The One Thing Your Team Needs Before Inspiration

A big part of my role as a strategist, facilitator and trainer at The Design Gym is to design programs and sessions for our clients that incorporate elements of inspiration. My team and I spend lots (LOTS!) of time and energy on creating inspirational content to bring into an ideation session to help people generate creative ideas. Imagine things like customer journey maps, case studies, competitive products and creative reframing exercises.

While these pieces of inspiration are an important part of a design thinking facilitator’s toolkit, there’s something that’s even more important to have in a productive design thinking session: the willingness to suspend judgment.

Creating an atmosphere of non-judgmentalness during certain parts of a project provides your team with the emotional safety and freedom to be vulnerable and to take creative risks. In fact, simply creating some space where people can share ideas without fear of criticism is often enough to stimulate creative thinking.

Conversely, if you don’t create an environment where the whole team is willing to be open and curious about new ideas and possibilities, it really doesn’t matter what other sources of inspiration you bring into a room—you’re not going to see the full, creative potential of your team.

So, how does one create a non-judgmental environment within the judgmental world of work?

1. Manage People’s Underlying Anxiety

The first step is to set expectations. But, it has to go beyond simple platitudes like, “There are no bad ideas.” That’s because, often, the real reason people don’t want to explore unusual ideas is not a rational issue, it’s an emotional one. They are worried that a bad idea (yes, there are bad ideas) will move forward when it shouldn’t. They are actually looking out for the team, not trying to undermine it. Therefore, you need to reassure these people that their skill at critiquing and judging ideas is extremely valuable—but they should apply that skill at a later stage of the process (by the way, one of the knocks on design thinking is that there isn’t enough critique built into the process, so make sure you address that concern upfront and highlight when the critiquing and judging part of the process will occur).

2. Give Their Brains Enough Time To Wander

Once you’ve gotten the team in the right mindset to explore new possibilities, the next step is to provide them with enough time to stay in that mindset. Because we’re all strapped for time, it’s a natural tendency to want to get through the idea generation activities quickly, especially after we’ve got a set of initial ideas. However, by providing an incubation period during the idea generation process, you will increase the chances of producing more interesting ideas.

On a recent project, we applied this concept by extending the idea generation (aka brainstorming) phase of the design sprint beyond the typical time constraints of a single day. Instead, we had our insights session one month before the ideation session to ground the team in the problem, the customer, and other key issues related to our business challenge. This gave the team space to think freely about possible solutions for several weeks, which ultimately produced significantly more creative solutions than what we would have gotten from just a one-day session.

3. Have Zero Tolerance for Breaking the Ground Rules

Finally, once you’ve created the non-judgmental soil in which your creative ideas can grow, you need to do everything you can as a facilitator to protect what you’ve created. So when someone starts to judge or critique a new idea at the wrong time, you have to nip that behavior in the bud. Because as soon as someone on the team stops feeling safe or appreciated for contributing new ideas, people will start to lose trust in the ground rules, censor themselves and, eventually, the collaboration will break down. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean you have to be a confrontational jerk about the ground rules—it just means that you need to be assertive and clear about the team’s behavioral boundaries.


So, the next time you’re preparing for a brainstorm session or a design sprint, as you start gathering inspirational things to help stimulate creative ideas, remember to spend some time fostering the right mindset as well. By creating the right atmosphere your team will have the creative head space to come up with their best ideas.

Jason Cha
[email protected]
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