Explore exercises you can do alone or with your team to ignite creativity and find new ways of looking at projects and problems
‘I write at least part of every one of my BedTimes articles while I walk the dog. Or drive. Or garden. Sometimes it’s the beginning that comes to me while I do these tasks. Sometimes it’s the structure. Knowing this, I now keep a little notebook handy to jot down my thoughts for when I get back to the computer.
Your best ideas might come to you on the golf course or in the shower. Maybe as you drift off to sleep.
Creativity requires a certain distance, a certain freedom. Some people work well under pressure and might get a great idea as they watch the clock tick away toward a deadline. But, for most of us, creativity requires a bit of space to let our mind wander, whether we are creating a presentation or designing a new pillow.
The economic downturn and the uncertainty about when the novel coronavirus pandemic will be contained can create stress and anxiety, and, for many people, a soundtrack of “Oh, no! What’s next? I can’t handle it!” is playing in their heads nearly all the time. That is not a mindset that generally lends itself to bursts of creativity, and yet these difficult times require businesses to be imaginative and innovative if they are to survive and thrive. And your team needs the tools and time to think expansively about challenges.
Here, we have compiled a number of exercises, some meant to be done as individuals and some as groups, that can lead to better ideas that flow more freely and regularly.
You can assign an exercise or two, or simply encourage your team to set aside 15 or 30 minutes each week to try one on their own. They are organized into three types that build on each other, but they don’t have to be done in order.
We tend to think of creativity as something a person embodies: You either have it or you don’t. “She’s creative,” we’ll say about someone who has visionary ideas or who is artistic. While it’s true that some people may be more naturally creative than others, it is a skill you can build with practice.
The following exercises won’t necessarily help you come up with a clever solution to a specific business problem you’re facing right now but they will train you to view situations from new perspectives and spark new insights. You can choose to do these on your own or, if you’re a manager, you may want to challenge your team to try one or two of these for a week or a month. At the end of the period, bring everyone together for a quick lunch or Zoom meeting to share their experiences and results.
• Commit to taking a photo — or writing one haiku or drawing one image — every day. No excuses.
A friend who has embraced the #LookUp social media challenge regularly takes stunning photos, images found simply by lifting his gaze from the street level to the skyscrapers, trees and clouds. The exercise literally is giving him a new perspective.
• Read from a different genre — science fiction if you normally prefer biographies; mysteries if you typically stick to business bestsellers.
• Take a weekly field trip to somewhere you’ve never been — park, museum, scenic drive — anywhere new.
• Listen to different music. Ask your kids or grandkids what’s on their playlists, or pick a type of music you know little about and go down a YouTube rabbit hole to experience fresh tunes. There’s a whole subculture of youths on YouTube recording their own experiences and reactions as they listen to songs they’ve never heard before. It’s delightful — and humbling — as you watch them give an inaugural listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and realize that the soundtrack of your life is now a golden oldie hit parade.
• Try a new hobby, especially one that doesn’t involve screens. Take up tai chi or running. Play board games or do puzzles with your family. Cross-stitch or whittle — anything that gets your body moving or your mind working in a different way.
• Cook or bake using a new recipe. This is a good one to do weekly. Trying an unfamiliar dish can introduce you to new cuisines, flavors and cooking techniques. A fun twist on this is a “Chopped” type challenge. Use one of the ingredient baskets from the Food Network’s cooking competition to inspire a meal or ask someone to give you a list of four seemingly unrelated or unusual ingredients and cook with those. Here’s a basket to get you started: capers, cornbread, portabella mushrooms and frozen concentrated orange juice. Now cook!
Children think nothing of sitting down with a box of crayons or building blocks and spending hours just seeing where their imagination takes them. But that playtime isn’t just fun: It helps children do everything from improve dexterity to build communication skills to solve problems.
You can boost your own creativity by pulling out your own set of tools and toys and playing around. The following exercises often are done in a group or in teams but could be adapted for social distancing or done individually if your team is working from home. As with the workout regimens we mentioned previously, if you assign these to your team members as a project, have them come back together to share their ideas and experiences.
• Fill in the blank (drawing). For this exercise, you need a piece of paper with a simple geometric shape, such as a half circle, arrow or triangle, drawn on it. Then you use that scribble to create a complete image. “To do this in a group, several people use the same scribble to work from, and then they compare the drawings,” according to an article on creative thinking in the workplace posted on Indeed, a job posting website, in April 2020. “Seeing how others interpret the same small design can expand your creative thinking and give you new ideas.”
• Circle up. In this exercise, you’ll need a piece of paper with 30 identical circles printed on it. In five or 10 minutes, draw something — anything — in as many of the 30 circles as you can. “Thirty Circles is a creativity exercise where the goal is quantity over quality,” according to Indeed. “…When done as a team, the group members compare the completed circles to see if there are any unifying principles or designs.”
