10 Activities To Generate Better Ideas

Brendan Boyle, IDEO partner and founder of the IDEO Play Lab, joined us on the Creative Confidence Podcast to share how to bring more playfulness into your work. Get into a creative mindset and generate an abundance of new ideas with his favorite creative warm ups and group activities. This is the first in a series of articles about our conversation with Brendan.

What’s for dinner? That’s a question we ask almost every day. Yet, most people only come up with two or three ideas before making a decision. What if you came up with 10 ideas? It’s much more likely you’d end up with something unexpected—and delicious—on the dinner table.

We’re so good at converging because we practice decision making at work and in life all the time. But the key to coming up with better ideas is staying in a divergent headspace a little longer. And to stay in that generative mindset, Brendan Boyle says it helps to have a little fun.

Brendan is an IDEO partner and founder of the IDEO Play Lab, a toy invention studio that has designed and licensed over 200 consumer products, including the new board games Plumber Pants and Pictionary Air. His meetings are always fun filled, thanks in part to the activities and creative warm ups he uses to get his team and clients into a more creative headspace.

To practice a divergent mindset and generate lots of great new ideas, here are 10 creative activities you can try with your team today, shared by Brendan and IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard in the latest episode of our Creative Confidence Podcast.

Pencil Questions

Divide your group up into pairs. Give every group a pencil or project an image of a pencil. Prompt everyone to come up with as many questions as they can about this pencil in 30 seconds. Try for at least 10 questions—the crazier, the better. Now share back with the larger group.

This activity is a lesson in curiosity. “Curiosity and creativity are like good friends,” Brendan says. “They're around each other a lot.” We can spark curiosity by asking more questions.

List It Out

Choose a topic, like things people do in a bathtub or how to make driving more enjoyable. Give people in the room 3 to 5 minutes of heads-down time to list out everything they can think of. Share back ideas, making sure every person in the room gets to share at least one.

Encouraging individual time to brainstorm instead of shouting out ideas helps include all the voices in the room, especially introverts. It also helps people get into the habit of sharing ideas quickly and deferring judgment until later.

Mash Up

A build on the list activity, for the Mash Up you’ll create two different lists. For example, things in your junk drawer and items found at a hardware store. After sharing back ideas, now pair up one item from each list and come up with ideas for ways to combine those two things.

Brendan remembers doing this exercise with a Navy Seals team who created a cane with brass knuckles attached. It’s a good reminder that most new ideas are a combination of existing ideas.

Dynamic Duel

Give your team a prompt or question to brainstorm around, then have them all pick a partner to work with. Everyone gets the day or a few hours to work together in pairs and come up with ideas. Then regroup and have each team present their top ideas.

Comedy teams and script writers often work in pairs. It can be more comfortable to share ideas and get feedback from just one person you trust before taking it to a larger group.

Walk the Aisles

Take your team out to a physical location to gather insights. If you’re working on a project around grocery store retail, for example, go to a grocery store and ask everyone to split up and take photos of things they notice. Share images with the team through a private Instagram account or text message chain.

It’s hard to get inspired when you’re cooped up in a meeting room. Mixing up your location and taking inspiration from the real world helps spark new ideas.


“Curiosity and creativity are like good friends. They're around each other a lot.”
Brendan Boyle


Paper Airplanes

To kick off a meeting in a collaborative mindset, have people write down their name and a challenge they’re working on right now on a piece of paper. Everyone folds their paper into a paper airplane, then shoots it across the room. Now, pick up an airplane and write down a few possible solutions, including some silly ones. Then, find your person and share those ideas back with them.

This helps people meet each other and bring more playfulness into the idea generation process.

Yes And

Tell a story as a group. The leader starts the story with one sentence, like “Today I saw a unicorn driving a convertible.” The next person continues the story, trading off after each sentence. Go around the room until you get back to the first person.

Inspired by improv comedy, this activity helps people remain in a more generative mindset—coming up with lots of new ideas before deciding which are the best ones. Bonus: you’ll usually hear lots of laughter in the room during the Yes And activity.

Role Play

Before a brainstorm or meeting, assign roles for each team member to play. Most people are familiar with the devil’s advocate role, but there are many others. Brendan especially likes the role of reporter—acting as if you’re investigating the situation in order to write a story—and the customer—using real insights about your user to voice their concerns or challenges.

Kids are great at role play, but by the time we get to the working world it’s hard for us to break out of the role we were hired to do. Role play helps build empathy and surface new perspectives.

Sketch Storm

At the end of a brainstorm or meeting, have everyone sketch pictures of your top 3 to 5 ideas. This will help focus attention on your best ideas and continue to flesh them out. Use scraps of paper or sticky notes.

You can also use sketching as a warm up activity by asking everyone to pair up and draw each other in 30 seconds.

Visual ideas are often more memorable. Tapping into the part of your brain you use to draw gets people thinking in a new way and feeling more comfortable sharing half-baked ideas.

Assumptions Envelope

Before a project kick off or brainstorm meeting, ask everyone to write down their assumptions or preconceived notions on slips of paper. You can either share these out loud or keep them to yourselves. Put the papers into an envelope as a sign that you’re putting these assumptions aside now.

This activity helps surface concerns, release tension, and encourage people to come with an open mind.

“There’s a myth that creative people always have good ideas,” Brendan says. “No, they just have lots of ridiculous ideas.” And they’re not afraid to share them. Try one of these activities in your next meeting to loosen people up and get the ideas flowing.

Do a deep dive into the design thinking skills of ideation, prototyping, and iteration with our 5-week online course, From Ideas to Action, taught by IDEO Partner and Play Lab Founder Brendan Boyle. This course will teach you how to frame your ideas as experiments and bring others in on your vision of the future.

Interested in more brainstorming exercises? Check out our Brainstorming Resources page.


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