something I see in many organisations. I know many companies — large and small — where employees don’t get out of the office either. But whether you’re a journalist, a marketing executive or an engineer, the simple act of getting out of the office can unlock so much. Stepping out of the door gives you a dose of inspiration, can get you closer to the customer and nurtures curiosity.

    So whatever your industry, whatever your field, get out in the real world. I often reflect on what Sarah O’Connor once wrote in the FT, about the ‘best economist’ being ‘the one with dirty shoes’. I’ve referenced it before in a blog post and it’s worth relating again here, because I find the story sums up exactly the point of getting out of the office. British diplomats in Tehran had become detached from what was happening outside the embassy gates. They didn’t see the revolution coming. What was vital was leaving the embassy confines to get a feel for what was happening on the ground. Sarah O’Connor writes:

    One former ambassador to Iran used to check whether his staff’s shoes were dirty. “If not, I knew they hadn’t been getting out of the embassy and meeting people in town.”

    We’re nearly into 2019. The default setting for how and where we do our work should not be a desk. To be more curious at work, to be more creative or just to stay energised and feel more enlivened at work, go on and get your shoes dirty.