As an innovation manager, you have the enviable task of stimulating creativity across the organization and channeling it towards the strategic goals of the company - ultimately creating breakthrough innovations.

There are a lot of techniques for small-group creativity workshops, but stimulating creativity in an online environment, or particularly large groups, is relatively new.

Let’s look at some tips and see how it translates to this world.

The importance of creativity for innovation

In 2012, psychologist Simone Ritter and her team at Radboud University asked a  group of students to prepare a sandwich with butter and chocolate sprinkles on top. Half of the group had to make the sandwich in the familiar textbook way (butter on bread and sprinkle chocolate on top), and the other half received quite unusual instructions on how to prepare the sandwich (spreading butter on bread first and then pressing it into the sprinkles).

Then this exercise was followed by two cognitive creativity tasks: everybody had two minutes to generate as many uses for a brick as possible and another two minutes to generate as many answers to the question: “What makes a sound?”.

They found that those students who followed the unusual instructions for making the conventional sandwich came up with more answers to the questions and thus scored higher on the cognitive flexibility test. It’s an isolated experiment, but it taps into something quite interesting and useful - that priming the cognitive experience with non-linear or non-standard thoughts is a great way to stimulate new and creative ideas.

How to encourage creativity for idea generation

Inspire creativity by seeding ideas

If you run online campaigns for idea generation, you may already know the importance of seeding ideas as they help to set expectations for what kind of ideas are welcomed and also give confidence that other participants are already engaged.

But what about the radical nature of those ideas? If you want others to come up with something truly new, then your seed ideas should be unusual, radical, and different. Don’t just post another incremental safe suggestion as a seed idea. Set the scene by posting some truly creative ideas. 

Share inspirational content

Another example that we’ve seen work well is creating an inspiration space within your innovation management tool and encouraging idea contributors to take a look before submitting ideas to the campaign. The inspiration space is usually filled with examples of disruptive innovations, mostly in the form of pictures, videos, and links, but it also can be shared as short articles or case studies.

Inspirational content can help prime contributors before submitting ideas to a challenge. With the combination of inspirational examples and radical seed ideas, idea submissions might jump up a notch on the ‘aha!’ scale.

Think in the future state

In a similar study, psychologist Nina Liberman at Tel Aviv University asked participants to visualize themselves one day or one year into the future. Then the participants were given a series of problems to solve. I bet you can guess the results, right?

Those who pictured themselves in the distant future solved significantly more problems than those who simply imagined the following day.

How to communicate innovation to encourage creativity

This is particularly important for innovation managers running breakthrough and disruptive innovation campaigns. It’s different from collecting cost-saving ideas or continuous process improvements where the answer is already known - it just needs to be found.

Breakthrough innovation introduces something new and combines existing elements, or invents a completely new idea. To encourage participants to envision the future instead of the present, it is crucial that the idea campaign is described and visually branded in a way that is effective. Innovation Managers must present the campaign in a manner that encourages participants to move beyond their current thoughts about how the business operates and thinks, and instead unlock their creative potential to imagine what the business could look like and think like in the years to come.

Crafting effective communication requires careful attention to wording. It's easy to spot a lack of forward-thinking when statements like "we need to remain competitive, grow the business, and see innovation as the way to do that" only focus on the present.

Instead, aim for a moonshot by envisioning where you want to be in five years - building products that defy imagination using unknown materials, and offering services that don't even exist yet. Don't limit yourself to the present - think about the future and where you want to go.

10 tips for stimulating creative thinking

In her article "Your Fertile Brain At Work," psychologist Evangelia Chrysikou from the University of Pennsylvania explains that creativity was once believed to be a gift possessed by only a few individuals, but this is not the case.

Chrysikou argues that generating ideas benefits greatly from a mental state known as hypofrontality, where the brain is in a relaxed mode with fewer restrictions on thoughts and behavior. This is supported by experiments that measure electrical activity in the brains of individuals generating new ideas versus those engaged in tasks that require cognitive control and focused attention, such as solving math problems.

Chrysikou recommends ten ways to help foster the state of creativity:

  1. Become an expert. A solid knowledge base allows you to connect remote ideas and see their relevance to a problem.

  2. Observe. When trying to come up with a new product or service, study how people use what is currently available and what problems they face.

