Is your team stuck in a creative rut? If fresh and innovative ideas are at a standstill, it’s time to spice things up. Innovation is born from new ways of thinking, and teams are the perfect breeding ground for this. The diverse perspectives cause conversations to become more interesting, ideas to branch out, and possibilities to expand. If your team is struggling to generate creative ideas, you may have to do something different. This is where leading activities to spark creativity become useful.
In my previous article on creativity (Part I), I offered some practical ways to create a team environment that fosters creative thinking – it is focused on setting the right environment and context for innovation to emerge. In this article (Part 2), I’ll offer some fun group exercises that get the creative juices flowing. Here, we are focused on how to generate creative and innovative ideas as a team.
It is important to remember that while teams are more creative than individuals in terms of idea generation, there are other group dynamics at play that can inhibit individuals from speaking their minds in a group setting. Foundational to creativity is building a team that has high levels of psychological safety, so team members can feel safe taking risks and sharing ideas in a group format. If you don’t yet have high levels of trust and psychological safety on your team or aren’t sure, read this article and start there.
What follows are a collection of group exercises that are perfectly suited for brainstorming sessions and leadership retreats when your team is faced with a specific challenge or problem to solve. They would even work well when you just want to start a meeting with fun activities to spark creativity or get your team thinking outside of the box.
6 Activities to Spark Creativity and Innovative Ideas
The great thing about activities that spark creativity is that they also happen to be a lot of fun and a great way for teams to feel more connected. You can adapt any of these activities to spark creativity to make them work for you and your team.
1. “Yes, AND…” Game
This game works best when there is a specific problem or challenge to solve or decision to make, and you want the person or team to ideate in a new direction. For example, you need to decide how to restructure the organization or team to focus on different goals, you have a budget conflict and need to reconcile it with a solution you haven’t thought of yet, a marketing campaign is not working and you need to pivot to a new campaign idea, you need to figure out how to enroll your team in a new initiative that they may not be excited about, etc.
How it works:
- This game works best with three to six people; you need two at a minimum.
- Maintain an attitude of openness and non-judgment for all ideas presented – even the ridiculous ideas have something to love about them. This isn’t the exercise for poking holes in an idea – it is an exercise to build on one another’s ideas.
- Player 1 outlines a problem to solve.
- Another player (who will then be known as Player 2) begins by stating a solution
- Every other player in the game begins to identify in their mind the 10% of the idea that they like, with the understanding that even the worst ideas have an aspect of greatness within them, however small.
- Player 1 or another player (anyone other than Player 2) jumps in with “What I love about this idea is…” And then talks about the thing or things they love about the idea. Then they continue to build on it – this is the “AND” part of the game. They add, “AND we could also…” Sticking to the script is important here… “What I love about this idea is…” then, “AND… “
- You can play this game for as few as 10 minutes or for as long as you’d like.
What I love most about this game is that it is fun to see how seemingly ridiculous ideas catalyze brilliant ones, and how you can mix and match the various pieces of inspiration that arise.
I learned this approach from Shirzad Chamine, Stanford business school lecturer and author of Positive Intelligence.
2. 6-3-5 Brainwriting Method
This brainstorming tool offers a highly structured approach for groups of six to produce as many ideas as possible in a short amount of time. This method is a popular design-thinking activity for teams looking to jump right into idea generation without having to have much knowledge or experience with the entire design-thinking methodology.
It works even better when you bring in people from other teams, or those with different backgrounds or varied experience.
How it works:
- Form a group of six people, and have at least six pieces of large paper available with three columns and six rows each. It should form a grid with 18 somewhat large boxes.
- Set the expectation that this activity is about the quantity of ideas, not the quality.
- The leader states a problem to solve or intent for the session in one sentence. Post it to a whiteboard or project or share it for everyone to see.
- Round 1: Set a timer for three minutes. All six participants each produce three ideas on how to solve the presented challenge in the top row.
- Round 2: When the three minutes are up, sheets of paper are passed clockwise and set a new timer for three minutes. Each participant adds onto any existing ideas, and adds three new ideas.
