Most people hate brainstorming. It’s supposed to be a creative activity, but when not led by a trained expert (and even then…) it can be unproductive and suck the life out of your team—resulting in ideas that are underwhelming.
I often get asked what activities a team should do in ideation to get better results and keep it fun. While there’s a limitless list of possibilities that need to be tailored to each innovation challenge, I do have some favorites. Here are 29 that (1) work and (2) are adaptable to a variety of businesses and challenges.
These activities are adapted from my internal innovation experience at corporations, working with a number of creative agencies, as well as some of my own favorite creations. They are meant to spark ideas for your own activities. They should not feel restrictive. Feel free to adapt them, change them or even come up with completely new ones. Be fearless and get creative!
I’ve grouped the list first by Ice Breakers first and then Ideation Activities.
Pass the Ball
Icebreaker questions are written with Sharpie on a blown up beach ball (e.g., what’s your favorite vacation destination, most embarrassing moment as a child, if you were a woodchuck how much wood would you chuck 😊, etc.). All participants stand in a large circle. The ball is tossed across/around the circle. When someone catches it, they introduce themselves and then read and answer the question closest to their right thumb. Continue until all participants have received the ball.
Pass the Stone
Break up into two teams, about 10 people per team. Create two parallel lines that face each other. Each team gets a stone. The stone begins at one end of the line and moves down the line to the other end. The two teams do this at the same time when the moderator says to start. The game is to secretly pass the stone without the other team seeing if it’s actually being passed or not. Each team secretly stops passing the stone at some point in their line (and continues fake passing thereafter). Once complete, the opposing team must guess who has the stone. Keep score and see who can get to 3 correct guesses first.
This is Not a Rope
A metaphor race using rope, discs and/or balls. This works with large groups that can be split into two sizable teams. Each team stands in a circle and will race the opposing team. Each person in the circle says, “This is not a rope, it’s a ______________,” filling in the blank with a metaphorical object and then passing the object to the next person. For example, “This is not a rope, it’s a noodle.” The next person does the same thing, but may not repeat an object that’s already been mentioned. The first team to make it all the way around the circle wins. You can go for best 2 out of 3 and use 3 different objects (one for each round, you’ll need two of each object if you do this with to competing teams).
Ideally this is done all together but, if the group is too large, could be done in two groups. Participants stand in a circle, very close together. Each person reaches with their right hand across the circle and locks hands with another person. Then, each person does the same with their left hand, but must lock that hand with a different person than they did with their right hand. The team must then untangle themselves into a straight line without unlocking hands. Hand grip may be turned/rotated to prevent arm or shoulder rotation/injury.
M&Ms are passed around and each participant takes a few (5) – do not eat yet. Then go around the circle and each person share something with the group according to the color of their M&Ms. Each color represents something to share (pre-defined and posted by the moderator) such as favorite TV show, movie, place to go, plus topics related to the task at hand. You can either have everyone share all their colors on their turn, or go around the circle multiple times and have each person share a color each time.
Birth Date Sort
Participants sort among themselves into a shoulder to shoulder line by date of birth (month and day). In order of birth date, each person introduces name, function, date of birth, and favorite thing about being born during that month.
This follow-the-leader sound activity creates a wave of sound that mimics the sound of a rain storm as it approaches and passes. Best done in a U shape. Participants are instructed to do exactly what the person on their left does. The leader at the front of the U begins by gently rubbing hands together. The person to their right must mimic and do exactly as the previous person, and so forth down the line. The leader will then gradually switch to snapping, then to clapping, then to patting on legs, and then reverse the order and work their way backwards. Sounds cool with larger groups when the team does it properly but may take a few tries as inevitably some people will not properly follow instruction. You can use missteps as an opportunity to discuss this like teamwork, doing your part, expectations and other team building topics.
Have participants do an advance homework assignment to get them into a creative mindset and introduce them to the topic. Have them write a letter to the President, go on a shopping trip, keep a journal/log/diary, answer pre-thinking questions (about their own habits), find/interview a friend, create a collage, complete mad libs, or perform a specific task. Have the team debrief together and share the ideas generated. If time does not allow shareout and discussion, consider simply collecting/posting the homework ideas.
Overview of key technologies and rapid ideation of their application. This one is pretty straightforward and works well when you have a list of 5-10 or more technologies that the team should know about. You can also include forward looking technology trends.
Use competitive stimuli, products and packaging to out-claim the competition. How can we claim one step better or offer improved performance? Improved ingredients? What weaknesses or shortcomings can we address? What don’t they do that a consumer might wish for? Knowing our equity, what would be our spin on these products?
Create platform stations (strategic directions for your innovation) with boards and stimuli explaining what it is (insights, tensions, vision, technologies), with products, magazines, and artifacts to use as inspiration for ideas. Teams rotate between stations until all teams have visited all stations.
Use advertisement stimuli (e.g., print ads) sorted by claim type to spark ideas for new claims. Buckets can include competitive comparisons, numeric/clinical, self comparisons, absolute claims, or other types as needed/relevant. Move stimuli from table to table or provide them at the front of the room for all groups to see.
Similar to Power Claims above, but use stimuli for RTB (Reason to Believe) types such as design/engineering feature, endorsement (celebrity/consumer/organization), ingredients, process/source, and mode of action.
Provide tension/convention stimuli in the form of chartpads, lists, stimuli on the wall or decks of cards. The task is to come up with new ideas that would turn the tensions or conventions upside down and answer them. Conventions in particular are meant to push the boundary of what’s possible.
Rapid fire surprise stimuli provided in envelopes. You can either provide multiple objects in one envelope for a table/team, or provide one envelope per person with a single stimulus. Introduce new stimuli every 5 minutes. Seemingly unrelated objects like a page from dictionary, pictures, a menu, small artifacts, objects that have certain textures or features, adjective cards (single words), etc.
