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

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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