So, exactly how do we teach teams to be creative?

Brainstorming Tips

Here is how one Team Manager approach the “brainstorming process”: 

  1. A clear, focused “objective statement” is KEY. If the team makes their “objective statement” too broad (i.e. how do we solve this Challenge?), try to encourage the team to break it into bite-sized chunks (i.e. have them look at each scored element — and even how that element might be broken down into smaller parts, etc.)
  2. Spend some time to identify key measures — and key constraints — for the item getting brainstormed. For example, instead of having the objective of “how do we build a strong structure”, it would be more appropriate to have an objective of “how do we build an efficient structure” (since efficiency, not max weight is what is scored in that Challenge).
  3. Write the issue to be brainstormed in big, bold print somewhere that everyone can see. Make it clear that the purpose of the next phase is to generate as MANY ideas as possible — without judging whether those ideas are “good”, “bad” or even “feasible”.
  4. 1Again, when things start to slow, ask the group to generate ideas on “How will we evaluate which of these alternatives are the best?”. The process of generating measures will often result in new ideas. Don’t be shy about flip-flopping between idea generation and measurement generation at this point.
  5. Have the group “rank order” the measures — so they know which are the most important.
  6. Be sure to keep the following measures in the mix:

    — “When do we need to have this element finished?” (especially if it is a component of a larger total solution).

    — “Will this solution be ‘cool’ and give us a feeling of accomplishment?”

    — “Will the process of creating this solution be fun?”

    — “What is the risk that this approach won’t work?”

  7. Have the group generate some “quick and dirty” experiments they can conduct to test the viability of alternative approaches (i.e. build a “scale model” out of clay or cardboard — or draw out an idea on paper). If a team can’t create a “scale model” out of “easy to work”, inexpensive materials, they almost certainly will be unable to build the “real thing” out of expensive materials that take a great deal of time to work into the desired shape.
  8. Are there more “in depth” experiments we can conduct for the “best few” ideas. One key here is that if a team considers the things they are building for these “experiments” to be “disposable”, they are MUCH more likely to be able to build them quickly (rather than “stressing” that they “aren’t perfect”). They are also MUCH more likely to be willing to fold various ideas together and throw out a “work in process” in favor of a better “combined idea”. In contrast, if a team begins to build something they perceive to be part of their “final solution”, it is VERY rare they will be willing to discard it.
  9. What “checkpoints” do we want to create along the way to make sure this project is progressing along the directions we’d hoped. This is actually a variation on the “evaluation methods”, but it contains a time component.

ALWAYS keep ALL ideas that are generated. If a team hits a “dead end”, it is VERY likely they will have forgotten all their previous ideas. In addition, it is a good idea to revisit the brainstorming process from time to time — because team members will have “good ideas” pop into their head hours (or days) after the formal brainstorming process is complete.


Here is a different angle to try:


Sometimes the problem is not whether they know how to do the research but whether they feel the need to do it. Try asking them “What kinds of things to do we need to know about _________ and ____________and__________, etc.” and have them come up with a list of useful information. Then, as they collect information on each _________, they can fill in a grid – not everything will fit and not all the answers will be available but if they have 20 key facts on __________ and just one on _____________it will pretty obvious where they need more research without you having to say a word. IF the problem is one weak person, then at least it will be visible to the rest of the team and they can decide what to do (tell him to work harder, have someone help etc.)

Team Notebook

Team managers — you might want to start a notebook for those “great ideas” your team comes up with throughout their brainstorming sessions. It can be a spiral, if you like, or a 3-ring notebook. That way, if someone brings an idea, a photo, a sketch, to a meeting, you could punch holes in ANYTHING and put in the notebook. Before competition, the team can reorganize the notebook and divide it with tabs for different subjects the team thinks the appraisers might ask the team about:

  1. ideas/brainstorming/sketches (how we thought of this stuff),
  2. research (any background information could be here),
  3. budget (not just the expense report of all the stuff shown in your final challenge, but any receipts, or catalog pages showing the costs of items, or notes about how/where they found trash items if applicable)
  4. team photos (if you can, take photos of the kids all during this process for a sort of yearbook showing how it evolved. It’s a history of your challenge. I’ve heard of teams making photocopies for all team members as a souvenir when it’s all through.)
  5. copy of all rules and clarifications. Not just for appraisers, but for the kids to refer to easily when they wonder if such & such is allowed or not…

    If you use pocket dividers, they can put anything they like in the book and it can be added to the pages later.

In Order to Teach “Outside the Box” – Kids Must First SEE the Box

Your 3 fifth graders CAN think outside the box, that’s what this program is all about, teaching them how to reach that part of themselves. Even if your team never comes up with a solution, but these three students can reach and call into focus that creative part of themselves you have been successful!

