Forget Coffee, Let’s Walk for Meetings That Boost Creativity, Innovation

When a business colleague comes to town, I ask, “Would you like coffee, lunch or something a little bit different, say a walk with my standard poodle Jazmine around the reservoir?” The answer typically comes back within one minute, if not a few seconds: “Walk!” In fact, it’s an emphatic “Let’s WALK!”

I recently walked with the CEO of a company to which I’m an adviser and investor. We originally met just as COVID-19 gripped the world, forcing us all indoors and onto our computers. All our interactions were on Zoom. He had raised angel and venture capital funds, and was now in the process of executing on his plan.

Meeting in person for a walk made this get-together special. It was a first for both of us since the pandemic. We had a terrific conversation, talking back and forth about his plan to scale the business, ways he would prioritize new employee hires and plans for his board. I offered suggestions based on my own experience as an entrepreneur who grew and scaled a startup to distribution in more than 100 countries.

He reminisced about his childhood dog, a German shepherd, and how much exercise it needed throughout the day. I expressed my deep love of standard poodles and their reputation for high intelligence and bedazzling behaviors beyond sporting a great coat of hair. My poodle Jazmine behaved herself as she accompanied us around the reservoir.

We noted how we both feel drawn to the city while wanting to be close to nature, and found ourselves walking in sync. The fresh air and walk boosted our energy and gave the CEO a better perspective on his business.

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Walking stimulates brain function

We shouldn’t have been surprised with our creative meeting of the minds and ideas flowing so fast it was hard to keep up. Taking in more oxygen through something as basic as walking leads to improved concentration, better brain function and a good dose of Vitamin D.

Meeting over coffee is an intense exercise in continuous eye contact that’s not conducive to creativity. Meeting while walking, the CEO and I each looked at the path ahead while taking in our natural surroundings, basking in the earthy aromas, textures and what seemed like a thousand different shades of green. We weren’t wondering when the food would arrive. We weren’t distracted by the loud obnoxious voices at the adjacent table or by trying to find a comfortable position in the wobbly chairs.

Your brain while walking and meeting

Walking among trees with someone — even a single strip of green on tree-lined street in the city — stepping near water or sauntering across an open field is soul-soothing and refreshing. And there’s a body of science to explain what’s happening with our brains while we walk and talk.

Russell Clayton, Christopher Thomas and Jack Smothers, in their 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “How to Do Walking Meetings Right,” discuss their survey of working adults that assessed the effects of walking meetings on work habits. Participants reported they were more creative at work. The authors point to research on how this is possible.

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Creativity and innovative thinking are essential to early stage companies. Without creativity, many of the innovations we rely on that have profoundly impacted the world would not exist. People walking and talking together will often find their creative sparks and build on these budding ideas as they continue their walk. People who normally have no tolerance for those who don’t get to the point right away, find themselves, while walking, able to let the conversation evolve, giving space for creative ideas to flow.

Clayton and his coauthors also introduce us to Ted Eytan, MD, a vocal advocate of walking meetings who was medical director of Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health. According to Eytan, they tell us, “our brains are more relaxed during walks due to the release of certain chemicals.”

The coauthors conclude that the best topics for meetings explore decisions or solutions, not details about specific issues. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman agrees. In his influential book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Kahneman reports how he and close colleague Amos Tversky conducted most of their decision-making theories — not complex calculations — during long walking meetings.

Neuroscientist David Strayer shows that the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain we use to multitask and think about numerous things throughout the day — is less active when one hits the trail or goes for a nature walk.  Being outdoors, even in a green urban setting, is enough to give the cortex a break. That’s a good thing. The break allows your brain to wander, and that’s when insights emerge.

There’s no question being close to nature is exhilarating. The prolonged isolation and efforts to stay safe from the pandemic made us celebrate the outdoors and nature like never before. Regardless of where you live, there’s a park or green area close by. Going outside to meet and walk is the antidote to Zoom fatigue — Zoom now being the meeting location of choice as I write this with COVID still affecting our daily lives. Don’t let the weather deter you (assuming it’s safe). As the Norwegians say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

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