“Another brainstorming session…yay.” It’s not always voiced, but I’ve conducted enough creativity sessions to know that this is the exact thought and sentiment held by at least a few participants in every brainstorm session. Let’s face it, we’re jaded.
The reason is simple enough: most brainstorming is ineffective, mostly due to a lack of structure, focus, skilled facilitation and technique in pushing past the same old tired, top-of-mind ideas. It just doesn’t work to lock busy folks up in a room and essentially say: “C’mon people now, smile on your user, everybody get together, try and solve one big problem right now!” (All apologies to The Youngbloods for corrupting their great lyric.)
The fact is that we all have brain drain as it is just from the routine firefighting we do to make it through the day. Asking us to “just be brilliant” on demand is a recipe for disengagement.
Still, staying ahead in business requires constant innovation, and innovation demands new, different and better ideas. And, waiting for the kiss of the muse doesn’t work any better than trying to force new ideas. What’s needed is a way to stimulate new connections by breaking old patterns and making new ones. Something I’ve tried recently with great success is “bodystorming.” Yes, you read that right.
Bodystorming is a way to creatively engage in a hypothetical situation to derive new ideas. It requires you to conjure up an experience – complete with necessary artifacts and people – and physically “testing” it out. The focus is on interacting with your environment and noticing the choices you make while in it. I learned the technique from Stanford’s d.school design thinking bootcamp. The reason I like it so much is that it gets us out of a purely mental mode and into doing-thinking mode, in a fun and engaging way. You generate some unexpected ideas that you wouldn’t have through traditional brainstorming, open discussion, or even sketching.
Let’s say you’re a Starbucks team trying to come up with new ways to improve the caffeine-lover’s experience. To body storm the challenge, you might set up a few foam cubes, move them around a few different ways to simulate different floor plans, assign people roles as customers and “barristers,” and act out a customer actually ordering a coffee.
“If you are trying to ideate in the context of hospital patients, try walking through the experience to come up with new ideas,” advises the d.school. “If you are designing products for the elderly, rub some Vaseline on your glasses to view the world through older eyes. Bodystorm by moving around and becoming aware of the physical spaces and experiences related to your solutions. Pay close attention to decision-making directly related to your environment and related emotional reactions.”
What I’ve noticed is that bodystorming facilitates three critical aspects of innovation. First, it improves your ability to empathize with a customer or user and better view the problem from their perspective–you essentially become the target, which isn’t always easy to do. Second, it promotes building up ideas in a natural, organic way. There’s a tendency to think “yes, and…” and “what if…” rather than the usual “yeh, but…” that seems to be the first thing that pops into our head when we hear a new idea being described. Third, it prompts digging deeper into the all-important, often overlooked question: Why?
Now, before you jump in feet first, try another technique taught at the d.school as a warmup. It’s called “stoking.” A “stoke” is just a brief, simple physical activity that primes the creativity pump. It could be something as simple as charades or dictionary. The d.school suggests trying one of these three in their design thinking bootcamp:
Category, category, die!
Line folks up. Name a category (breakfast cereals, vegetables, animals, car manufacturers). Point at each person in rapid succession, skipping around the group. The player has to name something in the category. If they don’t or can’t, everyone yells “die!!” and that player is out for the round.
Stand in a circle and throw an imaginary ball to each other. Make eye contact with the person you are throwing to, and make a noise as you throw it. The catcher should repeat the noise while catching, and then make a new noise as he throws to next person. Try to increase the speed the ball travels around the circle.
Everyone walk around the room randomly, and then one person can make an offer: “We’re all at a cocktail party,” “We’re baby birds,” or “We don’t understand gravity.” Then everyone should shout in unison the response, “Yes” and proceed to take the directive by acting it out. At anytime someone else can yell out the next offer. The answer is always “Yes.”
Originally appeared on AMEX Open Forum
Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.