If you want to boost your team creativity but feel overwhelmed with too many options, you are not alone. There are tons of creativity techniques which you may find in classic books like Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys, Gray’s Gamestorming, or almost any book by Edward de Bono. You can activate team creativity in so many ways it is easy to get lost.
Here you can find the top five activities to guide your first steps activating your team creativity: improvisation, story dice, provocation, brain-writing and SCAMPER. These cover playful approaches to warmup the creative muscles, generate and expand disruptive ideas.
I have included them in my book Join The Playful Revolution – How To Bring Creativity and Play to the Workplace, where you can find some more detailed descriptions of some techniques such as brain-writing. You will also find a couple of bonus techniques not included in the book, for your eyes only. I hope you find these useful.
By the way, if you are looking at ways to facilitate group creativity in a remote setting, her you may find some useful information: Remote Team Creativity.
(Note: Some of the references in this article may contain affiliate links, which means if you buy the product you are supporting this project with a small commission at no cost for you).
Activity 1: Improvisation “Yes, and”
I borrowed this technique from improv comedy (Hough, 2011). A very important principle is that in improv comedy, they expect you to make your teammates look good. This, in exchange, builds trust. And it requires empathy too.
The technique I use basically consists of one participant starting to build a story with any statement. It can be something mundane, the first thing they did that morning, for example.
- Participant 1: “This morning, when I woke up, I did not want to get up because I felt terribly tired”
Then, the next participant continues by saying “Yes, and xxx”, and so on.
- Participant 2: “Yes and, I slammed the alarm clock across the room when it rang”
- Participant 3: “Yes and, because it was summer, I had left the window open”
- Participant 4: “Yes and, the alarm clock fell through the window all the way to the ground”
The last participant will say “Yes, and YYY”, but will try to close the story.
- Participant 5: “Yes and, I live on a second floor, and I heard somebody whining and cursing, so I switched the light off”
The whole point here is to build on your predecessor by adding to the story. This approach will neutralize the “Yes, but” attitude you may find when offering a new idea. The rule requires that you accept your partner’s proposition as is, and add value to it. No “But”, just “And”.
If you have created an initial story with a team, using the “Yes, and” framework, then you can challenge them with variations, depending on time availability:
- Retell the story in half the time, which will force you to leave things out.
- “I woke up very tired”
- “and, I slammed the clock”
- “and, the window was open”
- “and, the clock fell through”
- “and, nobody died”
- Retell the story to foreigners, or five-year-old children (which may require you to double up on expressivity). Do you want to try it?
Apart from the benefits of fostering collaboration, by active listening and communicating, this technique develops storytelling and creativity on the spot. To me it is one of the most complete of all.
If you do this periodically, you may find that you interiorize the principles and it will transfer to how you receive everyone else’s idea in a day-to-day context. This is the very essence of a safe environment to innovate. It is also cheap, easy and fun.
Activity 2: Story dice for everything
You can use improv as an icebreaker on its own, and in combination with story dice, using the dice images as a story prompt.
I first came across story dice when looking at games and agile retrospectives. Many people were using Rory Story Cubes, a set of nine dice with different icons in them, representing basic concepts (foot, face, light bulb, etc). There are alternatives of different brands, and you can make your own with permanent markers over blank dice, or DIY paper dice too. Dave Birss has created a free beautifully designed online set for remote sessions, that lets you choose between five or nine dice.
Teams are using story dice in retrospectives, when talking about the past project or sprint, but also for planning the next stage or the future of the team. You can draw some inspiration from Sumit Sethi’s approach that he shared in a Linkedin post:
- People take turns rolling four normal dice. If they get a six, they get to roll the story dice.
- The storyteller throws all nine dice from the set and has to use at least five to tell their story. They will share their life during the project or sprint, and it can be positive or about something that needs improvement, or both.
- They play until everyone has told a story.
Although it worked for Sumit’s team, many people may be caught by surprise the first time. Using them playfully first, as an icebreaker, makes everyone familiar with the mechanics of the dice and storytelling. Later they can then focus on the project stories when using them in a retrospective.
Some dice based icebreakers could be:
- Throw the dice and pick one to share some anecdote from your childhood. This allows teams to get familiar with visual metaphors and stories, as well as getting to know each other.
