The currency of silence

Photo taken by Flickr user Marco) Silence is currency. Just ask the NSA. But bear in mind that your question will probably be answered with, well, silence.

When I speak with people both inside and outside of the d.school, I encounter an eagerness to share. People are happy to impart new ideas, new projects and new partnerships. Silicon Valley is a roiling cauldron of sharing activity. But there's often a catch.

Share with your friends, some request.

Share with your family, I'm told.

But, whatever you do, don't share with the world.

When I ask why, I'm told one or all of the following: The project's not ready. We're not ready. The information will be used against us somehow. Divulging the information will jeopardize our chance at getting a job, a deal, a strategic partnership. It will hurt our colleagues, our company -- it will hurt us.

The conversation then devolves into a set of instructions: Don't tweet it. Don't post it anywhere -- at least not publicly. Definitely don't blog about it. It's okay to Instagram it. Wait, do you have a public account?

In the end, the message is clear: Keep it quiet. Don't let them -- the public -- see what we're up to. I'm trusting you.

Since I am taking a year off from my full-time job in the news business, I am stretching my tolerance for and exploring the foundation of these types of requests. I am using this time to take a critical look at this dynamic from the perspective of design thinking -- to try and better understand silence-as-currency within the context of a process that thrives on sharing.

Yes, sources go "off the record" and people sign non-disclosure agreements for good reasons. Some people stay off of social media entirely to avoid the temptation of broadcasting that one photo or post that could end their career. Others avoid social media because their employer requires them to do so. It can also easily be argued that information is currency because, as the saying goes, "knowledge is power."

But those reasons may not always be as good as we think they are. Just as we stand to over-share, it is possible to over-censor.

Part of the challenge in the design thinking process is to allow yourself, in the uncomfortable setting of a multidisciplinary team, to throw out wild, ridiculous ideas. A practitioner of design thinking should feel so comfortable with the process that, when challenged to re-design a washing machine, they will say straight-faced that it should be turned into a time machine.

The team member is supposed to feel so safe that they can offer any idea. That safety often comes from the understanding that only the people in the room can hear and assess the idea of a time-traveling washing machine. The risk is minimized, thanks to the benefit of silence. That's at least how it seems.

Now, let's say this new time-traveling washing machine idea takes off. It becomes a multi-billion dollar industry. The traditional storytelling/sharing model dictates that, only after success is achieved, the story of how the idea was born be told to the wider world.

Yes, there are intellectual property concerns to live-blogging the intimate details of your team's progress in developing the latest smartphone tech, and one tweet can take a company down a dark and winding road. But a blog post, tweet, or audio recording that honestly shares the nature of an individual's challenge in developing a new product or entity should no longer be seen as problematic. If anything, it offers an opportunity to genuinely tell your story in your own words and discover new insights that you may not have been able to unearth otherwise.

In other words, the currency of silence is due for depreciation.

Just as design thinkers are called on to empathize with others, they should call on the world to empathize with them in return -- if only to prove that they believe in the methods they're practicing. While I don't advocate that every incremental detail be publicly documented, challenge yourself and your team to give more to the world early in the design process so that they can share the benefits of their learning and reap the benefits of others' learning in return. If knowledge is indeed power, knowledge shared is a superpower.

Be confident and share early and often. Your process and your ideas are worth more than silence.