Perhaps you need to look at these three kids from a different angle. Perhaps they don’t even see the box, much less what is outside of it! For some kids finding the box is an “Aha! Experience.” Try this simple maze game to help your team with thinking “Outside the Box.”

Basically it’s a simple 9 room maze. Split your team up into two teams – the ‘finder team’ and the ‘hiding team’ — the one designated ‘finder’ must leave the room while the hiding team members hide something in one of the rooms then put up a couple of blockades that you explain cannot be gone through to get to the hidden treasure. The ‘finders’ team mates (who have been in the room and know where the treasure is hidden and where the roadblocks are) then must communicate to the finder how to get to the hidden treasure through non-verbal communication.

Time how long it takes the ‘finder’ to get to the right room. If you do this several times you will see that kids set up their own roadblocks where none exist. Remember, the only rule was that you can’t go through the blockades, but no one said you can’t go under, around, or over. As each group tries the methods of communication become much less convoluted and eventually boil down to the ‘finder team’ simply holding up fingers corresponding to the room number where the treasure can be found!

It’s easy to see by using a small exercise like this that sometimes we create our own ‘box.’ This helps participants begin to understand that the first step in thinking ‘outside the box’ is defining the box itself!

The Limitations of logic— Logic can be a great tool, but it can also cause you to have tunnel vision and only see things that “make sense.” Many things would never have been invented or discoveries made if people always followed this straight and narrow path.

Other Thinking Tools — if you can see something in your mind, you can visualize it. Practice trying to see your ideas in your head, and once you can see them draw a sketch. Then ask yourself if you can see it a different way.

Improvisation –Another helpful skill is doing something without preparation or practice. This is called improvising. Usually preparation helps, but sometimes it can make you develop tunnel vision. When this happens, improvise! Try something new that you didn’t plan on doing.

Failure — is also important, although it doesn’t always seem that way. When you set out to invent something and fail, your failure demands that you use all your thinking skills to figure out how to try it again. As you work through a cycle of trial and error, you learn valuable information about what does and doesn’t work. So don’t be afraid to fail!

On the other hand, if you get it right the first time, chances are that you won’t learn as much – or that your goal was too easy. Whenever you try something and get it right the first time, try it again, but make it more challenging the second time around.

When you are “Stuck for an Idea” try this IC

Do you suppose there is such a thing as “thinker’s block?” Sometimes I wonder. I was faced with a group of stone-faced blank looks earlier this year – burnt out from trying to figure out 5 special effects and the rest of it, they had no script, no story, nothing to tie it all together. They didn’t know each other well enough to take any creative risks and be laughed at, either. I did ask as many probing questions as I could and still got grunts and shrugs. So, I made it into an IC – and it worked so well, we used it for a lot of things. Try this:

Take 5 or 6 paper bags (I used lunch bags – anything will do.) Write on the outside the name of a category. The first time, my categories were “first name” “name of a street” “toy” “fruit or vegetable” “interesting job” and… something else. I forgot, but it could be anything: “dessert” or “foreign country” “animal” or “sport”. Just make up categories that are broad and don’t tell them why.

Then, hand out slips of paper or notepads and pencils. Each kid must write at least one word for each of the categories and then fold it and put it in the right bag. So, “choo-choo train” goes into the “toy” bag and so on. If someone wants to put an extra idea in a bag, that’s okay, extra is good.

Then, turn the bags to the wall so you cannot see the categories. Mix the order of the bags, so they no longer know which is which.

Each kid picks three slips of paper from three different bags .From those, he/she must create a character, character name and job. BUT, the words do NOT have to relate to the original category.

So, it you pulled up “choo-choo train” you could be named Choo-choo or Chewy OR you could be an engineer, or you could be Joe Choo or you could be a Trainer, or anything else that made sense. You could be a “shoe” (choo) salesman – there are no rules. But something you pulled out of the bag must be either your character name or something about your character. You can use all 3 slips or use just 1 and make up the rest.

Each child gets think time (maybe 2 minutes) to come up with their character name and job/hobby from the 3 slips of paper. Then they go around the group and each tells what slips of paper they pulled and what character they created. It’s okay for other kids to piggyback ideas on the original kid – such as “Or, you could be a SNOW shoe salesman named Chewy Engineer” or whatever.

Then, give the team 3 minutes to create a skit explaining why all these people are stuck in the same place.

If they are still “stuck” on writing a story then tell them these people are all “stuck” somewhere and they must come up with a story about where they are stuck and why. Each time they do the IC they must be STUCK in a different place. If they get REALLY good, tell them they must use teamwork to create imaginary props to help the group get “unstuck” from wherever they are. Maybe they need a ladder to crawl out of the pit, or a crowbar because they are in an elevator. Maybe they are in a bubblegum factory. Whatever.

