Employees who are empowered to make collaborative problem-solving and creativity a part of their cultures win big in the innovation space
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” – Thomas Edison, American inventor
Every day, we unknowingly deal with cognitive bias in every sphere of our lives. In the workplace, it can lead to inadvertently choking pipelines of creativity, innovation and opportunity by implicitly training employees to censor themselves, their ideas, and their thinking by deprioritizing a vision of the future.
One of the ways cognitive biases, or limiting cognitive paradigms, can manifest is in culture. Fear-based management, for example, fuels fear-based cultures that manifest in many ways: decision-making focused on profit over solutions, transactional attitudes and relationships, overworked and undervalued staff, toxic behaviors.
And here’s the rub: It develops honestly. We are conditioned to shift gears into convergence before truly excellent ideas have a chance to breathe. Groupthink is real, both biologically and sociologically.
In many professional environments, creativity and disruption can feel like a radical act. But the data doesn’t lie; employees that make ideation, discussion, collaborative problem-solving and creativity a part of their cultures, win in the innovation space. Let’s look at some simple and effective ways to break free of the chains of our business brains and start a tiny, creative revolution in our teams.
Exercise: Build an Idea Wall
Light the spark of collaboration and idea-sharing with a literal “idea wall.” Teams and individuals can anonymously answer the problem-solving call freely, with more courage and without the pressures of performing in a formal session. Ensure you’ve got a focus statement or a clearly defined problem to solve at the top of your wall, provide copious amounts of Post-it notes and markers, and let the ideas flow in. This is a simple tool, but it provides employees a voice that they are hungry to provide—and lays the groundwork for more collaborative engagement in the future.
Exercise: Plan Well
If planning and leading an ideation feels like an overwhelming task, break it into three simple phases: setup, facilitation and follow-through.
To set everyone up for success, crisply pinpoint the objectives of the session ahead of time, framing a focus question or singular problem to solve. Allow the participants a few days to percolate with their goal and ground the objective in credible insight or data to ensure common purpose.
To more powerfully facilitate, open the session by sharing input—inspiration from an outside-in perspective can provide powerful fuel. Culture and category trends, consumer insights, competitive and adjacent research, framed around the objective, empowers participants to contribute more effectively. Embrace a mindset of curiosity and dispel with conventional hierarchies.
To make ideas effective, activate the thinking and creativity you’ve unleashed. Then synthesize, curate and optimize the ideas into actionable outcomes. Keep your participant pool in the communication chain—it builds momentum and transparency, and it’s a small act that incites a more collaborative and engaged culture.
Breaking the Creative Ice
It’s vital in an ideation that participants know and trust one another—especially at inception. But even more important is to exercise cognitive elasticity, to prime and stretch our creative muscle to think differently than we normally do in our day-to-day tasks.
Round Robin is all about collective authorship, so it’s a great way to ease performance pressure. Pass a number of problems around the room quickly and iteratively, so that everyone contributes and builds on it. Ideas will evolve in surprising and provocative ways and ultimately, they have the power to uncover radical new territory.
Frame the challenge as possibility, by articulating it in a How Might We (HMW) statement. Participants capture their unconventional solution on a Post-it note and pass it to the person sitting next to them. To add complexity, add a reverse round of critique to the mix, to encourage innovative solutions to any barriers. To add value, participants who present the ideas move to prototyping phase, answering questions that dimensionalize the solution: How does it work? What form does it take? What are the time/scale limitations? What problem does it solve?
Exercise: Impossible Objects
This exercise, inspired by Michael Michalko’s book “Thinkertoys,” focuses on stimulating divergent thinking skills. It uses elements of mash-up and randomness to tap into our more synthetic, elastic cognitive abilities. This exercise brings two seemingly disparate objects together, mashing them into an unusual new hybrid object to uncover a new purpose or benefit, a new form, usage or delivery, or it might be useless. Sharing these ideas back can become the most fun and rewarding part of this exercise.
Create a series of small cards or notes with 20 random objects written on them (do not visualize). Have each participant or team draw two from a hat. Give them 10 minutes to invent their new object, and quickly dimensionalize it. What would it look like? Can you sketch it? What does it do? Who might use it? Where might it be used?
Then, dovetail your core objective into the stimulus, choosing objects from your category, adjacent categories, new innovations or trends. These seemingly impossible objects will inspire innovation for the problem you’re there to solve.
Deconstructing Bias for Innovation
Exercise: Six Thinking Hats
The Six Thinking Hats brainstorming method comes from Edward De Bono, who recognized that we have six cognitive problem-solving “states,” not all of them welcomed in a traditional corporate environment. His method seeks to acknowledge these states, providing space for each to contribute. The power of the methodology is in the structure; the team wears six metaphorical “hats,” each defining a distinct type of thinking. In a group, everyone wears the same hat at the same time, focusing on the same topic, through the same filter.
When each decision-making state is used with singular focus, it provides tremendous clarity, allowing participants the permission to speak frankly and honestly.
- Red Hat Thinking: intuition, feelings, hunches, emotions
- Black Hat Thinking: judgment, caution, evaluation
- Yellow Hat Thinking: optimism, positivity, opportunity
- Green Hat Thinking: new ideas and fresh perspectives
- Blue Hat Thinking: controlling the process of thinking
- White Hat Thinking: information known, just the facts
The red hat, for example: Typically, feelings and intuition can only be introduced into a discussion if they are supported by logic. Often, the feeling is genuine but the logic is spurious. Wearing the red hat allows participants to articulate feelings, assumptions and intuitions without the need for explanation or apology.
Worst Possible Idea
Worst Possible Idea, coined by Bryan Mattimore, president and co-founder of The Growth Engine Company LLC, is an ideation method that intentionally seeks out the worst solutions to a problem. It’s a powerful tool because it eliminates the fear, anxiety and pressure of being responsible for the “right solution.” It also helps eliminate the habit of convergence and critical thinking too early in the process. Because the objective is to produce the weirdest, lamest ideas, the worry dissipates. Presenting bad ideas back to the group becomes humorous, inspiring and enjoyable.
The secret cognitive trick? By generating many seemingly terrible ideas, teams find they could identify what actually would work more readily, with the seeds of truly epic ideas found in the terrible ones.
Create a list of imaginary problems to solve or use the problem you’re there to solve. Provide paper, markers and a simple template for capturing terrible ideas. Working solo or in pairs for 10 minutes, participants present their ideas back to the group in as dramatic or humorous fashion as they desire. To add complexity, move all papers to the right, round-robin-style, and have the next team build on the work of the last. As teams present their terrible ideas, provide Post-it notes to all participants to capture anything that seems provocative or inspiring that might contribute to the real solutions. Begin a “parking lot” board of these notes to pull from. Prepare to be surprised.
There are countless ways into growing and nurturing your innovation practice. But today, consider the fundamentals of weaving innovation thinking into your organization’s DNA, test them out and have fun. Your teams will appreciate the change that creativity brings to your culture, your team dynamics, your solutions, and ultimately your business outcomes.