Strategy, brainstorming facilitation, and CEO coaching in Ojai, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles

I first wrote this article 10 years ago, and recently came across it in my Evernote files. Since then, I’ve graduated from working inside growth companies to coaching CEOs of growing companies, and I’m in the process of graduating from track days and time-trials to door-to-door racing. Reading the article 10 years later, I realized these same lessons ring true, and that I’ve learned a few things along the way, so here’s version 2.0. Enjoy!

I love analogies, but for years I’ve listened to my colleagues in Canada relate every business lesson to a hockey analogy. Everything will work out fine if we just “skate where the puck is”. Working now in the US, everything is a football analogy – “we need more team members who are broken-field runners”. I do enjoy hockey and football, but I barely know the difference between an offside and icing let alone who won the Stanley Cup in ’72. Half of the time the analogy is completely lost on me.

So in an effort to bridge the communication gap, I’ve related my learnings in business to one of my passions – auto racing. I hope this helps other business-minded gear-heads communicate more fluently with their peers, and if nothing else, I’ve laid the foundation for you to take your team to the Skip Barber racing school for “team-building”.

Look where you want to go
One of the deadliest errors, often made by beginners on the racetrack but occasionally made by experts, is called “Target Fixation”. In a moment of high stress, your brain is so overloaded that it becomes fixated on exactly what you are trying to avoid – gravel in a corner, an obstacle, or another car. You end up hitting it square on.

In business, it’s very easy to get fixated on what you don’t want – losing a key customer, a market downturn, your best performer leaving. More often than not, you run straight into what you were trying desperately to avoid. It almost happened to me in a previous business in the so-called “Great Recession”. Around 2009, our pipeline was drying up, and in a sombre management meeting, we told ourselves “I guess we’d better start planning to downsize”. Luckily, one of our mentors snapped us out of it. He wouldn’t let us even mention downsizing until we had exhausted every possible option for filling up our project pipeline and hitting our revenue targets. It was every man on deck. He refocused us on the positive outcome, and guess what, we turned it around and headed straight into our best year in history.

To be a great auto racer, you need to have “wide eyes” – you learn to look far ahead, use every corner of your peripheral vision, and look where you want to go. Being a leader is no different – your job is to look further than tomorrow, get a lot of advice and input, and keep your team focused on where your business is headed.

It’s a mental game
Time and time again, I hit a plateau at the race track. I think I’ve wrung every last bit of performance out of my car and driving to my absolute abilities. Then I invite a very fast, very experienced driver to drive me around the track in my car. After a warm-up, they do a few blistering hot laps, a full 2.5 seconds faster than I. We returned to the pits, review the session, and he sent me on my way. The very next lap, I was 1.5 seconds faster, and the next 5 laps I was consistently 2 seconds faster than my previous laps (I’m still chasing that last few tenths, and that’s what makes racing so fun). It wasn’t the car, or even my abilities that was slowing me down – it was my mental model of what was possible.

Success in business has a lot to do with your mental attitude. Studies have found strong correlations between entrepreneurs with positive outlooks and business success. Most of the time, it’s not your competition or the economy that’s holding you back, it’s your own attitude and beliefs. Those that have an attitude of abundance generally outperform those that believe the glass is half-empty.



A minor shunt. It’ll buff out.

In racing, no matter how practiced and prepared you are, you can suffer dramatic setbacks. Parts break, someone bumps you, or for whatever reason, your perfect setup just isn’t working on a particular track like you thought it would. Even world-championship teams have bad weekends. The best drivers have persevered through dozens of bad weekends. They learn, they adjust, and they go try again.

The business press loves the “overnight success story”. What they fail to mention is that behind almost every business success is years of blood, sweat, and tears. Yes, one day they break through, but often these overnight success stories have been at it 10, 20, or even 30 years before they became a household name. Every business had failed starts, bad sales calls, unproductive employees – you name it. Things that are completely out of your control hit you from left field. The only thing you can do is dust yourself off and keep going. So much of success in business is just showing up and trying. If you’re self-aware and inquisitive, you’ll learn with every setback, and one day you’ll wake up amazed at the progress you’ve made.

Change one thing at a time
There’s a popular business mantra that says “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. I also believe that to measure change, you can’t change everything at once.

In a growing company, you will always looking for things to improve. As you grow, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to apply measure progress when you’re changing so many things at the same time.

In racing, we only change one thing at a time, and test it’s effect. You change your sway bar settings on one end of the car, and you go test. You adjust your shock absorber rebound, and you go test. If you were to change all those things at once, and you spun in turn one, you’d have no idea what caused it, and lose precious hours going back to square one.

The same is true whether you are changing a business system, or changing an attribute of your product or web site. If you change your customer acquisition strategy, launch a new web site, and restructure your sales team all at the same time, you’ll never know which one moved the needle.

Win together, lose together


Coaching session with

Even at the amateur level, successful racers have coaches and mechanics. At the professional level, teams spend an enormous amount of time learning to work together in perfect harmony. They know that everything, from the pit crew who refuel the car in seconds, to the suspension engineer who knows exactly how to set up a shock absorber for a specific track, have to come together flawlessly to win a race. Lewis Hamilton gets most of the press for winning 6 championships, but what impresses me most is how Toto Wolff and his team coordinate and motivate the hundreds of people that work behind the scenes to build and maintain a winning race car.

