The world’s best creativity technique

world's best creativity technique

By Mark W. Schaefer

OK, some blog post headlines tend to be a little sensational.  Not this one.

I want to share with you the absolute best, can’t-miss technique for truly breakthrough thinking I have ever used. That sounds like a cheesy affiliate ad or something, but there’s no catch here. I am simply giving you one of my best leadership ideas.

But it gets better. This is also the best documented business case for workplace diversity I have ever seen.

This is a technique that is brainstorming on steroids.

Here we go …

First, you need to plan a brain-storming session with at least 10 diverse people. Really shake up the diversity in every way you can. And the more people involved, the better. I’ve done this technique successfully with a room of 75 people. Be sure to tell them what the purpose of the meeting is and that they should come prepared with at least a few ideas.

Early in your meeting, have everybody rip off a big piece of easel paper and write their very best idea for the brainstorming topic at the top of the page.  Make sure there is plenty of room below their idea to write additional ideas.

Now, have them go to the walls around the room, tape their idea to the wall and stand in front of it.

Have everybody slide over one space to their right so that they are standing in front of the idea next to them. Ask the participants to read the idea written at the top carefully and then add to, or improve, the original idea and write their contribution below the first entry.

Now have everybody slide over TWO spaces — not just one!  The reason I do this is because you don’t want the same person continually following the thought process of the person in front of them. You are trying to mix up the mental frameworks.

Tell them to write a better idea based on what is on the page so far and then have everybody slide again. This time count off three spaces. Read what has been written so far and add to it or improve it once again.

Do this one more time. Slide over just one space and ask them to come up with a better idea than what has been written so far.

Now introduce a random prompt. Have everybody slide over two spaces and ask them something like:

  • How could this idea be illegal?
  • What would happen if this idea was invisible?
  • What would you do to this idea to have people pay a hundred dollars for it?
  • What would happen if this idea was in the dark, or under water?

The reason for these strange questions is to try to get your participants to look at the idea in a totally new perspective. One time I was leading a creativity session to come up with ways that consumers could interact with packaging in a new way. Once when I gave the “invisible” prompt, a housewife came up with an idea for an instant win game that made people a winner if they had the right barcode at a check-out scanner.

OK, now shift one more time. Two spaces. Ask them to read everything on the page and write one more great idea based on everything that is on the page so far.

Then have the participants go back to their original idea, read the entire page and circle the best idea on the page.

This is when the magic happens. About 95% of the time, the best idea they circle is NOT their original idea! In less than 15 minutes you can turn all of your good ideas into great, perhaps even break-through, ideas.

The theory behind this technique

When I was in grad school studying organizational development, I learned that our basic mental framework — how we process information — is basically complete by the time we are 15 years old. So literally, it is impossible for you to think “out of the box” because you are permanently hard-wired.

For true break-through thinking to occur on a team, we must combine the boxes we have available. This is why the diversity of the participants is so important. You don’t want to do this where everybody is a numbers-type or creative-type or even all of a certain age or culture heritage. The more boxes you can combine and complement each other, the better the results. Always!

Even if you are trying to solve a technical problem, invite people from marketing, accounting, HR … maybe even from another division or company all together. I’ve even conducted creativity sessions like this on behalf of a Fortune 100 company with a fifth-grade class just to see what they could come up with.

There is a tremendous secondary benefit to this technique. Notice I said it was important to do this early in your meeting.Typically, when people see the amazing work they’ve done in just 15 minutes, they are energized, engaged and confident in your process. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Applying this to the web

I’ve tried to apply this technique to an online setting by shuffling ideas between far-flung participants. It has not worked very well. There is something about the interaction of a boisterous group, a shared experience, the physical movement and the sense of momentum and accomplishment from the live exercise that can’t be duplicated when folks are behind computers in cubicles.

Are you ready to give it a try? I’d love to hear about it. Happy brainstorming!


SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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