- In groups of three, throw three dice and each person will tell a story based on the image. Person One, will tell the beginning, Person Two, will continue it, and Person Three will finish it. The challenge is linking the image to the overall story. This is also performed using the “Yes, and” approach. It builds listening and creativity, and makes for fun stories without fear.
- The whole team tells a story with one dice each. You need to divide the group in three sections, so section one tells the beginning, section two, the middle, and section three, the end. In this case, you are creating a collective story, with a very diverse pool of storytellers. This exercise is basically the improv exercise mentioned earlier, but using the randomness of the dice to make it even more challenging (and fun).
This is a combined exercise that develops creativity, story-telling, empathy, collaboration and visual language skills. If you were to use only one practical activity from this book, this should be it.
Activity 3: Provocation
Provocation is a technique very well documented by Edward de Bono, with several variations. My favorite one is to take a regular and true statement, and transform it into something radical, exaggerated, inverted or impossible: i.e., regular statement “companies have employees” → provocation “a company without employees” (I know, there are several types, it is just an example).
Anouk Suñer-Rabaud, in the course material of Creative Thinking at Universidad Oberta de Cataluña, suggests other examples: “Skates are hammered on the floor”, “students teach the teacher.” You then get these statements to generate ideas that will make the statement true. What can we create/do for that statement to be true? i.e. following the example “a company without employees” –> “a company that hires freelancers”.
Instead of having to generate hundred of ideas in order to get the obvious ones out of the way, these provocations open more original paths, short-cutting the process a little.
You can use this technique for your individual thinking, but it can be introduced right before any ideation session to get people in disruptive mode. It is a good primer to take people out of their standard way of thinking.
Activity 4: Brainwriting
Let’s assume that you know the essence of brainstorming (that is: a group of people calling out ideas, while someone is taking notes, and yes, you are expected to suspend judgement…). The technique is credited to Alex Osborn. This format tends to favor the most vocal types during the idea generation phase. Also, when it is time to vote, if done on sight, there might be some pressure to vote for the idea of the boss or the dominant voices.
To save the hassle, and have everyone be engaged and contributing, you can run a quick brain-writing session instead:
- Your participants should be equipped with sticky notes and thick, black permanent markers.
- They need to be instructed to write one idea per sticky note and in capital letters.
- You set the timer up (three to five minutes), get everyone ready, and go.
- They collect their sticky notes after time is up, and put them up on the wall.
- Now you give them time to organize, take away duplicates, categorize.
- And finally, you give them a few dots to vote for their favorite ideas. For 3-6 participants, 3 dots per person would be enough, maybe 4-5 if they are 8-10 participants.
And all can be done in silence.
This technique evens up the participation. You get lots of ideas in a very short period of time, and there is no time wasted arguing about meaningless points. You also obtain a rough evaluation /selection of ideas. There are more sophisticated techniques to evaluate ideas, like an impact/viability matrix (or more like return/costs in the business world) but, depending on context, you get a quick and dirty first set of promising ideas.
Now, this technique works at any level of the hierarchy. I know it is a speedy process and some ideas or concepts might benefit from a little further discussion. Your participants may need that time, so you may consider planning your session with a little ‘free time’ for that spontaneous discussion to take place. Alternatively, just as you voted on preferred ideas, you may let people vote on ideas they would like to discuss further, and give them time to do just that.
Activity 5: SCAMPER
When you do a quick brain-writing or brainstorming session, you first go after the low hanging fruit. Since there is some time pressure, you suggest the first things that come to mind. Invariably, those tend to be the ideas that are most obvious. The more you dig, the more variety you find. That is why originality is a numbers game: the more ideas, the most likelihood of original thinking.
SCAMPER is an acronym created by Bob Eberle that summarizes certain actions used in the technique: substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, reverse.
This technique starts with a product or idea and explores it systematically, by going over every action, with several questions, and coming up with several answers. For example, if we start with a frying pan:
- Substitute. What can I substitute? The handle, the frying side, the screw that keeps them together… What do I substitute if for? The handle, with a clamp (something to hold it with), the frying side, with a metallic lid.
- Combine. What can I combine it with? Maybe an attached stove or oil dispenser.
