It's Spring! 10,000 steps (more or less) to Creativity

The spring weather is finally here and it’s fabulous! That means a lot to us folks in Cleveland. It’s still a crapshoot here with one day in the 70s and the next in the high 40s. But no matter where you live, spring offers a great opportunity to boost your creative juices.

 Take a walk

Walking has proven to boost creative thinking. A Stanford University study (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014) demonstrated that walking increases creative ideation – “the effect is not simply due to the increased perceptual stimulation of moving through an environment, but rather it is due to the walking. Whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.” Even philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche thought so (back in 1889) when he wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

 So – go take a stroll, a hike, or a saunter, and let your thoughts soar! Want more ways to boost your creativity?

5 more proven methods to help the inspiration flow:

  • Play. Whatever your definition of play is, it’s an important part of being human and a way to stimulate new thinking.

  • Draw, paint, or doodle. Creativity sparks creativity. And there is no room for self-judgement here – just do it – whether it’s in the moment during a meeting or if you find the time to carve out and express yourself.

  • Be inspired. Be stimulated by other thoughts or ideas – simply by watching or listening to a TED talk for example (with your phone, inspiration is at your fingertips).

  • Music and daydreaming. Whether you are in your car (limit the daydreaming part perhaps) or in the shower or just relaxing, put on some of your favorite music and let it take you where it will.

  • Change your environment. Which is also a good way to incorporate a walk. Go to an art show, to the museum, a coffee-shop, anywhere that will inspire you visually and expose you to new perspectives.

A common theme?

Yes – it’s all about breaking your pattern of thinking. A key component that we incorporate into all of our ideation sessions is the use of stimulus. Pictures, concepts, questions, or exercises that make you pause and connect dots that you thought might not have any relevance – and they may not – but what it will do is spark a new idea. So, do your mind and your body a great service by taking a walk today!

Your Secret Weapon to Generating Ideas

How effective are you at getting the most out of a conference or presentation? This may seem blindingly obvious, but it starts with taking notes. Not all note taking is the same. There are proven and tested note taking methods that can dramatically help you retain more information and generate more ideas from your notes. And that’s the real reason you are there, to expand your mind, come up with new ideas and concepts that will benefit you and your organization.

The secret is – writing

Ditch your computer. Start with paper, not your computer. Don’t take notes with a laptop. Studies have shown that people who use longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material.

Keep writing. Humans forget things easily. As more time passes, the more we forget (shocker). In a study by Professor Walter Pauk with Cornell, we forget:

Notes Graphs.png

The study on university students found that note-taking combats forgetfulness by providing a reference point for later. Only 10% of a presentation or lecture may last in memory, but those who took and reviewed their notes were able to recall about 80%.

Doodle. You are human and your mind will wander. Whether the speaker is boring or dynamic, you may find yourself doodling in the margins. That’s awesome – keep it up! Research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that people who doodle recall information (up to 29% more) than their non-doodling counterparts. Doodling is also a great way to spark new and innovative ideas and make them more tangible. There is a reason why we speak of those million-dollar ideas that were initially sketched out on the back of a napkin.

Creating Ideas

Taking notes is great, and for some people, simply listening to someone and taking notes sparks ideas. It doesn’t matter whether you start flowing with ideas or don’t have many from listening to a speaker. Ideas can be sparked in the moment or may come later. And it’s these ideas that are important to you and your organization. Here are a few tips to generate more ideas from your notes:

  • New time. Put down your notes and re-read them the next day. A fresh perspective and sleeping on it is very helpful. A study in Memory and Cognition found that people perform problem-solving tasks more effectively after sleep.
  • New perspective. Start by thinking of a challenge - one challenge or problem you are trying to solve at a time. Review your notes and with that challenge in mind, you may come up with a new idea by looking through this new lens.
  • New location. Take a hike. Grab your notes and go to a coffee shop, walk a trail, and get a different perspective. Reading your notes in a different environment will help generate different thinking and new ideas.
  • New atmosphere. Listen to music while reviewing your ideas. A co-study by the Behavioral Science Institute of The Netherlands and The University of Technology in Sydney, found that listening to uplifting, happy music (your definition of what that is) increased people’s ability to come up with more ideas.