New leaders often believe they need to have all the answers. It’s ok to tell your team “I don’t know. I’m not an expert in this area and I need your help figuring this out”. On top of that, there is probably someone, somewhere who has gone through exactly what you are going through who is willing to help. In my career I’ve been lucky to have a few people who were willing to sit down and talk through a business challenge for nothing more than a latte and the promise to pay it forward.

Successful management teams are staffed with people who compliment one another’s strengths, and who think differently from one another – some big picture thinkers, some detail-oriented; some who are engineers and some who have arts backgrounds. Believe me, it’s not easy – you’ll disagree constantly, but in the end you’ll make better decisions because they’ve been dissected from every angle.

The really successful teams invest time and money learning how to communicate better and work better as teams. They set aside personal ambition and break down silos to achieve a shared vision. Like a championship race team, great teams are built with trust, shared respect, and communication.

If everything feels under control, you’re not going fast enough
World champions drive their cars at the very edge of control. A little more steering input, or a fraction more throttle, and they would go careening off into the weeds. It’s a strange sensation, to feel almost completely out of control, but at the same time, completely in control. Legendary driving coach Ross Bentley calls this “being comfortable with being uncomfortable”. The flip side of that coin is that once and a while, you will spin out (ask me how I know).

If you’re an auto racing fan, you’ve witnessed the two extremes – on one hand are the wildly aggressive drivers that lead one race by a half a lap, but crash out in the next one. They burn their teams out and burn their bridges. On the other hand are the backmarkers who are unwilling to be as aggressive as the winners. Champions find that perfect balance – they are blisteringly fast, take calculated risks, but are patient and persistent, tracking their opponents lap after lap, waiting for them to slip up so they can take the pass for the lead.

In business, I’ve seen companies who are unwilling to take risks, and unwilling to live on that edge of controlled chaos, and they usually plateau. I’ve also worked with companies that are in constant chaos, where the leadership team leaves burning bridges, burned out employees, and fried customers in their wake. The perfect flow is right down the middle – taking calculated risks, moving quickly, and working right in that zone where things feel a little out of control.

You’ll never have all the data and all the answers – a napkin-sketch plan passionately executed will beat a perfect plan poorly executed every single time.

Slow hands, fast car

The final, and most difficult lesson to learn for executives and CEOs is to lead with calm, patience, and perseverance. In a race car, it looks impressive to be attacking every corner beyond the limit, sliding the car, hands frantically correcting and sawing at the wheel. Typically this racer runs out of tires, or talent, and loses their lead to someone smoother. The same goes for business. The model we see on TV reality shows is the frantic, yelling CEO, driving everyone to the brink and leaving a wake of destruction. In real life, it’s a marathon. The toughest lessons for me personally, both on the track and in the boardroom, has been to remember to breathe, to listen, to seek to understand, and to slow down time when everything’s feeling out of control. The best leaders lead with grace and build confidence in their team, and are aware of the wake they leave.

And remember, if you’re still stuck on your hockey and football analogies – as Hemingway (or Ken Purdy, or Banarby Conrad, depending on who you ask) once said  “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”

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What if I told you that there is One Thing that, if you rallied your team around and focused your attention on in the next year, could grow your business by double-digits?

One of the most misunderstood and controversial topics in company strategy is the idea of the One Thing. Nine times out of ten, when I introduce the concept to a management team, the response is “It’s impossible for us to choose just one thing. We just finished our strategic planning, and we have 10 key priorities this year. If we drop any of these balls we’re dead in the water. Our business just isn’t that simple.”

Don’t confuse the One Thing with your operating priorities. In any well-run business, each department is going to have multiple priorities for the year – things they need to improve on, process they need to optimize, and so on.

I’m also not talking about a silver bullet, which typically sounds something like “if we had this one feature”, “if we sold in this one country” or, “if we would just lower our price”. Silver bullets are grasping at easy solutions to tough problems, and there’s nothing easy about the One Thing. To paraphrase Ben Horowitz in the Hard Thing about Hard Things, there are no silver bullets, just lots of iron nails.

The One Thing is about focus, and finding the 80/20 rule for your business. It’s the answer to the question – “What that one thing that, if we’re able to get every team and every department rallied behind, would be our biggest lever to growth this year?”

When this concept was first explained to me, it was by a former CPG executive who took over as CEO at an aging and declining food brand, and by focusing on their One Thing, achieved 3x growth in less than 3 years. After struggling to figure out why sales were declining, the CEO and his direct reports went out into the field to visit grocery stores first-hand. After visiting just a few dozen stores around the country, they observed that, as an older brand, they were consistently being moved to the bottom shelf in favor of younger brands. They quickly realized their One Thing was shelf positioning. Was it as simple as asking to be moved up a shelf? No, it required a coordinated strategy of meetings with the executives at the nationwide grocery chains, participation and cooperation of dozens of broker teams, special promotions, and much more. Having One Thing doesn’t mean your strategy will be easy to execute, but it does mean you will simplify the goal and the message to make it easy for everyone to understand.

