How to spark creativity when it comes to learning at work

Adam Kingl shares three activities that HR and managers can action with their employees to encourage innovative ideas and excitement around learning

Credit: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Improvisation is an often overlooked skill which even a company in a so-called ‘traditional’ industry could find to be invaluable in the dramatic shifts in its people’s creative capabilities. Corporations are fond of touting their adaptability skills, but when we dig down, we usually find these same company leaders have massive blocks when it comes to their own agility. 

And it makes sense. We’ve been conditioned to value experience, precedent and wisdom in our leaders. Of course, those are wonderful attributes to possess, but they can become weaknesses when those same leaders are confronted with challenges and dynamics – be they internal or external – that they have never encountered before. 

In which case, we ought to seek competencies, such as comfort with ambiguity, the ability to embrace not knowing, and intense listening from our leaders today. Improvisation techniques both welcome and develop these translatable abilities for us, no matter our industry or function. 

Here is a playbook, if you will, that you can run with your teams to challenge, adjust and improve team creativity, comfort with change, and explore when we don’t have ‘the’ answer.

  1. What’s in the box?

This is a brainstorming technique that rewards volume over quality or judgement. Explain to the team that we’re going to identify as many solutions to a problem or opportunity as possible. Put the team in pairs. The pair should be standing up. You propose the question for the team to work on, such as:

  • How might we attract more customers to our store?

  • How do we reduce our energy costs?

  • What other flavours of doughnut should we make?

  • In each pair, the first person’s job is to invent as many solutions to the question as possible. With each answer, they reach down into an invisible box and pull out the solution. Physically reaching for the answer helps the brain to come up with the next answer on cue and reduces the instinct to pause and think, repressing the creative flow.

    The other person’s job is to write down what the other person says and encourage them – always encourage them: ‘Amazing idea! What else do you have? Oh, brilliant! Can we think of more?’ This is actually a tough job too, because this colleague has to write down what they’re hearing and respond with encouragement at the same time.

    The facilitator should set and announce a time limit, such as two to three minutes, then ask the pairs to switch roles and repeat the exercise. Collect everyone’s lists, and you will be amazed how many ideas you will have to explore in more detail. 

    1. And even better…

    This is a game of escalation that is a good option if you want to brainstorm more elaborated, new solutions. It’s a variation of ‘yes, and’ and is usually played in groups of two to four. Questions could include topics such as:

    • What would happen if we opened an office in Germany?

    • What if we allowed customers to make up their own cocktail recipes at the bar?

    Pose your question and the first person will start to invent a scenario. Let them speak for about 15 seconds. Then cue the second person, who needs to continue where the first person left off. They should start their explanation by saying ‘And even better…’  Because of that prefacing statement, the scenario quickly escalates. Within five to eight speakers, you typically will have either achieved world peace or solved world hunger! But if you then look back to two or three statements before that final conclusion, you might have uncovered some advantages or implications that you hadn’t considered previously and might make the idea much more intriguing and worth exploring further. 

    1. If I were…

    In this exercise, you do not explore an idea through the lens of your own organisation or context but through another which you deeply admire. For example, instead of asking: ‘How should we launch this soft drink brand in Amsterdam?’ you might ask: ‘If I were Richard Branson, how would I launch this drink brand in Amsterdam?’ Now you’ve unlocked the restrictions the unconscious places around you, you can begin to brainstorm:

    • We’ll create a surf machine in an Amsterdam canal, and the surfers will be drinking the soda and wearing branded bathing suits!

    • During a warm summer week, we’ll give all the Amsterdam street musicians a bucket of our sodas on ice, which will encourage pedestrians to stop, enjoy a free drink, listen to the music and pay the performer. 

    • We’ll give away branded beverage holders to Amsterdam bicycle owners, which is basically everyone! 

    Brainstorming through the perspective of another person or company frees your creativity, unburdened with your or your organisation’s assumptions about ‘how we do things around here.’ All of a sudden, you find yourself considering ideas or actions that you would never have entertained before. 

    Adam Kingl is a future of work keynote speaker and author of Sparking Success: Why Every Leader Needs to Develop a Creative Mindset