You Have an Idea! Now What?

Don’t lose it. Immediately write it down. The most important thing is to capture the essence of the idea – you can always go back and build upon it. But if it’s forgotten, then it’s lost forever. When you have that spark of an idea, capture these three key elements:

1.     Name it. A creative name or a functional name – this is your baby, whatever you like!

2.     Describe the idea. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just a sentence or two that defines your idea. You will elaborate upon it later.

3.     Make it real. Add a few details that describe how it works. Write just enough to capture the essence of your thinking.

Tell Your Story

Now it’s time to share your idea. The three brief items from above will probably not be enough to effectively communicate your concept. Things to do:

Expand & Add.  Expand on the idea to more fully explain the idea and how it works. Add new information that you believe the people in your organization will want or need to know. These could include items like cost, how long it may take to develop, or the type of resources needed such as people and tools.

Share. How you share your idea is based upon the culture of your organization. Some are formal and it requires a well-developed presentation. In others, it may simply be something that is discussed over lunch with key stakeholders. Regardless of your organizations style, here are a few tips that may help you:

  • Know your Audience. Think about what’s important to the audience. How does the concept align with the organization’s goals and mission? Position the concept in a way that demonstrates how it helps achieve the organization’s objectives.
  • Stay Flexible. Be willing to modify the idea. Embrace the feedback and think about how the concept can evolve to help ensure it either gets prototyped or tested. It’s a big step moving from concept to reality.
  • Grease the Skids. Before launching into a big presentation, float the concept to a few people and get their thoughts. This feedback can be used to help modify and hopefully improve the concept or how to better communicate it. Even go as far as seeking out the one person that may be the biggest skeptic.
  • Use Visuals. Consider adding visuals or other aids to bring the concept to life. This could be a chart, graphs, or a drawing. Visuals can at times convey a lot more information quickly than just words. And it’s also what your audience may prefer. Some people love visuals while others need hard facts and insights that support the concept.

It doesn’t matter whether you are going to a multi-day conference or just attending a one hour presentation. You are still using your valuable time, so you might as well get the most out of it for you and your organization.

Take Notes. Create ideas. Share. Be brilliant.






For The Love of Brainstorming

Brainstorming works

 Ideas matter more than ever.  Every organization is looking for them. Ideas on how to grow, better connect with customers, improve operations, engage employees, develop new marketing concepts, invent new products - the list is as endless as are the types of ideas that can be manifested. Ideas are the result of tapping into our inner creative ability (and we all have it, not just creatives, artists, right-brainers or other stereotypes of the kind of people that can come up with many good ideas). Ideas are the building blocks that help companies get to the next steps and develop innovative solutions and solve challenges.


Brainstorming is still one of the most effective ways to generate ideas.


Brainstorming has been the typical approach for how to generate ideas. Yet, it has been bashed and has flowed in and out of vogue ever since Osborn developed methods for creative problem solving in his classic book Applied Imagination (1953).


Most people don’t know how to brainstorm.


Don’t blame the concept of brainstorming; the issue with not getting the results you want out of a brainstorming session is often a lack of understanding on how to run an effective session. When done well, we can guarantee that you can generate hundreds of ideas in a few hours. Are they all good? Absolutely not. But when those hundreds of ideas are distilled into common themes and further stretched into what is not only possible, but can be commercialized, you’ll find the diamonds. 


It takes time and planning.


