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

Posts from the ‘Innovation Games’ category

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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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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