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Engage Employee Creativity with These 5 Innovation Activities

Innovation is a “creative muscle” that needs to be flexed and exercised regularly to be strong and effective. Anyone can innovate — and some of the best or most creative innovations come from everyday people (not just the creative geniuses).
When you are trying to engage your team’s creativity to facilitative innovative processes, have your reports ask themselves one deceptively simple question: What can I do to make X ten times better? Big Think expert Shane Snow discusses this concept in his Edge video “Use 10x Thinking to Drive 10x Results.” According to Snow, encouraging employees to think creatively gets companies to those innovative moments.
Innovation is all about thinking outside the box, both individually and as part of a team, and it can be done by engaging in a variety of creative design thinking exercises.
Design thinking incorporates a five-step process:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

To help you get started, here is a list of five innovation activities and exercises your team can use to help their creative juices start flowing.

1) Engage in Forced Connections

Forced Connections is an exercise used to bring together seemingly unrelated ideas to form a new concept that can serve a new or existing need. Examples of forced connections include the Ring camera doorbell, Apple Watch, 3D printing, smart refrigerators, and even the old school Swiss army knife.
When conducting this exercise, have your team sit in a room without any mobile devices or computers. Set up a whiteboard and write down a list of random objects (or bring a series of random items into the room with you).
Next, have them pick two or more items and determine if there is a way that they can be connected. While this can initially be frustrating and often create silly results, it is a great way to help them think outside the box and consider new concepts they may not have otherwise thought of.

2) Host an Ideation Session Using 30 Circles Exercise

The goal of the 30 circles exercise, an ideation exercise that falls within the third step of the design thinking process, is to push the boundaries of your employees’ creativity by having them turn shapes into recognizable objects in a short period of time.
This exercise can be conducted either individually or as a group. If done independently, give each of your employees a sheet of paper that contains 30 identical blank circles. For groups, have each team draw 30 circles that are as close to one another in shape and size as possible on a whiteboard.
Next, give them between two and four minutes to come up with as many variations of the circles as they can. You may see some basic concepts drawn — baseballs, globes, eyeballs, clocks, etc. — but you also will likely be surprised to see the more innovative concepts that will begin to emerge.

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3) Engage in a Brainstorming Session

There are some mixed reviews about brainstorming. Some experts think it actually hinders creativity because shy people are afraid to speak up, or that “anchoring” (groupthink or assimilation to the first recommended ideas) leads to decreased creativity.
Regardless of these concerns, brainstorming is an ideation process that has persisted and continues to be used across many notable industries and markets, including Silicon Valley.
In a Forbes article, Robert B. Tucker, an author and innovation consultant for Fortune 500 companies outlines seven guidelines for helping teams engage in a brainstorming session:

  1. Make sure the facilitator sets the right tone.
  2. Use challenge questions to focus the session.
  3. Go for quantity, not quality.
  4. Discourage judgment and analysis.
  5. Encourage wild and even “absurd” ideas.
  6. Make sure everyone’s ideas get captured and displayed.
  7. Use “dot-voting” to rank the ideas.

4) If Brainstorming Does Not Work, Try Brainwriting

As an alternative to the traditional brainstorming approach, some businesses have adopted a process known as “brainwriting.” Unlike brainstorming, this concept separates idea creation from discussion. Individuals will write down their ideas before engaging in group discussion, preventing their perceptions from being influenced by the opinions of their colleagues.
Brainwriting can be done independently on an ongoing basis. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), innovative eyewear retailer Warby Parker employees spend a few minutes each week writing down innovation ideas that are then shared with their colleagues. The company also maintains a shared Google Doc in which employees contribute ideas for technology requests that can be developed — a process that reportedly generates approximately 400 new ideas per quarter.

5) Get Employees to Challenge Their Assumptions

One less frequently used approach to ideation is to ask employees to question what they know about a particular problem, project, process, or another area they wish to innovate. Independently, employees create a list of assumptions (which can be submitted anonymously) that can then be discussed as a group. Regardless of whether the assumptions are true or false, it helps you gain a better understanding of how this area is perceived by employees.
When teams are encouraged to challenge their assumptions, their ideas can be incredibly creative and abundant. It also helps leaders identify any potential knowledge gaps or other areas that need to be addressed.
To learn more about design thinking, check out the Big Think+ expert class, “Use Design Thinking” with expert Tim Brown. 

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