What is ineffective is gathering a random set of people (or your go-to favorites), hustle them into a room with a whiteboard and ask them to think of new ideas. Effective brainstorming needs a plan and the plan needs to have the following:

1.     A clear objective.

2.     A diverse set of individuals.

3.     Tools and exercises.

4.     Time to prepare, moderate and analyze the output from the session.


Creativity & The Brain

Recent studies by neuroscientists, suggest that the left brain/right brain distinction does not provide us with the full or real picture of how creativity is manifested in the brain (The structure of creative cognition in the human brain.  July 2013, Department of Neurosurgery, University of New Mexico). The entire creative process taps into a wide range of cognitive processes (including your conscious and unconscious) as well as your emotions. The process of creating ideas comes from your entire brain.


Include a diverse set of people to participate.


What this means is that when planning for a brainstorming session, it is important to plan ahead on who will be invited to join. Since we are all wired differently and have different life experiences, this rich diversity of thought is critical in helping generate diverse ideas. If you only include the same type of people in your sessions, you will just keep getting the same types of ideas. Diversity of thought and experience is very important. You want to include artists and engineers, millennials and older generation, introverts and extroverts, and varying tenure within the organization. 


Planning & Facilitating

 Now that you have your people, what will you do with them? Having a good plan with the right set of tools is just as important in generating ideas as are the people who will attend. 


Have a clear objective.


Do not make this a spontaneous event. Start by having a clear objective.  Everyone should know and understand what problem they are solving.  Construct your objective in the following manner:  “We are generating ideas to ____________.”  And the more specific the better.  For example, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue” will not be as effective as, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue from our new product line in the xyz segment.” The ideas generated will be sharper given the target is better defined.

 Define your objective days if not weeks in advance.  This is the foundational building block for your brainstorm.  Once you have your objective and you know who will be there, you can start planning the various types of exercises to generate the ideas.


Establish ground rules.


Review these ground rules at the beginning of the session and don’t hesitate to remind anyone during the session if they break them:

  • Encourage wild ideas.

  • Encourage building on each other’s ideas.

  • Don’t judge. Be aware of using language that shuts down other people, such as the use of the word, “but”, or phrases like, “we’ve tried that before”, etc.

  • Stay focused on the objective.

  • Have fun!


Quantity leads to quality.


With a diverse set of individuals, you will need to employ a variety of tools to help generate the ideas.  You can search on the internet and find all kinds of tools to use in the process.  Some of our favorites include spider charting and picture stimulus to help the brain make connections and new leaps of association.  Have all these tools and stimulus aids defined, printed or gathered, and set up in the room before the team arrives.

 Spider Chart:

  • Break out into groups of 3 to 4 people and have them stationed at a white-board or large easel pad.

  • Have one word written in the middle of the page. Everyone will build off this word by writing another word that they think of or associate with the main word. Everyone can continue this simultaneously either off the center word or any new words written. Every new word should spark new ideas and the chart keeps growing.

  • Finally have each person write out their best or favorite ideas on a separate sheet of paper that is turned into the facilitator.

Picture Stimulus:

  • Rip out dozens of pictures from magazines. Have a wide variety of pictures. What they are is not as important as the need to have a very diverse set of photos. The pictures don’t have to be related to the objective or the organization in any way. They are there simply for stimulus purposes.

  • Each person picks 2 to 3 pictures they love the best (whatever they want).

  • In groups of 3 to 5, everyone can share their photos and the teams can engage in free-association with words that come to mind when viewing each picture. Then the group talks about ideas that those words spark.

  • Ideas are written out by each person and shared with the facilitator.


Once you begin, the focus is on quantity, not perfection.  Each exercise should take about 15 to 20 minutes.  It’s a fast pace, and most people will complain that they didn’t have enough time.  That’s OK – keep them moving.  They will have more opportunities to get their ideas generated.  The important part is that after each exercise, have everyone take the time to actually write out, on their own, each of their ideas.  Give them another 5 to do this. Have them capture each idea as clearly as possible – one per page (large post it notes work great for this).  If you don’t do this, then you just wasted time trying to decipher the scribbles everyone puts on the sheet.


Bring it all together by converging the ideas and possibly building upon them.