• Draw it again — and again. This exercise requires you to draw something simple, such as a coffee mug or lamp, every day for a week or longer. “See what new details or nuances you notice as you examine the object every day,” the Indeed article says. “Extreme focus like this should improve your attention to detail and help you notice new elements in your work.”
• Putting it all together. You may have done this one before. In this exercise, you start with a box of paperclips and try to find as many uses for them as you can — anything aside from holding papers together. In variations of this exercise, you can use other common items, like sheets of aluminum foil or rubber bands. Again, this exercise can be done in groups or individually, and can result in “an increased number of original ideas on work projects,” according to Indeed.
• What does this do? In this exercise, you take common desktop objects, for instance a stapler, folder, pen and paper, and create new products using them. You can move this exercise onto the production floor, using a handful of bedding components as building blocks for something completely different. “After each individual or team has finished repurposing a product, they can compare their creations for uniqueness, ingenuity and practicality,” according to Indeed. “This exercise is especially helpful for developing brainstorming skills.”
Change it up
If we think of the exercises we’ve discussed thus far as the fundamentals of a creativity workout — akin to basic strength, cardiovascular and flexibility training — these next exercises resemble a training program to run a marathon. They build on your conditioning and will help you to be more creative when tackling work-related specific problems.
• Find your information elsewhere. We tend to spend a lot of time looking at what our competitors are doing, as well we should. But that also results in a lot of “me too” and “follow the leader” thinking.
Instead, devote some time to looking at how companies that make smartphones, athleticwear or other items market their products. Or research how makers of cereal or pharmaceuticals are streamlining supply chains and production lines. Other manufacturers are facing the same issues you are, and how they handle them can prompt a new solution that would work for your business.
“Think of this like math. If you’re always adding in even numbers, you’ll always get an even result. If you want something odd, you’re going to need a new, odd input,” writes Lacie L. Levy in an October 2018 article for ProjectManager.com, a developer of project management software based in Austin, Texas. “When you hit a creative wall, it might be because you have exhausted all your existing sources of creativity and inspiration and need something new.”
• Try “sketchnoting.” Instead of using words to take notes, switch to sketchnoting, a form of “information processing that incorporates shapes, arrows, containers or other visual representations,” suggests Nick Wolny, a writer and content marketer, in an April 2020 article for Entrepreneur.
“As explained in Dr. Betty Edwards’ seminal book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,’ verbal function and cognition mainly live in the brain’s left hemisphere, while visual function is processed in the right hemisphere,” Wolny says. “If you need to get your creative gears turning, sketchnoting possible solutions through conceptual shapes and structures might help unlock new and fresh ideas. A study from Drexel University found this artistic approach even lights up our reward pathways, making us feel more accomplished and motivated.”
• Picture it. Using eidetic imagery, or drawing on the vivid images stored in our minds from past experiences, can lead to creative breakthroughs, says writer Justin Agrelo in a February 2020 article for WeWork, a New York-based commercial real estate company that specializes in shared workspaces. Eidetic imagery is a concept practiced by Jacqueline Sussman, an author, speaker, seminar leader and coach who has used the method to help teams at major companies like Google and Mattel, Agrelo says. “The goal of her eidetic imagery method is to envision what you want to create in very concrete and specific ways so that you can better understand how to materialize it in reality.”
For instance, if you want to create a new smartbed, one part of that process would be to imagine the entire process of getting ready for bed, sleeping and waking up, and recording your ideas as you go.
“Eidetic images can be powerful tools to help flex your creativity because they allow you to concretely envision whatever it is you want to create — whether that is something as big as the design of a new company product or something as commonplace as choosing what to wear to work in the morning,” Agrelo says. “By using eidetic imagery, your creative thinking becomes less abstract and distant and more concrete and tangible.
• Get physical and tactile. We spend a lot of time staring at screens, even more so now than usual if we’re working from home and holding a lot of virtual meetings. Smartphones and laptops are useful tools for many tasks, but they don’t necessarily prompt creative ideas themselves and can, in fact, be draining.
“With tools like project management software, huge teams are able to plan, create and launch grand projects without ever touching anything but their keyboard and mouse. It’s amazing. But when you find it challenging to come up with something new, take it offline. …Turn off your computer and attempt to recreate your project physically,” Levy suggests.
Use a legal pad to jot down your ideas for a new project. Or grab a rainbow of Post-It notes, writing one problem, idea or step on each, and then stick them all on a wall. Moving them around can provide new perspectives. You can do the same thing with 3-inch-by-5-inch notecards (remember those?), shuffling them like a deck of cards to see new patterns and possibilities. If you’re working from home and have young children, borrow their building blocks or Legos to lay out a more efficient factory floor.
