Four ideation-boosting activities to try with your team

Sparking ideation in a team is not always easy. Here are four team-based activities that can generate innovative ideas.
    1. Reverse brainstorming
    2. The mash-up innovation method
    3. Storyboarding
    4. Six Thinking Hats

Innovation plays a key role in the success of any business. Without innovating, businesses can quickly fall behind the competition and even become obsolete. In order to innovate, you need to constantly come up with new ideas. Unfortunately, simply sitting around waiting for a flash of inspiration to strike from nowhere is unlikely to provide results, especially if you have a limited timeframe in which you want to plan your next project. Thankfully, there are some proven techniques that can help you promote creative thinking and increase your chances of coming up with fresh ideas. For instance, certain team-based activities have proven more effective and reliable at boosting ideation than traditional methods. In the following chapters, we will present four activities that can help stimulate innovation within your team.

1. Reverse brainstorming

You are probably familiar with traditional brainstorming — a fast-paced idea-generation session whose aim is to achieve a certain goal or solve a particular problem. In this type of activity, ideas are free-flowing and often unfiltered, with the intention that at least some of them will actually be helpful. Reverse brainstorming — often called ‘negative brainstorming’ — is an alternative method that is the opposite of traditional brainstorming. For most of us, it’s actually easier to spot flaws and problems than it is to find solutions, and reverse brainstorming operates on this exact principle. Reverse brainstorming can help us to see problems as opportunities, rather than being overwhelmed and demoralised by them. Identifying potential obstacles from the beginning also enables us to prepare for them more effectively. The reverse brainstorming process is rather straightforward. First, you identify the main problem that your project is trying to solve. Then, instead of encouraging team members to think of solutions, encourage them to think of ways to make the problem even worse. Once you have a list of these ideas, think of their opposites. Here you may find solutions to your initial problem.

Examples of reverse brainstorming

Imagine you are running a restaurant that has been receiving a number of complaints and negative reviews that are affecting your bottom line. You hold a reverse brainstorming session to find solutions (after first finding problems, of course!), whereby team members place themselves in the shoes of a customer and think about what would make for the worst possible dining experience. They may list things such as rude staff, an unclean environment, long wait times for meals, overcooked or undercooked food, or more. Team members can then list what they would do if they were deliberately trying to cause these problems. They may, for instance, refuse to smile or acknowledge customers, leave tables dirty, burn food, or more. Once these terrible ideas have been listed, reversing them and listing their opposites can help find potential solutions to the initial problems of complaints and bad reviews. For example, making sure that customers are spoken to in a polite and friendly manner, cleaning each table after use, finding the correct cooking times, and hiring and training enough staff to keep on top of these tasks could help significantly reduce the number of complains and turn negative reviews into positive ones. 

Or take the example of an education programme plagued with unsatisfactory learning outcomes. To resolve this problem, educators may start by listing all of the things that hinder students’ ability to learn – for instance,  a lack of sufficient educational resources, distractions in the learning environment, and a lack of one-on-one support. Then, they think of the opposites of these – for example, better resources, quiet classrooms, and time scheduled for learning support – and use them to improve learning outcomes. While these are rather simplistic examples, they show the principles of reverse brainstorming, which can be applied to more complex situations, processes, and organisations.

2. The mash-up innovation method

The mash-up method is something of a twist on traditional brainstorming that involves combining different, sometimes unlikely elements together. It was developed by design and innovation firm IDEO and is used to generate ideas that may not occur naturally when carrying out more conventional activities. The theory behind this method is that the combination of disparate elements can lead us to make connections and find similarities between seemingly unconnected topics or concepts.

The mash-up method process

There are a few distinct steps involved in the mash-up method. The first step is to frame a challenge, for example: “How might we improve learning outcomes for students following a blended learning course?” The next step is to choose one or more additional categories. Although these should not be closely related to the framed challenge, you should be able to ask a similar question about these categories. For example, if the category chosen was an online multiplayer game, the question could be: “How might we improve the experience for users playing the game?”

Once these categories are chosen, team members are encouraged (often with a time limit) to list as many different elements relating to these categories as they can. The elements of a blended learning course could include video lectures, quizzes, e-books, and collaboration tools, whereas the online multiplayer game could include competition, voice chat, and leaderboards. The final step is to combine, or ‘mash up’ the elements from the two lists. For example, participants could combine the quizzes of the blended learning course with the game’s leaderboards to come up with the idea of a ranked scoring system for the learning course that employs gamification. Similar to traditional brainstorming, the mash-up method can generate a large number of ideas in a short period of time. The method is particularly effective when you are working with existing concepts learned through research, and it can help you to build on these ideas with new ones.

3. Storyboarding

Telling and listening to stories has been a part of human nature since the dawn of time. From bedtime stories to novels to movies, stories are embedded into every human culture and society. While you may think of stories as something reserved exclusively for leisure time, they can in fact play an important role in the workplace and business.