Now it’s time to work with the ideas gathered and distill the data into the smaller set of really good ideas. Take all the ideas, then:

  • Discard the duplicates

  • Consolidate the ideas that are similar

  • Look for common themes and see if they can be further developed

  • See if two or more ideas can be brought together to form a bigger idea or concept

Depending on the objective, the ideas can then be elevated and better defined by filtering them through parameters such as time to develop, required financial or other resources to bring to life, or their perceived uniqueness. Again, these ideas are the building blocks to help form more well developed concepts through research and additional thinking.


It takes practice.


Effective brainstorming that leads to many high quality ideas takes a bit of work to do well. If you are new to developing and facilitating brainstorming efforts, like with any skill, the more you do it, the better you will get. Try not to facilitate and participate at the same time. Having someone assist you during the session can be very helpful. Start easy or have a practice run with friendly co-workers that are willing to play and learn along with you. Try out as many different exercises as you can. It will only get better and the results will amaze you. Have fun out there! 

Why Innovation Teams Fail

I recently received my latest and greatest credit card with the chip. It reminded me of when our innovation team pitched the leadership of our large credit card firm on how to transform our industry with this technology.  The company was looking for an innovative approach to help take a leadership position in the U.S. credit card market. 

The capabilities and security advantages of chip technology over magnetic stripes were already being put to use throughout Europe and Asia. Along with consumer benefits, there would however, be significant cost implications. Though, it was apparent that this was where the entire industry was headed and the benefits to the customer along with a reduction in fraud were clear. Not to mention the new applications, discoveries, and innovations that could be built upon the technology. We had an opportunity to make a bold and disruptive move in the U.S. card market.  That was in 1996. More on that later.

Unless a company has integrated innovative thinking into the fabric of the organization, they may fall prey to the idea that they can set up a separate group to come up with great new ideas to deliver to the market. 

Coming up with new or groundbreaking ideas is often not the greatest challenge. Delivering the ideas into the market is where things begin to fall apart. 

Organizations may come to the realization that they lack either the culture or know-how to develop innovative products or services and successfully get them into market. They may take the easy path and decide to set up a team, give some folks a new title, or even physically locate them away from the rest of the employees and dub them the “innovation team.” 

This will often prove ineffective and may backfire on two fronts. The primary issue is not that the team won’t come up with great ideas, but they will then have to take their magnificent concepts and introduce them into the very same system and organization that admittedly stated they were not good at innovating. A study of MIT technology transfer over 16 years, found that when a large company licensed a technology from MIT and introduced it into their development systems, the idea never even got to market 80% of the time.

The second issue is one of negative cultural impact, which is exactly the opposite of what leaders would expect to happen. The concept of demonstrating their commitment to innovation must surely boost confidence in the company. But exactly how would you feel if you were not selected or even asked to participate in the innovation efforts? There is the real threat of fostering animosity from existing employees who know they have great ideas and want to contribute, but can’t or were never given the option. Or worse - ask the employees to submit their ideas, and foster excitement, only to have little feedback on what happened with their ideas and inevitably, see the tiniest percentage ever see the light of day, if that.

Back to that pitch to our CEO two decades ago. We had our challenge. We completed our research and we even had pilot programs up and running. After a good hour long presentation, the CEO, with a very thoughtful expression on his face, leaned back and said, “couldn’t we just paint a chip on the card and make believe it did something, when in actuality, it just used our same mag stripe infrastructure?” Awkward silence followed. And here we are 20 years later finally implementing the technology in the U.S. And a bit too late, as more innovative companies are already moving us beyond chip technology with mobile payment systems and enhanced security features.

Innovation is not the job of a select few. Innovation is a mindset, supported by senior leadership, with systems, education and tools that empower all employees.

Before pursuing innovation in your organization, take the time to step back and consider the entire system, not just one component, such as generating ideas. Take stock in your culture, your leadership, your commitment, and your innovation capabilities before investing in tools, teams, or titles. As in any endeavor, the time taken up front to plan and prepare, will help yield better results on the back-end, where it matters.