It’s a good IC just for fun, but also got them thinking OUT of the box for characters – and names, and jobs, etc. (Until this point, often the only characters they could think of were a mom, a dad and bratty kids. Over and over and over…if they could think of anything at all.) We did this IC several times with different slips coming out of the bags.

Later, when they got quicker at it, I brought in a tub with odds and ends of costumes (hats, scarves, old Halloween junk, pots and pans, feathers, you name it) and they added costume touches to the characters – but wait until they get the first part down! For my team, it just erupted into dress-up and they forgot the IC the first time, so I took the tub of costumes away for a couple meetings. Too distracting.

Anyway, that’s one way to get the ideas flowing — set up some specific borders or guidelines to fulfill freely and see if it helps.

In the beginning, they weren’t ready for unbridled creative freedom, but they liked the first taste and eventually they were hungry for the whole meal — and they cooked it themselves.

What to do when the team is “STUCK”

Excursion-take the team on a trip. Sometimes, it helps to leave the problem behind and get away-literally. This can be to the next room, a walk outside, out for ice cream, the grocery store, etc. Each team member must come up with two new ideas during the excursion. One year, my team (5th graders) was talking about using ice cream as part of their theme. We took them to a local ice cream shop-they listed lots of ice cream flavors and features of the shop. Many of the ideas generated actually wound up in the script. They came in second place in state that year-just their second year of CPS!

Creativity is influenced by:

FLUENCY-The ability to generate a great number of ideas.

FLEXIBILITY-The skill that allows us to produce a variety of ideas.

ORIGINALITY-The talent to think of unusual ideas.

ELABORATION-The process of filling in all the details.

EVALUATION-The process that allows us to select, test, and revise ideas.

Activity: The Tube

Give each table an empty toilet paper tube.

Ask each table to have someone write down their answers.

Ask them – Name creative uses for an empty toilet paper tube.

Give them 1 minute.

Ask each table to state how many answers they generated.

Ask each table to go back and find their three most creative answers.

Have each table tell you their choices.

Indicate to them that they were:

  • Generating as many answers as they could – Fluency
  • Generating at least three creative answers – different from each other – Flexibility
  • Generated a couple unique answers – Originality
  • Generated some detailed answers – Elaboration

Follow it all up with Evaluation by the entire group!


CPS Tool: Categories/Environments

The Tool called Categories or Environments can be used to create unique situation or examples by placing an object within a setting, a subject matter, or environment. Below is an activity using subject matter and following it is an example using an environment to generate ideas.

Activity: The Straw

Part 1:

Hold up a colored drinking straw for the participants to see.

Tell them the Challenge is to “Name Creative Uses for the Straw”.

However, you are going to give them a little help. Tell them, you are going to put the straw in a “Category” – Sports (a subject matter). Now ask them to name uses for the straw. Give them a hint to get them started, e.g. hold the straw like a baseball bat, or a javelin.

Some answers they could come up with are:

Baseball bat Javelin Goal posts Hockey stick

Lines on a field Pole Vault Golf Club Splint for sprained ankle

Now switch them to another Category or Subject Matter – e.g. Medicine

Thermometer Splint Shunt IV line Bed rails

Now switch them to a final Category or Subject Matter – e.g. Music

Drum Sticks Clarinet Baton Flute Staff on a sheet of music

You will find the group can usually come up with 40-60 answers within one minute.

Now you can tell them that Tony Buzan, a leader in Creativity, in his tape, Instant Creativity stated:

The average person will list an average of 4 words per minute

A person considered creative will list an average of 6-8 words per minute

One person out of 2,000,000 will list an average of 10-12 words per minute

And, they listed 40-60 in one minute. THIS IS THE POWER OF THIS TOOL. Yes, they did it as a group. However, if they had to go back and do another “Category, they would have at least 10-12 each.

Part 2: Now, let’s try using “Categories” as an Environment

Tell them their new Challenge is to alternately name things that are loud and things that are soft.

Let them try, as a group, naming some “louds” and some “softs.”

Then tell them there are 20 points for “the creativity of their answers.”

If the group would chose a “Category” or an “Environment” to place their “louds” and “softs” in, they would come up with much more creative answers. Example – Place the Challenge into the “Environment” of a Zoo.

Now they can have answers like “thundering ants” and “tip-toeing elephants”

What this CPS Tool, Categories or Environments, does is to take the Challenge out of the BBH – The Big Black Hole, and place it into a smaller defined space. That way the mind can then visualize shapes and stories, etc.

This is one of the most powerful tools when searching for a way to “display” your answers – within a framework.

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