Companies tell stories to customers through their advertising, marketing, and brand positioning. Managers also tell stories to their employees in order to convey information, outline obstacles, and inspire action. The most effective of these stories tend to follow a similar structure — starting with the status quo, introducing a challenge (and potentially conflict), finding a solution, and ending with a resolution. Stories that employ this kind of structure can serve to inspire us, as well as inform us. Storyboarding is an effective way of planning out stories. It can be used to outline and give new perspectives on an existing situation and spark ideas that could help overcome challenges.

How storyboarding works

Storyboarding involves breaking a story down into its individual parts. You have probably seen storyboards for movies or TV shows, which are used to plan the filming or animation processes. These storyboards are usually made up of individual frames containing visual information, with dialogue and other notes included alongside. A similar process can be used in other sectors as well. For example, a team can work together to produce a visual, step-by-step outline of how a project may be carried out. They could also storyboard a customer or client journey, from the problem they encountered to how the product or service solves that problem.

This process can be carried out with a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or a digital collaboration tool like Miro or Boards. Tools like these allow users to drag and drop elements, add comments, and more. This means that collaborative storyboarding can now take place regardless of the physical distance between team members. The visual element of storyboarding can help participants make visual connections between separate ideas or pieces of information and facilitate the generation of new ideas. Storyboards can also help teams to analyse and categorise challenges and ideas and to develop effective strategies for solving challenges.

4. Six Thinking Hats

Edward de Bono was a psychologist, physician, and philosopher who coined the term ‘lateral thinking’ and popularised the concept. In his groundbreaking 1985 book Six Thinking Hats, he outlined his technique of the same name. The idea behind the Six Thinking Hats technique is that it encourages us to look at the same problem or challenge in six different ways. Each way is represented by a different-coloured hat. When we ‘wear’ each hat, we focus on different ways of thinking about a problem.

What are the six different Thinking Hats?

The Blue Hat plays the manager’s role, overseeing the decision-making process itself. It also makes sure that each other hat (or rather, those wearing the hat) follows its role correctly. This could mean setting agendas, timing sessions, facilitating comments and summaries, and forming conclusions out of information.

The Green Hat lets its creativity flow freely. This hat may engage in brainstorming and is useful for generating “What if?” statements, while leaving it to someone else to work out the precise details.

The Red Hat is all about emotions. While wearing this hat, team members try to feel rather than think. This enables instinctual responses — rather than strictly logical ones — to challenges and ideas to be explored.

The Yellow Hat is the optimist. With this hat on, team members think positively about the possibilities of ideas rather than the limitations or potential obstacles. This hat can be used to define the beneficial outcomes of your ideas.

The Black Hat is the opposite of the yellow hat, often playing the role of the ‘devil’s advocate’. While wearing this hat, team members think “What could go wrong?” and list any and all concerns, drawbacks, and obstacles the project may face when following the other hats’ ideas.

The White Hat plays the role of the analyst. It uses logic to examine all of the information present and generate insights and solutions. It can also be used to determine what potentially useful information is missing and how it can be obtained.

How do the Six Thinking Hats work together?

While any of these hats alone are unlikely to plan an innovative project, combining the strengths of each can maximise creativity, productivity, and efficiency. This technique can facilitate detailed evaluations of challenges, as well as the opportunities that they provide. The Six Thinking Hats can be used in different ways. Your team could all use each hat once at a time, or each team member could wear a specific hat for the entire meeting. Hats can also be swapped between team members after certain time periods. One particularly effective strategy is for a chosen leader to keep the Blue Hat on for the whole session, as they can make decisions about how best to use the other hats based on how the session is going.

How online and physical activities stimulate ideation

Team-based activities and meetings have long been a staple of an organisation’s processes, particularly when it comes to the planning stages of projects. Having other people around us to bounce ideas off of can make the ideas flow more freely, and team members can build on each others’ ideas. However, ideation no longer requires all team members to be in the same physical location. Although some of the best ideas have been born in the office, during water cooler conversations or even on lazy lunch breaks, technological advancements have enabled other ways to generate ideas. Virtual meetings can be highly effective environments for carrying out ideation activities such as the ones explored above. While studies have shown that individual creativity can decrease as group size increases, virtual meetings can boost individual contribution by allowing one person at a time to speak and eliminating cross-talk. This can reduce drawbacks of in-person activities such as the loudest, most socially dominant personalities monopolising activities. The visual aspect of tools like collaborative digital whiteboards can also stimulate creativity among teams.

Generating innovative ideas is essential for the long-term success of an organisation. There are numerous ways to promote ideation within your team, with team-based activities like reverse brainstorming, the mash-up innovation method, storyboarding, and the Six Thinking Hats proving particularly effective at fostering innovative ideas. What’s more, these can be especially productive when conducted using technology such as videoconferencing and digital workspaces. For organisations to become the market leaders of the future, they need to stimulate innovation, and using technologies and team-based activities are great ways to do this.

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