Problem-solving is a sought-after skill that not only makes you the most wanted member on any team, but also makes your work (and personal!) life way easier.
But how do you actually run a problem-solving session?
If you have all the theory down and already know the step-by-step process of solving a problem, and have defined the right problem to tackle but are not quite sure which exercises are the most effective for ideating the best possible solutions, this article is just what you need!
Ideation is often the part of the problem-solving process that teams struggle with the most: the pressure of getting everything just right stifles creativity, perfectionism kills off new ideas in the bud, and feasibility considerations limit out of the box thinking.
And while all these factors are no doubt important, you don’t want to focus on them too much at this point–you can hash out the details at a later point, once you've defined your main course of action! The good news is, there are exercises that can help you unleash your team’s creativity while allowing you to stay on track.
Now, you won’t find the most famous ideation exercise in this list….yes, we’re talking about brainstorming! The reason being, it favors the loudest voices in the room and fosters groupthink and team politics instead of letting the best ideas shine. We’d highly recommend you steer of brainstorming unless it’s absolutely necessary.
These exercises are a far better and more efficient alternatives to get your ideation groove on.
1. Crazy Eights
The purpose of the Crazy Eights is to quickly iterate on ideas and to try out different approaches, not to come up with a pixel-perfect solution–which makes it a perfect warm-up for an ideation session.
The goal of this exercise is to create 8 rapid iterations of a possible solution for your problem. Pick a core feature, or element of the problem that you want to tweak - this will be what the participants will be iterating on. They will have 1 minute per box - they should iterate on an idea or important concept they are still unsure about.
If participants are unsure how to best use their eight boxes, tell them they can either spend all boxes on eight variations of the same idea, or use half of the boxes for one idea, and the other half on another one.
Each iteration round is timeboxed to force people to let go of perfectionism and try alternatives quickly. The ideation outcomes of the exercise also won’t be shared with the group, so your attendees can let go of the peer pressure and let their creative juices flow.
Here’s how you run the exercise:
- Give out a sheet of A4 paper with 8 boxes on it to each participant if you’re running your session in-person, or create a 4x2 grid in your online whiteboard if you’re collaborating remotely.
- Set the timer to one minute and let the participants complete the 1st round of iteration.
- Once the time is up, tell the participants to move on to the next box, and set the timer to 1 minute again.
- Repeat until all the boxes are filled. By the end of the exercise you’ll have a grid that might look something like this:
Crazy 8's are a great kick off for an ideation session, or whenever your team is filling stuck in a creative block. After you've completed this exercise, you might want to move on to another exercise from this list, so that you can flesh out your ideas a bit more.
2. Three-Step Concept
This exercise is your perfect companion when your idea needs to be as elaborated and detailed as possible! Within 45 minutes, you’ll have multiple detailed concepts and potential solutions for challenges. One way to think about this is as a short pitch deck that clearly communicates the idea and its most important features in three steps.
But what is a concept, exactly? In this exercise, a concept refers to an illustrated standalone idea, which requires no further verbal explanation and can demonstrate a solution to the challenge we are focused on.
Each Concept is delivered in 3 steps, forcing the participants to really focus on the area of your problem you’re trying to tackle. Best part? You don’t need to be ‘creative’ to come up with a concept, most often the best concepts are put together by people who best understand the challenge, not by those who can draw the best pictures.
Because each idea will have to stand on its own merit, they will be anonymous and won’t be presented by its creator. So, they have to speak for themselves. To help with this, participants should add annotations on sticky notes and stick them on the relevant parts of their concept to explain or give further context, as well as give it a catchy title.
Here's the step-by-step process for facilitating this exercise with your team:
- Remind the participants of the initial challenge that you're out to solve. It's crucial that you have a well-defined problem, that it's framed just the right way, and that you're certain you're working on the root cause, not the symptoms (if you're not, it's a good idea to wind back a bit and run one of these exercises that will help you define the right challenge to work on)
- Ask participants to start drawing their concept on three sheets of paper, or compiling it in your digital whiteboard tool of choice.
- Set the timer to 45 minutes.