We’ve used the One Thing to help transform and turn around a number of businesses. In a manufacturing company, our One Thing was improving the relationship with their dealers. Sales were sliding, so we started traveling around the country to reconnect with our dealers to try to figure out what was going on at the source. We expected to hear that we were missing something in our product suite, or that we were too expensive. Instead, we heard a number of deeply concerning things – “you’re difficult to work with”, “you take forever to ship”, and my favorite, “sometimes I can’t even get a hold of you”. When we got back to the factory, we also tuned in to how we talked about our dealers internally, and we heard things like “our customers are so demanding” and “XYZ customer is a pain to deal with”. We realized were taking our dealers for granted, and we had created adversarial relationships with the channel. A new competitor simply wanted the business more, and they were willing to be more flexible, they were doing a better job of listening to their needs, and they were providing better service. They were stealing away our dealers all across the country. To turn our sliding sales into growth, we realized we’d need to rebuild our trust with the channel. Sounds simple, right? On the contrary, it meant everything from changing how we managed finished goods inventory to how we invoiced. Every department needed to be on board. Having a single overarching priority that year meant we all shared a common goal, and a common language. It meant we tracked our progress to that goal. Most importantly, it meant it was top of everyone’s mind. The result? Our sales slide turned into double-digit sales growth.

Sometimes the One Thing isn’t self evident. More often than not, discovering your One Thing requires time in the field, polling customers, listening to employees, and lots of self-reflection. Having someone from the outside provide a fresh, non-biased perspective doesn’t hurt either. If you’re intrigued by the One Thing and want to chat about how to find the One Thing for your business, drop me a line at

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We’ve all attended  unproductive meetings – strategy meetings that don’t wrap with an actionable plan, meetings to decide on a direction where no decision is made, or brainstorming meetings that result in zero new ideas. While sometimes that’s because there wasn’t a clear agenda or maybe because of a lack of coffee, I’m willing to bet that, 80% of the time, the meeting was derailed by one of four personality types. As a manager or facilitator, you need to know how to recognize these personalities and have strategies for mitigating their counterproductive tendencies.

Tell me if you recognize these behavior patterns:

The Arm Crosser: Sits through the entire meeting not saying anything, usually with arms crossed, often frowning, and sometimes harrumphing. Typically engages in “meetings after the meeting” where they complain to a colleague that the meeting was a waste of time, or that the direction chosen was clearly the wrong one, and what they would have done differently.

The Multitasker: Uses the meeting to catch up on email. Interrupts halfway through to repeat something someone said 15 minutes ago. Calls another meeting two days later to rehash the same topic.

The Dominator: Tries to wrestle control of the meeting as early as possible to press their ideas or agenda. They are the most recognizable personality type because their voice is 20dB louder than everyone else, and they are doing 80% of the talking. A variation on this theme is the Passive Dominator, who listens just long enough to make the team feel they are being heard, but uses the remaining time to tell everyone why their viewpoint is the right one.

The Nay Sayer: Responds to every new idea with “let me tell you why that won’t work”.

The Tangent Taker: At first opportunity introduces a completely tangential topic – e.g. “What we really need to be talking about is why we don’t have Stumptown Coffee anymore in the break room and the impact that’s having on morale.”

You probably won’t change personalities and habits, at least not in the short-term, but you can dramatically reduce their impact on the meeting with a few key techniques.

Post-It: Time to break out the Post-it Notes and Sharpie markers. Whether you’re looking for new ideas, or running a project post-mortem, when it comes to getting everyone’s input, use Post-its rather than an open discussion, which tends to be dominated by one or two people.

Make sure everyone has a marker and a few packs of Post-Its. Using a large, blank piece of paper, write down the issue you’re trying to address, whether that’s new potential uses for a product, brainstorming on a new feature, or a SWOT analysis, and paste it on the wall. Invite everyone to take 10 minutes and write down as many ideas and input as they can think of, and post them on the blank sheet. When the time is up, go through the Post-Its with the team, asking for more detail and grouping like ideas. Depending on the goals, you can then start prioritizing or narrowing down the ideas with the group or moving them into an action plan.

Post-Its give people time to think, and let the introverts have as much impact and input as the extroverts in the room, while the extroverts still have the same opportunity to contribute. I much prefer Post-Its to whiteboards, which make it difficult for everyone to crowd around and make it harder to prioritize and group ideas.

Plan: We all know that a meeting should always have an agenda, but the structure of that agenda makes a world of difference in how productive it is. In a brainstorming meeting, or one where a decision needs to be made, start with getting all of the ideas on the table. This is where visual techniques really come in handy.  Go broad, then cluster and group, then narrow and prioritize.

Set ground rules: In the email invite, and before the meeting starts, circulate and reiterate the ground rules for the meeting. No phones, no laptops, and everyone participates. No ideas are bad ideas – there will be an opportunity for the group to synthesize and prioritize, so no interrupting or shooting down people’s input.