• Make a game of it. “If you respond well to friendly competition or contests, gamification may help with productivity,” Wolny says. “How quickly can you complete a task on your to-do list? Consider using a timer or time-tracking software to measure your output and race against the clock. Toggl is free to use and has a browser plug-in for easy start and stop access when you’re feeling inspired to put blinders on and get the job done.”
Set a timer for 15, 30 or 45 minutes. If you’ve still got energy and enthusiasm for your creative task, take a short break and set the timer for another session or two.
• Step away for a while. “In his book ‘On Writing,’ Stephen King advises aspiring authors to take a six-week break after their first draft to recuperate. He says that when you spend too much time on a story, it starts to feel foreign. The same could be true for any creative project,” Levy says. “If you are falling out of love with your goal, and you’re not able to come up with new ideas to get there, then it might be time to take a break.”
For this tactic to work best, you need to plan ahead, building in time as you draft your presentation or develop a new product to set the work aside and return to it in a few days or weeks with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.
The space to think
That last exercise reiterates the idea that we often need space and time for our imaginations to run wild, or meander. A workday filled with meetings, phone calls, emails and Slack conversations isn’t conducive to Big Ideas.
Sometimes the best way to spark creativity is simply to give yourself — and your employees — that space and time. Turn off notifications, the radio and other distractions. (Some novelists go so far as to work from computers disconnected from the internet.) If you have an office door, shut it. Or, better yet, get out of the office and take a walk. If you’re working from home, do a few mindless household chores.
Note that we didn’t talk in this article about brainstorming in the traditional sense. One of the surest ways to generate a lot of lifeless, go-nowhere suggestions is to call a 2 p.m. Thursday staff meeting for the conference room and ask everyone to bring their best ideas. You’ll get more “meh” than “eureka!”
But a wee bit of boredom? Now that can spark an idea!
You’ve Got an Idea. Now What?
Let’s skip ahead and say you’ve done a few of the creative exercises laid out in the article. And now you and your team have come up with some amazing ideas.
How do you determine if they are feasible or could be improved? In an April 2020 article on sparking creativity in the workplace, the job posting website Indeed offers two effective strategies for assessing the strength and practicality of a new concept or product.
The first is “SCAMPER.” The acronym stands for:
• Substitute: What materials or resources could you trade to improve the product or idea? How could this be used or implemented in another way?
• Combine: What elements of this idea could you combine for efficiency? What would happen if you combined this idea with something else?
• Adapt: How can you adapt this idea or product for a different market? In what other context could your idea or product be used?
• Modify: What can you modify to improve functionality? What could you emphasize to make the idea or product more valuable?
• Put to another use: What’s another use for this idea? How could it be used differently in another setting?
• Eliminate: What is unnecessary? What could you simplify or streamline?
• Reverse: What can you adjust to make this idea or concept better? What would happen if you did the process in reverse? What part of the idea could be reorganized?
The second technique is called Six Thinking Hats. Using this strategy, each person or small team “wears” one of the six hats and assesses the concept or product from that vantage point.
• Hat 1. Logic: This hat reviews the product or idea based only
on the facts related to it.
• Hat 2. Optimism: This hat represents the possibilities for the product or idea as if there were no barriers or obstacles.
• Hat 3. Judgment: This hat considers the issues or problems with the concept by taking the opposite view of Hat 2.
• Hat 4. Emotion: The emotion hat represents the feelings or perceptions associated with the project or idea.
• Hat 5. Creativity: This hat introduces new possibilities for the concept.
• Hat 6. Management: This hat referees the discussion to make sure the other hats represent all perspectives and possibilities.
Inspiring Words From People Who Know a Thing or 2 About Creativity
1. “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
— Maya Angelou
2. “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
— Albert Einstein
3. “When you’re in a rut, you have to question everything except your ability to get out of it.”
— Twyla Tharp
4.“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
— Steve Jobs
5.“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes and having fun.”
— Mary Lou Cook
6.“Creativity doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.”
— Bruce Garrabrandt
7.“What keeps life fascinating is the constant creativity of the soul.”
— Deepak Chopra
8.“Creativity is breaking out of established patterns to look at things in a different way.”
— Edward de Bono
9.“Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.”
— Dee Hock
10.“Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.”
— Masaru Ibuka
11.“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”
— Theodore Levitt
12.“If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.”
— Larry Page
13.“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”
— Neil Gaiman
14.“The principal mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers.”
— Arthur Koestler
15.“Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let’s all go exploring.”
— Edith Widder
16. “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
— Chuck Close
17. “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.”
— T. S. Eliot
18.“When I am completely myself, entirely alone during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
19.“You have to be willing to ask questions that almost no one else would ask.”
— Samantha Bee
20.“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
— John Steinbeck