Marilyn Barefoot learned the technique she now teaches from Tetra Pak—the company, not its namesake packaging. Barefoot, who spent most of her career in the advertising industry, was set to work with 600 of the firm’s employees at a conference in the south of France as part of the independent agency she then owned. “They asked me to come to Scandinavia for a few days in advance, because they wanted to train me in the facilitation style that their people at Tetra Pak were accustomed to,” Barefoot recalls.

What Barefoot learned was a way of coming up with new ideas based on the divergent-convergent thinking process created in the 1950s at the University of Buffalo-based Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) conference. It’s a technique she now shares with corporate clients that hire Barefoot Brainstorming, the consulting and training firm she founded a decade ago.

Barefoot’s favourite part of working in advertising was ideation, the “blank page” that needed to be filled with solutions to a client’s problems. Here are a few things you can learn from her about fostering creativity in your company.

1. Lead by example

Leaders who are committed to the creative process inspire their teams to do the same. “Right from the very top, [leaders] have to embrace the idea of innovation,” says Barefoot.

It’s also important to create a culture where failure is celebrated, not stigmatized. “You won’t be chastised,” Barefoot says you need to communicate to your team. “Nobody’s going to look at you and say, ‘That’s a really stupid idea.’”

One way to lead by example is to make ideation a routine part of your company’s schedule. “[You can] encourage it by having people sit down and do a regular spitballing session,” suggests Barefoot. “Bring in an interesting lunch, and have [a few] people sit around it and throw around ideas.”

2. Make people comfortable

The biggest obstacle to creativity in most companies is fear, says Barefoot. It’s unusual for people to come into a brainstorming session with a great deal of enthusiasm, she notes. Most people are either open about their fear of participating, or disguise their misgivings by dismissing the process as a waste of time.

So Barefoot spends 20 minutes or so winning over the naysayers and making worried participants feel comfortable. First, she divides those in attendance into small teams. “That automatically brings the fear level down,” she says. “[The] whole room isn’t necessarily listening, and if they’re presenting ideas, they’re presenting them on behalf of the whole team, not just as an individual.”

Then she conducts a preliminary exercise: Everyone is given a photograph, and is asked to write on a large easel all the words they think of when they look at it. “That’s the divergent thinking,” she explains. “Any word is a fair game word to throw out.” Then she demonstrates the convergent thinking, asking participants to come up with a team name. “So they take a couple of those words, and they throw them together, and they come up with some crazy name for their team,” she explains.

The exercise demonstrates how far the technique can take you creatively. At a recent sessions with Weston Foods, one team named themselves “Sexy Saturday Nights.” Would a basic brainstorming process have come up with such an outlandish name, she asks them? “The answer is always, ‘No, of course not.’”

3. Get everyone involved

Burger King had a problem: It needed to drive sales during the “snack” part of the day, when customers came in for a coffee and a muffin rather than a full meal. So they hired Barefoot for  an offsite in Miami.

Barefoot had every team create a line drawing, then swap and come up with words to describe what they saw. Then the participants surveyed the list to try and spark some ideas. “This is just about spitting it out—I don’t care how raw and unformed the idea is, just share it with your team and let’s see where this goes,” she explains.

One participant followed a train of thought from the word “tent” to the idea of coziness, and associated that with the peacefulness of sitting down for a coffee and muffin. The snack break was a kind of refuge from the busyness of the outside world. From there, he jumped to the idea of a tax shelter. The final idea—which the company actually tested out—was to offer customers a discount or freebie to come in during tax time and meet an in-restaurant tax consultant during filing season.

The individual guy who came up with this unique solution? The employee in charge of the company’s parking garage. “If you give people a process like this and guide them through it, it doesn’t matter who they are, what department of the company they work in, [or] how much knowledge of the subject matter they have,” Barefoot says.

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