Unlocking Creativity: A How-To Guide8 min read

“There is risk in taking a new, creative approach — not everything pays off, and some prototypes will fail along the way, but that’s the way the process is supposed to work. To get good results you have to veer from the known path. If you want to get to new places, you have to dive into the unknown.”
—Coe Leta Stafford, Co-Managing Director of IDEO U

I believe that everyone is creative and everyone can be an agent for change. Creativity is not a fixed trait, but more like a muscle—something that you can strengthen over time through practice and effort. In this post, you’ll learn exercises to help you and your team overcome the common barriers to creativity.

Analogous Research

Analogous research is a form of exploration that takes a team outside of its industry to find inspiration in the ways others have tackled similar challenges. These immersive experiences allow us to move beyond our expertise to see challenges with fresh eyes. In these moments, we build new levels of understanding and empathy that help us unlock aha! moments and generate ideas that we can ultimately bring to our own design challenges.

It may feel silly to visit an Apple store when you’re designing for those living in difficult circumstances, but you may unlock the key to a memorable customer experience or a compelling way to arrange products. Analogous Settings can help you isolate elements of an experience, interaction, or product, and then apply them to whatever design challenge you’re working on. Besides, getting out from behind your desk and into a new situation is always a great way to spur creative thinking.


  1. On a large sheet of paper, list the distinct activities, behaviors, and emotions you’re looking to research.
  2. Next to each one, write down a setting or situation where you might observe this activity, behavior, or emotion. For example, if the activity is “use a device at the same time every day,” parallel situations might be how people use alarm clocks.
  3. Have the team vote on the site visits that they would like to observe for inspiration and arrange for an observation visit.
  4. When you make your visit, pay close attention to what it is you’re seeking to understand, but remain open to all kinds of other inspiration.

Katie Shelly has created a great video on how you can go about these steps:

To create a truly helpful analogous experience, choose something that’s both close enough to the core business that your team can see the connections, yet far enough away that it offers a new lens on familiar problems. Use these steps to pick the right setting:

  1. Identify the human need you are trying to solve without specifying the industry. In the hospital example, they need people coordinating tasks and activities that are high stakes with lots of handoffs.
  2. Brainstorm analogous scenarios that have a similar challenge. What other industries face this problem? How do they solve for it?

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Another tool you can use to spark creativity in a team is divergent and convergent thinking — identifying which moments are for coming up with new ideas (divergent thinking) and when the team should be refining ideas (convergent thinking). Too often, teams have one divergent moment at the beginning of a project, then only converge going forward. Instead, embrace cycles of divergence and convergence over a project lifecycle. Divergent thinking is helpful when the work feels stuck, when everyone is disagreeing on what the path should be, or when teams are reverting back to safe ideas.

When it’s time to converge and refine ideas, use a voting system with your team to ensure you don’t scrap all the most creative work in favor of safe ideas. Ask people to vote on the few plausible (yet ambitious!) options, but also the 1-2 wild ideas that feel risky, yet valuable to consider.

Guidelines for Divergent Thinking

  • Defer Judgment – Deferring judgment isn’t the same as having no judgment. It just says “hold off for a while.” Avoid judging ideas as either bad or good in the divergent-thinking phase.
  • Combine and Build – Use one idea as a springboard for another. Build, combine, and improve ideas.
  • Seek Wild Ideas – Stretch to create wild ideas. While these may not work directly, getting way outside the box allows the space to discover extraordinary ideas.
  • Go for Quantity – Take the time necessary and use the tools in this guide to generate a long list of potential options.

To make it easier to generate a long list, set a concrete goal such as at least 50 ideas in seven minutes for groups or 30 ideas in 7 minutes if solo before going to the next step. This sharpens focus and prompts the changes the brain needs to get moving. It also supports “deferring judgment.”

Guidelines for Convergent Thinking

  • Be Deliberate – Allow decision-making the time and respect it requires. Avoid snap decisions or harsh judgments. Give every option a fair chance.
  • Check Your Objectives – Verify choices against your objectives in each step. This is a reality check – are the choices on track?
  • Improve Your Ideas – Not all ideas are workable solutions. Even promising ideas must be honed and strengthened. Take the time to improve your ideas.
  • Be Affirmative – Even in convergence, it’s important to first consider what’s good about an idea and judge for the purpose of improving, rather than eliminating, ideas.
  • Consider Novelty – Do not dismiss novel or original ideas. Consider ways to tailor, rework, or tame.

Become an Idea Machine

Another way to power your creativity is by training your brain to become an idea machine. In their book, Become An Idea Machine: Because Ideas Are The Currency Of The 21st CenturyClaudia Azula Altucher and James Altucher discuss how coming up with 10 ideas a day, every day, no matter if they are good or bad, will help you exercise your idea muscle, and make it sweat. 

Powerful Tips for You to Become an Idea Machine

  • Train your idea muscle – Your ideas are a muscle. The more you train the muscle, the stronger it becomes.  Write down 10 ideas a day. Your ideas will get better. you will create more value and grow your business.
  • Quantity comes first – If one day you cannot come up with 10 ideas, come up with 20. Your ideas don’t need to be perfect. Exercise your idea muscle and keep moving. Writing 10 ideas a day gives you momentum. Great Ideas start coming to you. A wonderful book idea hit Claudia and she started typing all day without eating. The book became an Amazon bestseller.
  • Invest in yourself – The best business investment you can make is in yourself. Your business can go bankrupt, but your ideas won’t. Read books. Get coaching. Study leaders in your industry. When you improve yourself, you improve your ideas. As a result, your business improves.
  • Live in the Now – We have no control over tomorrow. All we have is now. Find out what you’re interested in today and list ideas. Richard Branson is an “Idea Atomic Machine.” He has ideas on the fly all the time. Upset about his canceled flight, Richard Branson created a flight to his destination and thought, “Why don’t I start an airline?” He started Virgin Atlantic. When you come up with ideas every day, you’ll turn problems into opportunities.
  • Have a specific theme – Each idea list comes with a daily theme. It could be “10 tips for public speaking” or “10 ways to grow my email list.” Claudia’s book provides you with 180 themes to become an idea machine. Write down 10 ideas for each theme and build your idea muscle.
  • Get to 10 – Coming up with the first few ideas is easy. It gets harder when you go to idea seven or eight. Keep coming up with ideas because the final three will turn you into an idea machine.
  • Execute ideas that make you feel good – An idea has energy. If the idea makes you feel good, execute and see where it leads you.
  • Have idea sex – Idea sex is mixing two ideas into a super powerful idea. When rock n’ roll meets blues, we get the Rolling Stones. When George Lucas reads Joseph Campbell, we get Star Wars.

Have Fun and Act Like a Kid

Why do you think Google employees are encouraged to play beach volleyball and go bowling while on the clock? It’s been proven that having fun engages the creative side of the brain. Additionally, “play” can decrease stress levels, increase optimism, boost motivation and improve overall concentration. It might seem silly and counter-productive, but play and be spontaneous daily, especially if you’re in a rut. Creativity aside, it’s always important to make time for fun.

Much of our creativity stems from the ability to see things through an outsider’s perspective. And studies have found that a perfect way to unleash new perspectives is by acting like a toddler (minus the tantrums). Especially in a guideline-ridden workplace, it can seem like there’s nothing under the sun that can be improved upon. Quite simply, by acting like everything is new, and questioning everything, you’ll come up with the most unexpected insights, even during run-of-the-mill workdays.

Here are a few science-backed hacks that are sure to boost your creativity.

By |2018-12-28T14:47:11-04:00December 28th, 2018|Agile Project Management, Product Management, Strategy|0 Comments

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