Facilitate: One of the hardest things for a new facilitator or manager can be getting used to interrupting. To keep the energy level high and keep the pace of the meeting moving, you’ll need to interrupt or prompt the team from time to time, and every personality will need a different approach. To the Arm Crosser, “we haven’t heard from you yet”. To the Dominator “hold that thought a second”. To the Nay Sayer “we’re going to get to prioritizing and eliminating ideas soon”. To the Tangent Taker ” let’s put that in the Parking Lot list, and we’ll either come back to it if we have time or set a separate meeting”

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on strategies for more productive brainstorming and getting the most participating in a meeting. Submit your comments below! And of course, if you’d like to chat about having an expert facilitator moderate your next brainstorming or strategy meeting, drop us a line.

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The power of asking the right questions

One of the most powerful ways of getting the best ideas from brainstorming  and sparking creativity is to start with the right question.

The opposite is also true – you can spin your wheels, and kill ideation by asking the wrong question.

Too often, brainstorming meetings get stuck in a rut. They either cycling over the same ideas, go off on a tangent that ends up miles from your business, or is simply uninspired and flat. Most often, it’s because we started with the wrong question – one that is either closed-ended, suggests a solution, or is too wide open.

A common myth about creativity

One of the most persistent fallacies of creativity is that to be creative, we need to remove the boundaries and that brainstorming needs to be wide-open. The reality is that we need some boundaries and direction to have our best ideas. With no guideposts, or no starting point, we have nothing with which to associate, and nothing to challenge our thinking and take it in a new direction. In the absence of boundaries,  we either rehash the familiar, or come up with ideas that are so far off the charts that they have no applicability to the market at hand. No doubt you’ve witnessed both.

So what is the right question? 

The right question is focused, and at the same time, open-ended. Many of our best ideas come from the intersection of two, seemingly opposed ideas, or in the new application of an existing product. The right question is focused enough to give our creative minds a jumping-off point, but open-ended enough to not suggest a solution.

Let’s take two trends that are the topics of many brainstorming meetings in many businesses right now – social media and mobile. Nearly every business is trying to determine how they should be incorporating social media and mobility into their product or service. Here are a couple of examples of both good and bad questions with which to launch a brainstorming session:

Good questions: Social media:

How would our business change if people could share what they are doing with our product on social media? 

In what ways could they engage with other friends using our product through Facebook, twitter, and LinkedIn using our product?

What if Facebook was the only way you could interface with our product. What would that look like?

What works about these questions – they focus the team on how customers might actually use the product with social media, and how it might enhance the product experience. The questions are directed towards the intersection of the product and social media, and at the same time, open enough as to not suggest an answer.

The wrong questions – social media:

What could we do with Facebook? 

What’s wrong with this question? It’s at once too wide open, and too focused on technology. With no jumping off point, and nothing for our brains to pattern-make with, you’ll  get two types of responses – the same-old-same-old ideas that your competitors are using, or ideas that are focused purely on the technology, such as the Facebook API, that may or may not have a real-world value to your customers.

How do we get people to “Like” us on Facebook?

While this might be a perfectly legitimate tactical question, when it comes to brainstorming product ideas, this is a closed-ended question disguised as an open-ended question. It suggests that “Liking” on Facebook is the right answer to how people want to engage with your product on Facebook. The ideas you that will flow from this question will be far from revolutionary. They will be purely tactical solutions on how to motivate people to press Like on Facebook or integrate with the Like feature.

Good questions – Mobility:

What would our customers want to be doing with our product while on driving to a meeting, or waiting in an airport lounge? 

What if we know the precise location of all of our customers through their smart phone? What would that tell us about them, and how could we improve what we offer them and improve our relationship with them?

What works about these questions is that they get the team into the mindset of the customer, thinking about how they would actually use the product in their context. They can envision themselves in the customer’s shoes, waiting for a delayed flight in an airport lounge, and pulling out their smartphones to pass the time. It gets the team away from the technology for technology’s sake, and focused on customer value. At the same time it’s open enough to bring out creative solutions.

The wrong questions – Mobility

How do we tap into the incredible growth in mobile? 

This question focuses on a broad market opportunity, and so the ideas you will get will be broad and mostly irrelevant. Again, without a jumping off point, you will get every idea from creating a new smartphone, to building games, to virtual snow-globes. This is simply a high-level question that should lead you to more detailed brainstorming and idea making.

What should our product look like on a tablet?

This question will have the team focused on things like the form factor itself, like the screen size. In the early, fuzzy stages of ideation, the team will spin their wheels on things like button size and fonts – things that are largely irrelevant until you actually start prototyping and building the product – after you’ve decided what you’re going to build and why.

Inspiration is 99% preparation. 

Productive brainstorming requires preparation and forethought. For every hour you’ll spend brainstorming, you need to spend at least an hour preparing the environment, the tools, and the right questions you’ll need to get the best ideas flowing from the team.

If you’re not happy with where your brainstorming is going, and the results you’re getting, change the question.


Last week I had a great chat with a friend and colleague of mine, Joe Connelly, who just released a book, and is doing some amazing work around helping people change the way they communicate, to be more authentic and open, ultimately changing their business and improving their relationships. But that’s a story for a whole other day.

Joe and I got talking about games in business – something that’s core to Spark Insights and obviously gets me excited. If you know Joe or I personally, you’ll know it was an animated conversation.

