Combining Creative Structure with Spontaneity to Create Innovation
By Gregg Fraley © 2008

Brainstorming or “Ideation” as it is sometimes now called, asks innovation teams to come up with ideas for some challenge in a “free-wheeling” session. It might be for adverts, for a new product or service, or for some process improvement challenge. The image one has of ideation sessions is an “idea-a-minute” river of imaginative thinking pouring out of everyone on the team.

This is rarely the case – and much to the chagrin of the managers spending thousands of shekels hoping to come up with the next breakthrough.

There is a very basic problem with many Ideation sessions. This from the perspective of a person who has facilitated hundreds of them. The problem is that many folks have a very hard time being free-wheeling and imaginative at all, let alone in the straight jacket of organizational constraints most innovation teams must work within.

When I say straight jacket I am referring to the “the box” of restrictions. There are always a set of restrictions and it’s important to understand them or what you think up might be useless. For example, “it must be something that costs less than $200,000 to implement,” or, “it must be manufactured on the same factory line as our current product,” or “it must be seen as a line extension and not a totally new product,” or, “it must be on the shelves in six months.” The truth is most ideation sessions are not really looking for out-of-the-box ideas, they are looking for good, and less risky, inside-the-box ideas! And that’s okay, but it doesn’t make for easy imaginetics.

Why do Johnny and Jane manager have a hard time being spontaneous? Basically because the freedom to be spontaneous has been drummed out of them by our educational systems and our day-to-day culture of constant critique. Sir Ken Robinson (and many others) have talked eloquently about how creativity is diminished by our educational systems — refer to them if you want the 2000 word answer to the question. But consider this: who tends to climb the corporate ladder? The person with access to spontaneous thought and self-expression, in other words a free wheeling type thinker, or the person who answers questions Very Carefully? Unless you live in Silicon Valley chances are it’s the Very Carefully type person who has moved up the ranks. This is a generalization of course, highly innovative idea-a-minute types do bubble up to the top now and then. I think of Steve Jobs, but he is the exception that proves the rule.

The other reason they have a hard time is because they don’t do spontaneous thinking very often. A managers day is usually spent managing details and executing carefully laid out plans — using well-honed critical analytical skills. Maybe twice a year, Johnny and Jane are sitting in a corporate boardroom and they are asked for as many ideas as they can possibly generate – in the next three hours. It’s an unnatural act for them and they find it very difficult particularly after the first hour, and they are not sure why. So they think “harder” and nothing, or very little comes. Tension and anxiety build and it only makes things worse. Then those pesky restrictions keep getting in the way of a valid idea. It’s no wonder managers say brainstorming/ideation doesn’t work – it often doesn’t!

What’s the answer? It’s a blend of structured innovation process and improvisation. Doug Stevenson and I call it Innovisation. We take the games associated with the world of acting and comedy and transform them into games Johnny and Jane manager can play when trying to think up ideas for their innovation challenge. By injecting organized fun into a structured ideation session we are able to help innovation teams think more spontaneously. The output of the games is either specific ideas to address the challenge, or, the games can be used to provide stimulus (or “scaffolding”) that takes the groups thinking to the next level.

If you do it with some frequency you get better at “not thinking” and letting ideas flow in the context of an Innovisation game.

Some managers will scoff at the use of these adapted games and write it off as touchy-feely goofiness that has no place in a serious corporate innovation effort. Or, they might see the value but fear that their people “can’t do it.” Both arguments hold no water – playing with ideas is just another way to process them, another way to shift perspective. It’s serious play that any organization needs to be able to do. Want proof? Look at the success of the companies in Silicon Valley, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Intel, Google – these are cultures that encourage playing with ideas.

And if you think Johnny and Jane manager aren’t creative enough to do this, well, you don’t give them enough credit. Everybody does improvisation everyday. I don’t know about you but nobody hands me a script at breakfast! The creativity is there, and, it’s well-schooled creativity. One thing about good corporate managers is they know the facts, the markets, and the research. If you give them a format and a comfortable environment to express new combinations of those things, well ideas will come spewing out, oops, will come flowing out – like a river of imaginative thinking.

Innovisation works. Put some play into your innovation today and generate the ideas of tomorrow.

Innovisation is a trademark of Gregg Fraley and Doug Stevenson

Gregg Fraley

Gregg is the author of Jack’s Notebook, a Business Novel About Creative Problem Solvingpublished in March 2007. It’s the first business fable about deliberate creative problem solving and personal innovation. The book reveals “CPS” a proven six-step process for addressing complex business or personal innovation challenges. CPS training is expensive and not widely available. Now, with a fast-paced and inspirational story, Jack’s Notebook is becoming to the field of creativity and innovation what The Goal was to the manufacturing industry. It gives innovation teams and small companies a common language for problem solving and a complete system for taking ideas into action. Fraley is a recognized expert on creativity and innovation, he speaks internationally and consults with many Fortune 500 companies on new product development. He is the co-host of the Innovise Guys, a leading podcast on innovation and improvisation. For more information about Jack’s Notebook or Gregg’s consulting or speaking services, visit or email him directly –