Free play facilitates creative thinking, not only because play give people the opportunity to discover new properties of objects, but also because play stimulates fantasy which, in itself, lead to increases in creativity. Following are some ice-breaking activities I have used to loosen up participants to get energized for brainstorming.
ONE + ONE = ONE. When one drop of water is added to another drop, they make only one drop not two. Anecdotally, when you add one concept to another, they make one concept not two. Consider how you readily understand such verbal combinations such as “conference call,” “home page,” “party girl,” “finger lakes,” “religious right,” and playing the “race card.” These examples of verbal blending represent how a new concept is blended, consolidated and articulated as one. “Religious right,” for instance, refers to a group of people with strong religious beliefs who try to influence the political process.
Gregory Murphy of the University of Illinois had people rate how true certain properties were of individual concepts and their combinations. One set of concepts consisted of the individual words “empty” and “store” and their combination “empty store.” Consider the property “losing money.” Like subjects in Murphy’s study, you probably recognize that losing money is typical of “empty stores,” but not of “stores” in general or of things that are “empty.” Meaning changes when we combine concepts, and the more novel the combination, the more novel the new meaning.
Much of creative thinking involves combining previously unrelated ideas, goods, or services and turning it into something new. The printing press was created by Gutenberg who combined the coin punch with the wine press. The process of combining ideas or elements or parts of ideas is called synthesis. Synthesis is regarded by many to be the essence of creativity.
Ask participants to think of the name of an object that begins with the same letter as their last name. Examples: M = meal, A = apple, C = credit card, D = diamond, E = energy bar and so on. Write the name on a post-it-note and post the post-it-note on their forehead. Now ask the participants to matriculate around the room and combine their object with someone else’s and create something new. Examples:
• Rock + Chair = A spongy mat that you can put on top of rocks to transform any rock into a chair.
• Deck + Legos = A put-it-together adjustable wooden deck that can be dismantled and stored.
• Desk + Treadmill = A treadmill desk. You can walk at a 1 mph pace while you work at your computer. Guaranteed to lose weight without dieting.
• Bomb + Bath = Doggie bath bombs. The bombs are made of pet shampoo that has been molded into a solid form. You throw the bomb in the water and it bubbles and fizzes, saving you the trouble of holding on to the slippery shampoo bottle and your squirmy dog at the same time.
• Dog + Shovel = New Business. Start a business picking up dog poo with pooper scoopers for institutions, corporations, golf courses, estates for a fee.
I AM A CAMERA. This is an activity in learning how to see without preconceptions. One person plays the camera and the other is the photographer. The photographer stands behind the camera. Your eyes are the camera lens and your right shoulder is the shutter. Keep your eyes (Lens) shut until the photographer takes a photograph by tapping you on the right shoulder (shutter). At that instance, open and close your eyes quickly, just as the shutter of a camera does.
The photographer walks you around, guiding you by your shoulders and positioning you so that different scenes will be in your line of vision. Do this a few times. So keep moving and snapping. The camera’s task is to record every detail of the picture perfectly, with no distortion. Open your eyes only for a second. All you have to do is see what’s in front of you without any preconceived notions for each of the pictures you take. The reasons for doing this are that a rapid series of recorded impressions gives you the experience of seeing what is, without perception being filtered through your expectations. It’s the seeing without any predetermined concepts that’s important. Learning how to reduce your preconceptions when you face a new problem is a vital element in the creative process.
WHAT IS ANOTHER NAME FOR BOSS? Another activity to practice getting rid of preconceptions is to create different names for things. For example, “rainbow” might be named “painted rain. Have the participants create different names for:
Next have the participants rename the subject of the meeting with a different name. For example, if the meeting is about office morale, “morale” might be named as “a spring flower,” or “warm hug,” and so on.
ARE YOU A HAMMER OR A NAIL? This is a fun go around the room discussion. You ask the group questions about what best describes you – X or Y – and then have them explain why they think so.
What comes closest to describing you:
• A hammer or nail?
• Cloud or rock?
• Tree or wind?
• Salt shaker or ketchup bottle?
• Handshake or kiss?
• Watch or compass?
• Snowflake or boiling water?
• Thunderstorm or the smell of leaves burning?
WHAT FLAVOR IS YOUR EDUCATION? 2000 people have synaesthesia which is an extraordinary condition in which the five senses intermingle. Some see colors and patterns when they hear music or words. Some perceive words, letters, and numbers as distinct colors. There is even a case of one man who tastes spoken words. The flavors are very specific……orange, mince, apricots, tomato soup, turkey and even ear wax. Creativity tastes like wine to me. Don’t know why or even if why matters….but a definite wine flavor. Ask:
What word would taste like tomato soup?
What would the word government taste like?
What flavor best represents your attitude toward life?
What occupation would taste like ear wax?
What does a brainstorming session taste like?
THE MARTIANS HAVE LANDED. Even though words are evolved from pictures and symbols, that does not mean that words are more advanced. The latest advance in computer technology is the graphic symbol. Many professions rely on graphic languages: physicists draw diagrams; executives employ charts; football coaches draw X’s and O’s, and corporations are known by their trademarks.
EXERCISE: A delegation of Martians has just landed on your parking lot. You welcome them inside. They do not understand any Earth languages—only graphic symbols. They are curious about your company and you. They want to know what the company does and what you do.
• Prepare a short speech composed of graphic symbols to welcome them and explain what your company does and what you do (i.e. your job).
• Tape the speeches on the walls. Have participants wander around reviewing all the speeches.
• Select the one speech you would present to the Martians.
CROSS BREEDING. A Japanese woman created a novelty item that’s become a big hit in Japan. It is a key chain plant which is a clear plastic micro case where plants grow in their own individual arboretum until they get too large, at which point they can be transplanted into bigger pots. How in the world did she get the idea?
She got it by playing with different ideas and by cross breeding ideas and objects in her mind until she got the right combination. One day she was thinking of a house key while looking at a sunflower. She thought if I could cross-breed the key with a flower, my key would always be readily available as a flower in the garden. She laughed as she thought of carrying her key flower with her during the day. Then she experienced an “Aha!” as she thought of miniaturizing the key and flower into a key chain plant.
Get imaginations moving with the bizarre activity “Cross Breeding.” What would you get if you cross bred the President with sunflower? The human resources director with a baseball? The sales manager with a submarine? The VP of Marketing with a gecko?
Encourage the group to experiment by cross-breeding plants, objects, animals, and people. Have four boxes containing slips of paper with random names of “Plants,” “Objects,” “Animals,” and “Job Descriptors.”
• Try to use objects that are business related such as Xerox machine, product, phone, paperwork, desk, meeting room and so on. Each participant takes one of each. Then make hybrids out of two of them. Examples:
• bird x supervisor
• pony x salesperson
• customer x door
• watermelon x receptionist
• paperwork x key
• customer service x ballet dancer
What does each look like?
Draw a picture. Label and post in on a wall.
Think. What does each do?
What sound does each make?
What are the unique strengths of each (at least 3)?
What are the unique weaknesses of each (at least 3)?
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.