Joe is always looking for ways to make their course material really stick, and help his clients retain what they are learning. He and his partners have started introducing games into their training seminars, and he was thrilled with the results. People were 100% engaged, experiencing the material first-hand, and learning from one another. And – they were having fun.

What is it about games?

The rules and systems of our day-to-day work often inhibit creativity and learning. We have emails to answer, tasks that need checking off our todo lists, and meetings to attend. In our daily routine, there’s not much time or headspace left to be creative, and when the time comes to create new ideas, it’s hard to switch gears.

I’m not a brain scientist, nor have I ever played one on TV, but solving problems or learning new material using games seems to activate a different part of your brain. Games let us step into a different world, with different rules and different goals, and temporarily suspend our routine. Having fun helps us relax, and when we’re relaxed, ideas flow more freely. I’ve written about how changing context, boundaries, and environment helps us be more creative, and a well-designed game helps us do that without ever leaving the office.

Are we talking about gamification?

Not exactly. Gamification is about adding elements of games, like competition and rewards, to things like social media, marketing campaigns, online learning, and the like, typically to increase customer engagement. I’m talking about using collaborative play in your business to gain customer insights, facilitate brainstorming, or create experiential learning.

Serious games for serious business

I’ll admit, the mere notion of combining games and work can be a turnoff to some, but I believe that if you’re not at least willing to try it, you’re giving up a serious competitive advantage. The early adopters of Innovation Games, for example, include some of the world’s most innovative companies, like Qualcomm and Fiat. I can almost guarantee that if you take one of your toughest problems, and tackle it with a collaborative game, you will come out some breakthrough ideas. No need to re-invent the wheel either. Grab a copy of the excellent Innovation Games book by Luke Hohmann, and Gamestorming by Gray, Brown and Macanufo, and you’ll be armed with a recipe book of games to apply to almost any situation – ideation, problem solving, getting customer feedback, or gaining consensus. You might even have fun in the process.

Happy gaming!



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You know that saying, “you are what you eat?”

I just finished reading a fantastic book called The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and it made me realize that the stimuli around you, and where you derive inspiration can have a huge impact on your creative output and the quality of your ideas.

In the book, Todd mentions a famous stunt by Derren Brown, the “psychological illusionist”. Derren invited two ad execs to his office. After a long taxi ride, he gave them 30 minutes to come up with a poster for a chain of taxidermy stores, including a name and tagline. In the middle of the boardroom table was a sealed envelope they were to open later, after they had presented their ideas. The ad execs came up with a business name “Animal Heaven”, and their poster featured a bear playing the lyre and the tagline “The Best Place for Dead Animals”. When they opened the envelope, it contained Derren’s ideas – a nearly identical poster, with a very similar illustration and tagline.

Is Darren psychic? He later revealed the method behind the stunt. The taxi ride to the office subtly featured several of the items that showed up in the poster – a lyre, a poster with the phrase “The Best Place for Dead Animals”, and a trip past the London Zoo, all of which made subconscious impressions on the ad execs.

Very few ideas, even breakthrough ideas, are truly unique. They are the product of the world and stimuli around us. Many of the wildly successful products that we think of as breakthroughs are existing inventions applied to a different use (Post-it Notes), or better-designed versions of existing products (the iPod and iPhone). We are what we consume, and our brains are pattern makers – putting ideas together and making connections to form new ideas. Just like food, you can be more deliberate about putting quality stimuli in our brains, and toning down the junk-food. If you surround yourself with high-quality stimuli, you’ll have high-quality ideas.

Here are a few ways that you can improve the quality and quantity of stimuli:

Build an advisory board: Often my best ideas come from conversations, and more often, my mediocre ideas get honed into something better after lunch with a friend. Surround yourself with people from different backgrounds and professions, and meet regularly and deliberately to talk about big ideas, what you’re reading, and what inspires you lately.

Get out of the office: If you’re always in the same office, hanging out with the same people, chances are you’re recycling the same ideas over and over. Go work at a coffee shop for the morning, or go to the gym at lunch. You never know who you will meet, and you’ll be surprised about the ideas and energy that surfaces from simply being somewhere different.

Take a field trip to a museum:  Go see something beautiful. Surround yourself with creativity.

Make something: Build something with your hands. Have a hobby that is a creative outlet, whether it’s painting, composing music, or customizing motorcycles. You’ll use a completely different part of your brain

Watch a documentary: Give the reality TV a break for the evening and watch a documentary.

Get your news from someplace different: If you normally read the Chicago Tribune, read the London Times instead. If you read the Economist, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone.  Read trade magazines from a completely different industry.

Give email a break: You need to give yourself the focused time and space to generate new ideas, and ideas aren’t going to come from plowing through your email. We’re paid to create new value, not have an empty inbox. Set times through the day to answer your email, and set focused time in your week purely for idea generation.

These are just a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours – add them to the comment stream! Where do you derive your quality inspiration?

Does that mean no more junk food?  To be creative, do we have to give up People magazine and American Idol? It’s ok to have a little junk food now and then, but make quality stimuli the staple of your diet, and be mindful and deliberate about your sources of inspiration, and you’ll increase both the quantity and quality of your ideas.

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One of the reasons I founded Spark Insights is that I’ve been invited to countless product brainstorming meetings that would start with “So… anyone got any good ideas?”