  3. Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of your intended customer.

  4. Step out of your comfort zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise.

  5. Be willing to work alone. Group brainstorming helps synthesize your ideas but is more effective if you have started the creative process on your own.

  6. Talk to outsiders about your work. A different perspective can help to see alternative solutions.

  7. Have fun. A good mood can forge remote associations.

  8. Take a nap or let your mind wander. Sleep and daydreaming can enlist your unconscious mind to work on problems.

  9. Take a break. Occupying your mind with a different task can unleash novel solutions.

  10.   Challenge yourself. Disrupt your daily routine, borrow ideas from other people and try to improve them.

It's fascinating how this list aligns with online idea campaigns.

Joining a campaign that's not in your business unit is a great way to step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in a new way.

Campaigns are also an enjoyable and engaging activity that's not part of most people's daily work.

The competitive aspect and the possibility of having your idea chosen can be exciting. The biggest advantage of campaigns is that they bring together people from different backgrounds and perspectives, allowing them to build on each other's ideas.

As a campaign manager, I strive to promote diversity within the team by actively seeking out input from individuals in areas of the business that may not typically be involved.

Additionally, I stress the importance of taking just five minutes to log in and review an idea. Although the entry bar is low, this activity can provide significant value when carried out on a larger scale and can even be done during a coffee break.

Four competencies for enhancing creativity through idea campaigns

According to Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, there are four essential competencies for creative expression: Capturing, Surrounding, Challenging, and Broadening. These competencies can be effectively supported by online idea campaigns.

1. Capturing

On a personal level, using an online ideation platform enables individuals to easily record their ideas through their mobile device, take photos, save them as drafts, and return to them later.

I have come across concerns from some individuals, particularly engineers, who fear losing their patent rights by inputting their ideas into the system. However, the opposite is actually true. Keeping your ideas hidden in a notebook poses the greatest risk, but documenting them with a timestamp and author in a secure repository establishes prior ownership and creates a solid 'paper trail'.

Capturing knowledge through idea generation is crucial at an organizational level. Even if the ideation sessions are conducted offline, such as in a hackathon, it is essential to document them online. Encourage individuals to continue ideating in the same manner but request that they upload their ideas and comments into a campaign upon completion. This simple step contributes to a searchable knowledge repository within the company. You never know when someone may search for a particular topic, and a highly relevant idea from another system could appear through search integration. Additionally, existing ideas can always be transferred to new campaigns and utilized effectively.

2. Surrounding

As previously mentioned, inspiration spaces serve as catalysts for campaigns. They provide a platform for showcasing stories and examples that can inspire fresh thinking. By allowing a wider audience to participate in campaigns, individuals can move beyond their own areas of expertise and explore diverse fields. This helps to broaden perspectives and, as Epstein suggests, makes the process more engaging.

3. Challenging

The goal of the campaign is to present a challenge to your audience, but it's important to make sure that the challenge is meaningful. It's also important to have a sponsor who genuinely cares about achieving a result that can be put into action. Additionally, it's important to choose a sponsor who people will care about - someone who has a track record of getting things done or is well-liked within the company.

Boosting the challenge level can also be achieved through leaderboards, competitions, and prizes. However, it is more effective to appeal to people's intrinsic motivations by empathizing with the problem and highlighting the need for a solution. Once extrinsic rewards are introduced, they become difficult to remove.

4. Broadening

It is important to take the time to gather and compile supporting material for campaigns. Instead of simply posing a question and inviting everyone to participate, aim to create a learning experience. This can be achieved by providing background information, links to helpful videos, and examples of how others have solved similar problems. Offering free and flexible learning opportunities is a great way to engage people, and campaigns can provide both formal materials and exposure to knowledge from others through ideas and comments.

Engaging in company-wide campaigns can be a valuable experience for employees. It allows them to step outside their daily routine and participate in something with low commitment that can bring great rewards. When a campaign gains momentum, it can become an exhilarating online forum with participation from thousands of people worldwide. As it grows, more connections can be made, leading to increased creativity for your business.

Jump to Section