Talk to anyone in business these days and it seems like they’re all really passionate about workplace innovation. But you have to do more than pay lip service to an ideal if you want to foster innovative thinking in your teams, especially if you’re hoping to build a workplace culture that’s continually evolving ahead of industry needs. Whether you’re sharing a space or your essential resources work from home, here are some activities that will help you channel those creative and critical thinking skills into real insights, innovation and just plain better ways of doing things.
Play with iterative design
One of the most important prerequisites for innovative thinking is the security to fail – the psychological safety to have dumb ideas or to chase hunches that don’t pay off. You have to let a lot of fuses blow before you get to a lightbulb moment.
A great way to demonstrate this to your team is by taking a fun project through quick rounds of iterative design. Start with the simple game of Snakes & Ladders. In five-minute development cycles, add new rules and features to the base design (a deck of cards instead of dice? The ability to move other players’ pieces?). After a given set of rounds, play through your “upgraded” version of the game and see what you’ve made.
This activity is even more fun when you split into groups, and try playing each other’s versions at the end of the development process. Which leads nicely into our next activity…
Rebuild those connections
It’s very easy to believe you’re communicating effectively even when you’re not because things are often much clearer in your head than they are for the person you’re speaking to. As mentioned above, instructions can often be inexplicable to end users who weren’t present for their development.
In this activity, designed for a team that isn’t co-located, you’ll be sending each other messages and trying to figure out what exactly you’re saying.
First, write a list of instructions – things people can do during a Zoom meeting. Feed those instructions into Google Translate, converting them to Italian. Copy and paste the result and translate Italian to German. Then German back to English. Now you can send them to your colleagues and watch them try to interpret your intentions.
There are often invisible hurdles between you and other people, especially if they’re from other teams or even industries. Talk through some different ways you can make yourself clear to audiences who don’t share your particular knowledge skill sets or backgrounds.
Expand your circles of meaning
This activity is especially useful for focusing critical thinking skills on a significant project that’s already underway or in the planning stages. Working together, get your team to answer the question “What does this project/problem mean…”
- To our team?
- To the organisation?
- To the community?
- To the nation?
- To the world?
Teasing out the broader impact and outcomes of a project at this stage can help set a more engaged tone from the beginning, and keep everyone focused on the meaning behind their actions. Overall, this tends to lead to better, more innovative work.
And, of course, if the answer is “Nothing” in the majority of categories, it is worth reconsidering the necessity of the project in question – or how it can be made more meaningful and important.
Learn from competitors’ products and services
Don’t get locked into your own organisational silo. Grab some products or services your competitors offer, and – as a group – talk about what makes them great. From this base, come up with some ideas to improve those competitor offerings even further. Obviously, you don’t need to share this information with them, but thinking about other people’s products in a positive way can help drive your team’s innovation as a matter of course.
Note that there might be a tendency to lean towards being negative about the products, especially when you’re discussing potential improvements. Do what you can to keep the tone positive and constructive, even while polishing your shared critique.
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Make it simple. No, simpler.
For some managers, “innovation” sounds like “add more bells and whistles”. But that can be akin to telling an artist to use all the colours or only paint with their most expensive pigments. This activity will see you and your team do the exact opposite. Take one of your products – or a product from elsewhere – and strip it back to its most basic form.
If you need some inspiration here, look at the earliest models of the Amazon Kindle compared to their more recent offerings. You’ll notice the lack of a physical keyboard, headphone jack and so on… in short, features that users didn’t really need.
Apply the same thinking to your chosen product, and see how simple you can make it while still retaining the essence of the thing.
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