As you can imagine, you could hear pins drop.

While everyone talks about fostering innovation and creativity at work, so many people wing it when it comes to ideation and brainstorming. In keeping with my 7 Commandments theme, here are 7 ways to make your next brainstorming session fruitful:


Sometimes our best ideas catch us off guard – in the shower, on a jog, reading a novel. Don’t waste that opportunity. Give people a heads up on the session, and more importantly, on the goals of the session. Give them a few days to let their subconscious go to work.

Break the Ice

I learned this one from my colleague @maryp and Innovation Games founder @lukehohmann. People need to shift into a different gear, and use a different part of their brain to brainstorm. You can help facilitate that by using the first few minutes of the meeting to an ice-breaker, to get everyone’s creative juices flowing and make the team feel safe to express their ideas. Mary liked to use ice-breaker cards, with fun questions like “If you were a Beatle, which would you be and why?”, and give people something to build with pipe cleaners, and Luke likes to have participants build their name tag and decorate it to express their personality, giving them a tableful of supplies to work with. Whichever you prefer, it sets the stage for creative thinking and lets people know you’re open to ideas and serious about creativity.

Don’t Stifle

I had to have at least one Don’t – and you’ve heard this one before, but that doesn’t stop most people. Whatever you do, do NOT censor the input. Nothing kills creativity faster than someone, especially someone of authority, piping up and shooting someone down with “Well, sounds nice but it won’t work in real life”. Every idea, no matter how crazy, is useful because it may spark other ideas, and lead somewhere new. One of the best ways to make sure everyone has their say, and nothing is censored is to use methods like having participants write their ideas on post-it notes, as opposed to letting people shout out their ideas. There will be lots of time for clustering and pruning ideas afterwards.

Have Guideposts

While all ideas are welcome in brainstorming, it’s helpful to at least start with guideposts. Often introducing constraints will fuel creative ideas, and, especially if you’re short on time, you do want to have some limits to guide the brainstorm. Are you looking for ideas in a certain industry? That can be implemented in a certain timeframe? Set those upfront. Don’t censor while you’re in the meeting (unless things get out of hand), but do set some guideposts to start.

Have a moderator

It’s really hard to be both an active participant in brainstorming, and keep the session moving. Trust me, I’ve tried. A  moderator’s job is to make sure everyone has a voice, that the team doesn’t go down a rabbit hole or get stuck, and to follow threads and be inquisitive when they think it will yield rich ideas. Having a moderator will make sure you get the most out of the meeting (and even end on time!).

Invite Diversity

I’ve covered this in past posts, but it’s worth mentioning again – the best way to get good ideas is to have lots of ideas, and the best way to get lots of ideas is to invite diverse ideas. Make sure you don’t have a bunch of like-minded thinkers in the meeting – it’s a surefire way of getting the same-old, same-old. Invite people from different backgrounds, different teams, and different areas of expertise – magic will happen.

Use Games

You knew I had to get in at least one plug for Innovation Games, right? It really helps to have some sort of framework to ideation, as opposed to leaving it wide open. Innovation Games have a number of games that help teams come up with new ideas, and to help shape existing ideas.

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In my time running a design studio, and working with technology companies large and small, I was always surprised by the creative excuses for not getting more customer feedback, like:

“Our product managers already really know the space, that’s what we pay them for”

“Our CEO is a [doctor/architect/accountant/horticulturalist] so he knows the industry really well”

“We’re constantly asking our sales people for customer feedback”

“Customers don’t know what they want”

And almost universally:

“We don’t have time”

Sure you know your industry, and you listen to your customers, and you read the online forums, and you talk to your customer support staff. The trouble is you’re biased. No matter how hard you try to be objective, you have been living and breathing your product forever, and you are starting to get used to it’s idiosyncrasies. No matter how much you know the space, you simply aren’t living in your customer’s shoes day-to-day. The trouble with just getting feedback from online forums and from the sales teams is that it’s also heavily biased – by sales people who need a feature to close a deal, or by the loudest power users who frequent your online forums.

“But”, you say, “we talk to our customers all the time”.

Yes, insights will come from talking to customers, and that’s certainly better than not getting any feedback, but the problem with simply talking to customers is they often can’t articulate what they want. Their feedback will be limited the confines of your current feature set, and most often to bugs that irritate them, especially the one they encountered most recently.

“Fine, but we just don’t have the time and budget”

And here’s where the rubber really hits the road. I could tell you all day that by getting better customer feedback, you’ll fix issues sooner, when they are cheaper to fix, and your product will be more successful, which is all well and good, but you have a deadline to hit and a limited budget.

This is why I love Innovation Games. While I would be very happy if everyone bought into doing ethnography and user research, the reality is that many product groups aren’t ready, or they’ve already committed to a release schedule and simply don’t have time. The great thing about Innovation Games is that they can give you some unbiased, useful feedback in a matter of a few days, and will get you much deeper insights than simply asking “what do you want to see in our next release?” Games like “Buy a feature” not only help you prioritize features but give you deeper insights from the negotiations and conversations that happen between customers in the heat of the game. “Start your day” gives you insights into how customers use your product (or a competitor’s product) throughout different times of the day, week, month and year.