- Rounds 3-6: Round 2 repeats 4 more times until all of the boxes are filled out.
- The whole exercise should take about 30 minutes.
When the rounds are complete and the pages filled, get back together as a group and evaluate the ideas generated, discuss combinations, and be open to what emerges. If you have the time for it, break into smaller dyads or triads to evolve the ideas generated and continue to ideate in an effort to increase the quality of ideas.
I learned about the 6-3-5 method from page 163 in The Design Thinking Toolbox by Lewrick, Link, and Leifer – a book I highly recommend.
3. Pretend That You Know the Perfect Solution
Sometimes it feels like you just don’t know the right answer to the presenting problem or don’t know what the – or any – solution might be. If this happens to your team, try to push them a bit further.
How it works:
- This simple exercise works with groups of two in simple conversations, or in larger groups, where everyone writes down their responses separately and then shares at the end.
- Leader poses a problem or question that the team has been stuck on solving.
- Leader says, “I know you don’t know how to solve the problem, but for a moment, imagine that you did know how. What would you do?”
- An alternative to this exercise would be to ask the team, “I know you don’t know how to solve the problem; who do you think would be able to come up with an ideal solution?” Whether they answer Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, or their Uncle Larry, ask them what that person would do to solve the problem and answer from their perspective.
Often the solutions flow with a subtle shift in perspective or changing the way you ask the question.
4. Post-it Fever
There are many variations of this exercise. The more people involved, the better (within reason).
How it works:
- You’ll need about a pack of post-it notes per person. If you are concerned about maintaining anonymity, make sure all of the post-it notes are the same color.
- Leader poses problem or challenge they want the team to solve for.
- Every participant has about 10 minutes to quietly write down as many ideas as possible to solve for the challenge – one idea per post it note.
- When the time is up, each person sticks their ideas on a wall.
- Leader/facilitator goes around and reads all of the ideas out loud one time through, then the group begins to create categories to group related ideas together.
- Categories are posted in different locations around the room, and post-it notes are relocated to the category that makes the most sense.
- Participants are then given another 10 minutes to walk around and add any new ideas to any of the categories around the room.
- Group comes back together to review ideas and discuss. The top several ideas can be chosen and groups can form to further ideate and iterate on the selected ideas.
5. Negative Brainstorming
This twist on brainstorming also comes from Lewrick, Link, and Leifer’s The Design Thinking Toolbox (page 168), and it is basically brainstorming in reverse. Instead of focusing on a solution, you invite the team to focus on ways to worsen the problem.
How it works:
- Leader poses a problem or challenge, and asks team to come up with as many ways as possible to make the situation worse. For this exercise, you can use an open brainstorming forum, the steps in post-it fever, the “yes, and…” game, or the 6-3-5 method.
- Come together as a group to review all of the negative solutions, and consider if there might be a new starting point or different perspective you can take for a new solution by removing the now-exacerbated problem.
6. Time Machine
This exercise reminds me of Stephen Covey’s quote, “Begin with the end in mind.” The idea here is to project out into the future and create and describe an ideal outcome to your problem, then work backwards to make it happen.
How it works:
- Leader poses a problem or challenge.
- Step 1: Ask the team to project into the future five years to come up with an ideal outcome. At the end of five years and looking back, where are we with this challenge – in the ideal scenario? Have everyone share their vision. Discuss together and decide on the long-term vision and goal.
- Step 2: Begin to work backwards by creating milestones and steps to take along the way. What needs to happen in the fifth year in order to for the 5-year goal to happen? What steps need to be taken, what areas need to be the main focus, and what does the team need to avoid? What resources are needed in order to meet this goal?
- Steps 3-6: Repeat Step 2 for years 4, then 3, then 2, then 1 as a group discussion.
- Steps 7: Discuss and refine your plans as needed. What first steps can you take and by when will you take them?
There are hundreds of brainstorming activities to spark creativity and ways to rev up your team’s creative juices. My recommendation is to experiment, try new activities, and see what works for you and your team. Most importantly, have fun. Creativity without fun does not tend to yield creative ideas.
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