My house and office are full of books. I know I could save space with e-books, but I spend my working life looking at screens, so for leisure and for learning I go for the old-fashioned printed page. Looking around my over-crammed bookshelves at the university classics, the airport paperbacks, the no doubt out of date textbooks and the well-thumbed, falling apart favourites, there are actually lots that I could give away and barely notice. But equally, there are those I would never give away, or even lend, for fear of not getting them back. My latest example in this group is Susan Cain’s Quiet. I’m late to the party on this: I must have seen it on Hatchards’ shelves 100 times before I picked it up, but in this case it was much better late than never. Quiet helped so much fall into place for me – and, as with all the best books, made me re-think the ways I’ve often done things.

I know I can ‘switch on’ extrovert characteristics. Being able to talk to groups of strangers, and to get them to talk to me, is absolutely critical to my job, as is the ability to present a cogent argument to a room full of decision makers – but I’m inherently introvert. Until Quiet, I was always vaguely apologetic about my introversion: acutely aware that, especially if you’re more extrovert, it’s easy to see introverts as rather dull, or to assume that someone who speaks less than you also thinks less, or is just too aloof to be willing to engage. All examples of what Cain refers to as the Western extrovert bias.

Perhaps most damning of all was my willingness to believe that because I’m an introvert, I’m not creative: because I don’t fire out ideas like bullets, I didn’t fit my own expectations of what creativity looked like. And neither did anyone else who was like me.
What Quiet helped me see is that there are many forms of creativity, none of which is inherently more valid than the others. My friends and colleagues would say I’m good at ideas, good at solving problems (and they’d always want to be on my team in a quiz), but they’d never say I’m the life & soul – my issue is that I’m too quick to dismiss the former as creativity, thinking that only the latter applies. A classic example of Western extrovert bias. And there’s the thing: my job is to see through bias and get to the truth, yet I’ve been letting my own bias affect the way I work.

Research wisdom says that groups are perfect for creative subjects, and that requires extroverts. To make the approach work, we need sparky, talkative, outgoing types: an audible flow of thoughts, ideas and sparkling creativity. Yet what Quiet points out is that introverts aren’t necessarily uncreative, just differently creative: less comfortable with quick-fire sparking, more interested in thinking through a problem and building ideas that can really work. Einstein, we’re told, believed he wasn’t more intelligent than others but that he just persevered with an issue for longer. I think that’s probably a matter of ‘both / and’ rather than ‘either / or’, but you see the point. We’re ruling out anything up to 50% of the population from our group discussions, maybe for the wrong reasons: their ideas might be genius, but if someone’s a bit quiet in a group we’re quick to say they’re a ‘poor respondent’. Sorry to say, I’ve done it myself: clearly a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

So are we running groups, and recruiting extroverts for them, because they’re really better for creative exercises, or because they fit our Western bias towards extroversion? Are they really better at generating and building ideas, or are they just more theatrical, entertaining, dare I say it, easy to moderate? Rather than screening out introverts because they don’t fit our model, maybe we should have our eyes open to different forms of creativity, and adjust our model to incorporate them. The range of approaches now available to us opens up all kinds of possibilities for more prolonged discussion that allow introverts to play to their strengths. As Susan Cain tells us in her TED talk, extroverts tend to be energised by social stimulation, whereas introverts thrive in more low-key environments – the key being to “put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.” By varying our format, we can do that for our participants, instead of judging that someone is a poor respondent simply because they’re not chatty: they might be perfect for what we need, but simply worn out by the noise. Online panels and prolonged discussion, in which we can dip back in every few days rather than expecting an answer on the spot, immediately spring to mind – but with an open mind, the options are numerous. By broadening our focus to include more introverted types, we open ourselves up to different ways of thinking, and the creative opportunities that come with them.

My commitment for 2019 (and what’s left of 2018) is to embrace all forms of creativity and design approaches on an assumption of inclusion first. And if you haven’t got around to reading Quiet yet, I wholeheartedly recommend it – but I’m not lending you my copy.