So maybe you don’t have the budget (yet) to do ethnography and user research – that doesn’t mean you can’t get some valuable feedback, and that may make the difference between a flop and a very successful release. I’ve heard all your excuses – let’s play some serious games!

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“I’m not really the creative type”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that in a corporate setting – as an excuse for not wanting to participate in brainstorming, for sticking with the same-old same-old, or for passing the innovation buck to someone else in the organization…

Here’s a newsflash. We’re all born creative. Remember making up games as a kid? Playing with Lego? Drawing? Remember how much fun that was, and how good you were at it? We’re born creative but growing up beats it out of us. Parents, school, and workmates are all quick to tell us there’s a right and wrong way to do things. We learn not to stick our neck out too far.

Then one day, it’s your job to come up with a new idea for a new revenue stream, a killer app, or the next big feature.

Have no fear. There are lots of ways to unlock the latent creativity that’s been driven into the recesses of your brain from years of TPS reports and differential calculus. Here are a few that have worked for me:


As an industry, we’re so caught up in finding the “next big idea”. But look at some of the most successful, innovative products of the past few years, from the poster child of innovation – Apple. The iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad were not new ideas – they were simply much better executed versions of the MP3 player, the smartphone, and the tablet, all of which had been around for years, and all of which really stunk. The iPod, in particular, was just a better business model, based on the premise that (shock!) people want to be able to find music and listen to it on their player without being an expert in sifting through Napster for a decent version or feeling like public copyright enemy #1.

Even pure “creative types” – artists and musicians – steal shamelessly. We tend to look at a piece of art, or a song, as a snapshot in time-  a sudden spark of genius – but they are more often evolutions and mashups of other styles and past works.

Stop setting the bar so high. Sometimes the best idea is the simplest one, and sometimes it comes down to simply doing a better job at a product than everyone else.

Get out of the office

When’s the last time you heard, “I was sitting in the latest budget meeting, and BAM – it hit me!” We think of our best ideas in the shower, or on walks, because we’re giving ourselves the space to think, and think differently. Most of the time we’re slaves to our inbox and todo list. Next time you’re stuck, get out of the office – go for a hike, go for lunch with someone you haven’t seen in a while, or visit a museum. Remember, you’re not paid for the number of hours you log in your Aeron chair – you’re paid for your brainpower, and the value you bring to the company.

Add more diversity to meetings

One of the biggest enemies of innovation is homogeneity. Do you ever find that your team is bringing the same old ideas to the table – that they are stuck in a rut? Try bringing different viewpoints to your next meeting. Invite in someone very new to the organization. Invite in a salesperson, and someone from customer service. Bring in a customer. Hire people with diverse backgrounds and interests. Hire from different schools. Hire from arts schools!

There’s a reason why IDEO, considered one of the world’s most innovative companies, staffs every project with a diverse set of competencies – designers, engineers, anthropologists, researchers – and hires people who have multi-disciplinary backgrounds and hobbies completely tangential to their work. Diversity brings diversity of thought, and diversity of ideas. The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of different ideas.

Get an outside perspective

When I was at Macadamian, we were always looking for new ways of doing things that would give us an edge with clients. However, I would never go looking for how other software consultancies did things. I would go to completely different industries. I wanted to know how industrial design firms works, how accountants serviced their customers, or how the best restaurants trained their staff. It was from touring places like these, and having lunch with lawyers, that gave me the ideas that set us apart. Most of the time, people in identical circumstances come up with essentially the same ideas and draw the same conclusions. If you want fresh thinking, get out of your industry.


We all think we know our customers, and can anticipate their needs. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re not getting out and watching customers in their natural habitat, you’re missing one of the biggest sources for new ideas and breakthroughs. Oxo, one of the most innovative companies in their space, gets a ton of their ideas from simply watching people work in their kitchen. You simply can’t anticipate or imagine all of the possible workarounds, setups, and workflows of your customers. If you really observe and listen, unobtrusively, and without judgement or preconceived notions, you’ll be shocked by what you learn. I’ve heard all your excuses – “it’s hard for me to get out of the office” and “I can’t get to our customers; they are too [far away/secretive/bureaucratic] – and I’m calling BS. Get out of your cube for a day and go see how your customers actually work.


Sometimes you do all of the above, you come up with what you think is the next killer app, and no-one gets it. Or it misses the mark slightly. The best way to avoid that fate is to test constantly, and really listen. And whatever you do, don’t wait until the product is ready to test. At that point, you will have invested so much in building it, and will be under so much pressure to get it to market, that there’s no going back. Instead, start testing the idea right away, in as lightweight, low-fidelity ways as possible. Use sketches, then lo-fi prototypes, then higher fidelity prototypes as the idea develops. Iterate constantly.

Play Games

Sure, I have a bias for things like Innovation Games and Gamestorming that’s obvious from the rest of my site, and that’s because they work. First, ideation and brainstorming need structure, and games give you context, rules, and time limits that help structure brainstorming and make them much more effective than open-ended brainstorming, which often gets stuck in ruts and is often hard to bring to a productive close. Second, games help people think differently – it gives them a safe place to contribute freely. Where open-ended brainstorming sessions are often dominated by the same people, games are the great equalizer, and a good game is designed to get equal input from everyone.

