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

Posts from the ‘Innovation’ category

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.


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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“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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