Not unlike Grab Bag, however typically larger provocative items spread out over a large table. Teams send a representative up to select 3 items. Teams keep 2 items and pass 1 “screw” item to the team to their left (meaning they’ll receive one as well). Take 5-10 minutes max to ideate and then return object to the table, taking new objects as time permits. The objects in this game should push participants way outside of the box (think small statues, musical instruments, medical supplies). They can be loosely related to the topic, but should not feel that way in practice. For example, someone might use a rubber iguana to come up a new idea for a cleaning tool that uses a “gecko foot” or “shark scale” surface design to pick up more dirt.
What Would Brand X Do
Similar in structure to Creative Artifacts (send a team rep to pick, screw another team, rinse and repeat). However, the stimuli are small boards with brand logos/personality images on them. For example you might have logos of Crest or Starbucks. Images of Superman or Steven Spielberg. What would an outsider brand or famous personality do if they entered the category? The brands/personalities should be carefully selected to bring outside but relevant inspiration from other categories into your own. Also, mix in a few that are really just unrelated (e.g., What would Morpheus from The Matrix do in skin care?). The results will often surprise you – people tend to get really creative with the hardest ones!
Create a board game where pieces move along a path (in a circle, no ending). Use pieces, spaces and cards to assign target, occasion, technologies and/or problems. Players combine them to inspire new ideas. For example, by using a certain pawn/game piece a player may assume a certain target persona, then the space they land on might represent an occasion. Drawing a card might represent a specific problem or tension. Be creative with this one and use it to introduce scenarios and stimuli that you may have learned in prior research. You can even theme the game to match the subject at hand or have it match the theme of the day.
There are a couple of ways to do this one. You can set up tables of stimuli, one each for touch, sight, sound, smell and taste. Then have teams rotate between tables and use the stimuli to inspire new ideas. You can also do blindfolded activities where a table leader hands stimuli to a blindfolded team member, which is then passed around the table between blindfolded participants. The loss of sight heightens the other senses. Once all stimuli has been passed, teams discuss and write down new ideas. This is particularly useful for categories where the senses are a significant factor (e.g., food, personal care). Examples of stimuli: fabric swatches for touch, small jars containing scented liquid or objects, small items that make sound when touched/smashed/crumpled/squeezed.
Do the Job
This one puts the participant in the position of the consumer. Assign the team a project to complete that is identical or similar to what someone experiences in the real world. For example, have them wash extremely dirty dishes (dish care), create an art project (adhesives), change a baby’s diaper (baby care), etc. Have participants reflect on what was difficult, frustrating or not ideal and then come up with ideas for how to improve the experience.
Go out and visit/do what the target audience does in real life, or even talk to them directly. For the purposes of an idea, you may not have the time/resources to do a full scale ethnography. But that shouldn’t stop you from immersing and observing in easy and efficient ways. If you are working on new sports products, go a sporting event or even a team practice and ask a few questions. Put on some pads and throw the ball around! If you are working on new microwave meal ideas, get inspired by visiting a trendy Italian restaurant and exploring some of the most interesting items on the menu. Cook up a meal yourself!
Assign each participant a target persona to work from. Then have participants bring in a household object and product that they feel represents their assigned target. Have them take on role/mindset of their target persona (role play) and explain to the group why they like/brought those artifacts and why they are important to them (the target persona).
Bring in 1-3 experts/trend-setters in a field of interest. They may be in your direct category of expertise, or they could be tangentially related in some way. Interview them as a panel, have them present trends/inspiration to the group, and/or have them participate directly in your ideation alongside the team.
Bring in the Consumer
Bring the consumer to life in the room using graphics, boards, vignettes, videos, photo collages and anything else you can think of to remind participants of the mindset, life context and problems that the consumer faces. If you can swing it, consider bringing actual consumers into the session in some way. Treat them like experts.
Create zones in the ideation room for different occasions. For example, a personal care brand might have a zone for nighttime, a zone for on-the-go, and a zone for the workplace. The more you dress the room up with real life context, the more likely the ideation team will recall specific, relevant tensions to solve for.
Card Game Mix and Match
Similar in concept to the Board Game, but using a simpler format. Create card decks for technology, product form, ingredients, tensions, etc. Each deck can be a different color (e.g., technologies are blue, tensions are red). Have team members pick one of each color and try to match them up to generate new ideas.
Present case studies of other brands that approached similar business/innovation/marketing problems. Ideate how their strategies/approach might apply for your own brand.
Use specialty tools and unique packaging from other categories to generate format ideas (kitchen, scrapbook, dental, food decorating, landscaping, power tools, etc.). Stretch yourself to find stimuli that’s a bit out there and different. The more unexpected the object is, the more you will spark novel ideas and solutions.
Tension and Release
Use consumer statements that are pre-written in first-person to generate new product ideas and solutions. Try to write them in the voice of a real person, either as statements or questions. Financial services example: “The time between work and getting home is crazy for me and I don’t have much time to spare. So why is it that the bank always closes at 5pm?” Personal care example: “I knew I shouldn’t have stayed out in the sun for so long yesterday. Why does it take so long for sunburn to start feeling better?” You can place the statements on cards and post them on a wall. Then have participants take a card down and write a solution directly on it. Hand them in or possibly repost them for others to build upon.
Find at least one activity on the above list that might apply to your next ideation session. You’re sure to come up with something great. Dive in and have fun.
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Kevin Namaky is the Founder of Gurulocity marketing education. A brand marketing leader and Head of Strategy at a global consulting firm, he created billions in new value for companies big and small. Kevin founded Gurulocity to help small business owners and entrepreneurs hone their strategic marketing craft and unlock potential. Connect on LinkedIn or Twitter @gurulocity