I hate to break it to you, but you are a creative type – you just didn’t know it. So go trade in those chinos for an all-black outfit and a pair of funky spectacles and start innovating!

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Your last strategy session felt like a waste of time because it probably was.

We’ve all been there – we get an email announcing the next corporate or product strategy session. It’s at the local country club. There will be a nice lunch served, and possibly cocktails after. There will be flip charts and markers. We’ll get out of the office, away from the day-to-day, where we can think clearly. What could possibly go wrong?

You start out strong, maybe even do a SWOT analysis. Then a long-standing disagreement between the VP Sales and the VP Engineering erupts, and before long, you’re way down a rat-hole and running out of time. In the end, you end up either following the CEO’s lead, or you agree to “come back to it”. Everyone leaves with the slightly uneasy feeling that comes from everyone having a slightly different interpretation about what you’re doing next, and what’s changed.

Fear not, for there’s a better way. Many strategy sessions miss at least a couple of what I call the Seven Commandments of Strategy. Catchy, right? They even begin with “F” for effect. I was thinking of calling them the 7 F’ing Commandments of Strategy 🙂

Forward planning

I can’t tell you how many planning sessions I’ve either attended, or colleagues have attended, that are planned a week, or even a day, before. And choosing the venue and coffee break menu doesn’t count as forward planning. Strategy is a process, and the following six Fs need to be planned in advance. As a general rule of thumb, I feel it takes at least 4 hours of prep for every person hour you’re going to spend in your strategy session. The good news is, you don’t have to do that all yourself. Some of that is fact gathering, which your team will help with, and some of that is planning the process, which your facilitator can help with.

Start with the outcome in mind, and work backwards from there. More on that when we get to Focus and Framework – I’m getting ahead of myself.


So much time in strategy sessions is lost arguing about facts, like how much revenue did we make in a given segment last year? What did we spend on Project X? If you don’t have these numbers at your fingertips, you’ll either spend precious time looking for them when you should be discussing strategy, or you’ll waste even more time having emotional arguments not based on fact.

If you want to calculate the ROI of doing fact-finding before the strategy session, rather than during, take a look around the table and tally up the fully-loaded, per-minute cost of all the salaries around the table. Hopefully you’re now hyper-aware of every minute you’re wasting trying to find last year’s Asia-Pac numbers.


A good facilitator is worth their weight in gold – hug a facilitator today! Go on!

A facilitator is not the CEO, or even the VP Strategy. It can’t be someone who’s actively involved and emotionally invested in the business or product. Facilitation is part science, part art, and a full-time endeavor.

The role of the facilitator is to make sure the session meets the stated outcomes, the team follows a process, the session stays on track and finishes on time, that everyone who has something to say is heard, jolt thinking and break the team out of their usual patterns, inquire for deeper understanding capture the results and proceedings, and help process the outcomes. No matter how much you consider yourself a multi-tasker, you can’t be fully engaged in something as important as deciding your future, and trying to facilitate at the same time.


Too many strategy sessions try to cover too much ground. “We’ll leave here having clarified our vision for the product line, articulated a platform strategy for the 1, 3, and 5 year timeframes, carved out a go-to-market strategy, and have a detailed plan for going forward” is a typical goal statement at the beginning of a session. Best case, you’ll probably get, at most, two of those done. Pick one or two major objectives for each session, such as defining your top 3 strategic goals for next year and creating a 1 year plan. Strategy is a year-round process, and you can’t expect to clarify vision and strategy, and complete all your planning in a matter of a couple of days. Split up your strategy sessions over multiple sessions throughout the year with different themes. You’ll be more focused, more productive, and you’ll get more done.


Strategy is intense, and it should also be fun. This is your opportunity to lift yourself out of the day-to-day of running your company or product team, and explore the crazy ideas that could be a turning point for your business, or an idea for a new product line, or simply an idea that will spark other ideas. There is a ton of research that shows that people think more creatively when they are happy and having fun, and there are a number of ways to make your session more fun and productive – things like Gamestorming and Innovation Games. Strategy should be all work AND play.


Strategy has been studied so extensively, and so many interesting strategy processes created, that there’s no excuse for winging it. Using a framework helps you organize your session, know what background homework you need to do, and gets everyone’s head in the game prior to your session. There are a number of methods, depending on what you’re trying to tackle, and I’ll go into some of them in more detail in later posts. A few to explore: Blue Ocean Strategy for creating truly differentiated business, the Business Model Canvas for quickly exploring and validating new business models, and serious games like Innovation Games for brainstorming new business ideas, and shaping and prioritizing requirements.


If there is one Commandment that is broken more often than not, it’s follow-through. Nothing deflates the team like inaction and ambiguity following your strategy session. Every strategy session should conclude with the following (so make sure you leave time for this – at least 2-3 hours!):

  • a plan for next steps and a summary of the key initiatives, including who is responsible for what
  • an outline of how progress will be measured and followed up on – how you will keep each other accountable
  • a check-in from everyone about what they’ve heard, and what they are personally committing to

Your planning sessions are one of the most important things your product team, or executive team, does during the year – so treat them that way. Like they always say – if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.

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