- Announce how much time is left at the 30, 10 and 5 minute marks. At the 10 minute mark, ask participants to start on annotations. At the 5 minute mark, ask participants to tape the concept together.
- If the timer goes off and there are still participants working, give them 5 more minutes.
- Let each participant hand you the finished concept and tape it to the wall, front facing backwards. In case you're running this exercise remotely, you can let your participants have a break, while you move their anonymized concepts into a shared space for everyone to see.
And there you have it, within just 45 minutes you have came up with several variations of your challenge solution.
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3. Quick Ideas
This exercise, as the name suggests, is all about generating loads of ideas quickly! In this exercise, participants will individually come up with as many ideas as possible in eight minutes. It’s a great way to get unblocked and warm up to create more in-depth ideas.
The motto for the exercise is: quantity over quality. The important thing is to build up a mass of ideas that can be curated and built upon, not to flesh out a perfect idea.
It doesn’t matter if an idea is good or bad, just write it down to get it out of the way quickly and move on to the next.
To run this exercise, you and your attendees will be taking structured notes, just like so:
On the sticky note, start by writing a headline that describes the idea. Then, add up to three bullet points that add more context or details.
Here’s how the exercise is done:
- Give the recap of the challenge you want to tackle. Point to any artefacts you might have from your problem framing session to make sure everyone is aligned 100%.
- Set the timer to 15 minutes and ask your participants to come up with as many quick ideas as they can in that time span.
- When the timer goes off, ask the participants to stick their ideas to a wall, without presentation and all at the same time.
4. Four Panel Concept
The goal of this exercise is to produce a mass of ideas for experiments to solve organizational, business or product challenges, creating as many concepts as possible within the allocated time.
You’ll be working with a 4-panel matrix (either physical or digital!), that will outline the general idea (top left corner), additional details (top right), what challenge it relates to (bottom left), and the hypothesized or assumed outcome (bottom right).
All ideas are anonymous, so participants should give their concepts a catchy title.
Here’s the step-by-step breakdown of the exercise:
- Set the timer to 45 minutes
- Ask your participants to start filling out the matrix, starting on the top left corner and moving through it clockwise: “Big Idea”, “Details”, “Hypothesis” and “Challenges”
- Encourage them to fill as many sheets as possible in the time available, and hold on to them until the time is up. To ensure your participants don’t get stuck perfecting just one concept, announce how much time is left at 35, 25, and 15 minute marks.
- Once the time is up, tell your participants to tape their concept to the wall/whiteboard/ or leave them on the digital whiteboard.
This is how your concept might look liek at the end of the exercise:
Pro tip: You can follow up this exercise by a round of Heat Map voting to ensure the best ideas get noticed!
SCAMPER is a great technique for creating crafting ideas for an existing product or service in a structured way. SCAMPER is an acronym and stands for:
Substitute – What would happen if we would substitute this product, service, or feature for another one?
Combine – What might happen if we combine this product (service, or feature..) with another one?
Adapt – How can we change and adapt this product to a different context?
Modify – How can we modify this offering to deliver more value with it?
Put to another use – How might we use this product differently?
Eliminate – What could we remove from this product to simplify it?
Reverse – How can we restructure this product in order to make it more efficient?
The goal of the exercises is to go through each part of the SCAMPER, and fill it out with as many ideas as you can.
Here’s how to run this exercise:
- Start by drawing out the SCAMPER matrix, just like so:
- Explain the meaning of each letter and section to your team and make sure to use loads of examples to ensure alignment.
- Once everyone is comfortable with the definitions of each letter, choose one letter to start the exercise. It doesn’t matter which letter you start with. The most important thing is that you gather ideas for just one letter at a time, instead of going at it across the board.
- Set the timer for 5 minutes and ask people to silently note their ideas. One idea per (digital) sticky note.
- Once the time is up, take input from the group person by person. Each person should reads out their ideas and place it on the board in the respective field.
- Pro tip: Watch out for duplicates, and merge them together right as you spot them.
- Repeat these steps until all the letters have been completed.