- Adapt. How can I adapt it? Vertical handle for very small kitchens.
- Modify. What can I modify or magnify? Changing the shape to make star-shaped fried eggs…or make it extensible.
- Put to another use. Use it to add some weight on top of a sandwich that is on another pan.
- Eliminate. What can you remove? The handle. By making sure the exterior always remains cold, you can pick it up by hand.
- Reverse. What can you invert or reorder? First thought: using the handle to heat things up… that is, making a handle that can contain liquid and is fire resistant, so you can heat the handle up.
With this systematic approach, we are generating ideas on demand (deliberate creativity), regardless of our own perceived sense of creative skill. It is a creative confidence builder, and a good training exercise. But if we start from an initial provocation round, people may loosen up a bit and become more adventurous in their propositions. Of course, being a tool, it is not compulsory to use all the verbs (all the steps described by the acronym), but a little full practice may be helpful at the beginning.
This technique is both suited to individuals and teams, and mixes very well with provocation.
BONUS 1 : Teamstorming
Juan Prego, author of the book “Teamstorming”, gives his own touch to systematic group-storming. In the book he provides a unique blueprint with up to six rounds, generating ideas individually, using sticky notes and the rule “one idea in one sticky note”. In every round, each participant moves to another section of the wall and starts from the sticky notes that the earlier participant left there. It follows some of the actions of SCAMPER, but the book gives you the blueprint of the whole session, which also includes a few idea evaluation steps.
I have facilitated a session like this with a small group of 4 business development people, who generated more than 100 ideas in 15 minutes. You need at least 3 people to make it work, but it is a format that can be easily scaled up. I have run a session with more than 30 people and it went smoothly.
In his book, Juan moves from ideation to an evaluation stage. The first step involves voting for the favorite ideas, if there are too many. Then, the selected ones are placed on a matrix according to their level of originality and applicability. Aiming to be disruptive, he adds a step where the most original ideas that are least applicable get a little think through to make them applicable. You ask “How can we make this possible?”. Finally, depending on the goal, you select an area of the matrix to take action on, more evolutive or disruptive.
BONUS 2: Six thinking hats
The technique Six Thinking Hats was developed by Edward de Bono in a book by the same name and it has been applied to corporate meetings all over the world. Although it can also be used for generating ideas, I find it specially useful to enhance the winning propositions. I would use it after the core of the ideation has taken place and you have selected a small set of winning ideas. Then you apply this technique to each and everyone of the finalists to enrich the information and challenge potential caveats.
The technique involves the team sequentially discussing the idea focusing in different aspects, according to a given hat color they are wearing (figuratively, or literally):
- White: is the hat of the facts, data and information. You may want to add factual information you have about the idea, or voice concerns about the data you don´t yet have. It refers to what you know.
- Red: is the hat of feelings and emotions. You empathize with the possible recipient of the idea, or how it will make you feel executing it. It refers to what you/or the user feel.
- Green: is the hat of the new ideas. With this hat, you may propose or enumerate the most disruptive ideas of the ideation phase. If you are using the technique as ‘standalone’, then this is brainstorming time.
- Black: this is the negative hat. You find everything that is wrong with the idea. However, instead of dwelling in it, you have to tweak the idea to overcome the cons. This is a critical hat to make a better case for the idea, so I perceive it as a positive contribution in the process.
- Yellow: this is the positive hat. You find all the benefits of the idea, assuming everything will go well. With this hat, you find the core value proposition for the idea.
- Blue: is a big picture and organizational hat. On one hand, it means to manage the session, make sure you go through all points, everyone contributes, but also, that it makes sense, that the final ‘proposal’ includes all parts.
You can use it individually, as a systematic evaluation tool or in teams. When in teams, you can either assign everyone a different hat, and have a turn to express their views, or you can get the whole team visit each hat and contributing to that perspective. The latter will have a lot of educational value, since we know who are the always optimistic and the eternal critic.
Books & resources
Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko
Gamestorming, by Sunny Gray
Lateral Thinking Edward de Bono
by Karen Houghes (2011)
Teamstorming by Juan Prego – 2018 –
Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono
Online Story Dice by Dave Birss
Rory Story Cubes –