Facilitating Innovation

The Three Thinking Modes

In many tomes about creativity, you’ll hear talk about divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent just means lots of ideas and convergent just means choosing one or a few of many. At The Design Gym, we call those modes open and close. You can’t open and close at the same time. You open, then you close. The third mode is emergent—we call that explore.

Open, explore and close is how you get through a creative process.

Signal Opening vs. Closing

When we talk about innovation, we assume we’re trying to solve a problem, trying to come up with a solution…to fix things. But that’s assuming we know all the best options and understand the problem well. Sometimes we need to make sure we know which is supposed to happen – Does innovation mean coming up with one thing that will *work*…or is innovation making sure we have many options?

Before you jump into  brainstorming, know which you’re looking for: a good open or a good close!

Leave time for exploration

Between an open and a close lies a good solid explore, where we allow the ideas from the open mode to ripen, deepen and mature. We cross-fertilize, combine and clarify our ideas. Please, don’t leave out the explore mode! Most groups do. We love to close. And we love to open. But exploration takes time and effort—but if you want fresh thinking, you have to make time for it.


1. 100 USES FOR…

We often use “100 uses for…” as a way to get creative juices going and sometimes to prime a team to tackle a challenge. When I was in design school, one of my professors had a “100 ways to serve pizza” assignment. Everyone was given a pack of 100 paper plates and had to draw a serious or silly way of serving pizza. That was a week-long assignment, and people really saw how hard it was to come up with a 100—you had to think outside the box! When working with groups, we’ll call the game “100 uses for…” but give them only 5 minutes! The prompt can be pizza, a log, or something more relevant. When doing a workshop with our friends at KeyMe, we used the prompt “100 uses for a key” to get people thinking about their challenge.


Fruit party is a fun game that can be used to teach a variety of innovation themes, from the importance of generation and combinatory innovation to the idea of there being “no bad ideas.”

Team members each choose a fruit, with no duplicates. I’ve played this game with 15-50 and it works well in both cases. I then have people arrange themselves by various criterion—color, size, cost then by flavor. I’ll then select three or four people, representing different fruits and ask what fruit mix they are. Sometimes the combination sounds good, sometimes it doesn’t! Each time I ask what useful purpose the combination can make.


Groups always want to talk first—I just don’t let them! The simplicity of this game is that you provide the generation template—full size paper, post-its, how many elements each concept needs to have, etc.

“100 uses for…” is a generate and share game. People don’t call out ideas, they write them down! And we give rules, like one post-it per idea and ideas with words AND pictures are better. Deciding what you want the team to generate and then making a simple template for it is an easy way to get started.


I use this with teams all the time as way to clarify their thinking on an issue. A team was having a discussion about the new employee on-boarding process and was getting bogged down trying to generate features, workflows and concepts. Giving them 5 minutes to generate and share what the on-boarding process should “always be like” and then generating what it should “never be like” made a clear visual word and concept map that sparked features, workflows and concepts more easily.


When teams have generated ideas or concepts, mixing and matching is a great way to get them to go further. Fruit Party can teach the principles of this, but doing a round of Franken Ideation can help them dig deeper. Have each team member grab 2-3 post-its representing ideas or concepts from the wall, and to not think too much about which ones. What will combining these ideas give us?

Once, during a color-generating teaching exercise, a participant took “Green Sweater” and “Campfire Orange” to make “Singed Wool.” This process based mixing is creatively different from literally mixing these two colors…and far more creative! Doing this with more high level ideas is hard, but will get your team to unique ideas. Remember, even bad ideas can be good ideas if we look at them right!

Daniel Stillman
[email protected]

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