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6. Lightning Demos
Lightning Demos are one of our all-time favorite exercises for enabling creativity and setting the ideation session off to a strong start. The core idea of Lightning Demos is to find as many great examples of other companies solving a similar challenge as possible, and leverage their key aspect in solving your own challenge.
A great way to frame this exercise is to present it as a research session that will inform your decisions down the line. There’s no need to put all the creative pressure onto yourself and the team to reinvent the wheel. It’s a guarantee that someone, somewhere has already tried to solve a similar challenge. And we can use that to our advantage by dissecting what has made their approach so successful and implementing the tactics in our own solution.
Lightning Demos are a great start to an ideation session because they get the team’s creative juices flowing and prime them for fleshing out their own ideas later on. You can think of this exercise as a short research session that will help the group gather valuable information on how others solve similar issues. Note: you’re not restricted to your industry only, and can draw Lightning Demos from any industry or company!
Analyzing and dissecting the way someone else has solved a similar challenge is great for getting into the solution mode without having the pressure to come up with an outlandish, most original idea.
We have an entire video outlining the process of running Lightning Demos with your team, give a watch here:
Here’s the step-by-step breakdown of Lightning Demos:
- Start by explaining the exercise to your team. It’s crucial that you emphasize that Lightning Demos are all about showing, not telling. This means that when your attendees find an idea or a concept they like, they will need to save, or screenshot it, so that they can point to an actual thing as they present their Demos to the group. This will help make the concepts tangible and ensure everyone is on the same page an aligned about the newly found ideas.
- Your workshop participants should also be jotting down their ideas on a sticky note to standardized how ideas are presented. Explain how the Lightning Demo notes need to be formatted: A product or an idea name, followed by the big idea that stood out to them, and a few supporting points if needed.
- Set the timer to 15-20 minutes and let participants look online for 1-3 products, companies, services or people who solved a similar problem, or came up with an innovation in an inspiring way. Just like every other exercise in the workshopper toolbox, the Lightning Demos are run in a together alone mode, so no info sharing or discussions should be taking place in this phase.
- Once the time is up, check that everyone has found at least one Lightning Demo, and give participants 2 minutes to present their ideas by showing them on the screen, and reading out the bullet points from their sticky notes.
- Pro tip: It’s best if you have a TV, a monitor or a projector in the room, so that each participant can present their ideas on a bigger screen for everyone to see.
- At the end of the presentation everyone sticks up their Lightning Demo sticky notes on the wall so that the team can use them at later ideation points to draw inspiration from.
And there you have it! You know have energized and inspired your entire team for in-depth ideation and have defined key elements and features that will inspire your ideation going forward.
7. Round Robin
This exercise is a great alternative to the usual messy brainstorming sessions. It’s an iterative technique that ensures that every voice in the room gets heard, because it’s built on an iterative process and builds off consecutive participants' contributions.
To run a Round Robin exercise session, all you have to do is:
- Let the team reflect back on the challenge or problem you’re all trying to solve. You can allow questions at this stage, but nip any circular discussions in the bud! The goals here is to make sure the team is aligned on the challenge, not to tweak the formulation of the problem or come up with a new one.
- Set a timer for a couple of minutes and let all your participants silently note down their initial ideas on a (digital) sticky note. The exercise is done in the together alone mode, so no discussions or idea sharing should be taking place at this point!
- Once everyone has jotted down their idea, have each person pass their idea to the person next to them.
- Now that your participants have exchanged their sticky notes, set the timer for another couple of minutes and let your group come up with another round of ideas. Tell your attendees to use the ideas of their team members as inspiration for their new idea.
- Once everyone’s ready, tell them to pass on their new idea to their neighbour. Repeat the steps until a good amount of ideas has been gathered for your challenge.
And there you have it, you have now created a mass of ideas that you can build on further, prioritize, or discuss.
8. 10x10 Brainstorming Workshop
Ok, so how do all of these exercises fit together? While you can combine them in a thousand different combinations, if you’re looking for a quick and simple way to create mass of ideas and prioritize it for later execution, the 10x10 workshop is just what you need.
10x10 is our favorite quick and easy workshop for coming up with a list of solutions and ideas for the challenge. We have a full tutorial on how to run this quick workshop here, so make sure to check it out!