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15 Innovation Activities to Use in Your Small Business

small business innovation ideation

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Quit brainstorming and start uncovering novel and useful ideas for your business.


Brainstorming stinks.

While there are cases where a well-trained brainstorming expert can get a group to come up with something useful, for most people it’s a drag. Most attendees simply dread them. Especially when larger groups come together in corporate environments.

What if I told you that ideation sessions can not only be effective when done right, but that they work even better in a small business environment?

It’s true.

The trick is to avoid large sessions where everyone randomly throws ideas up onto a chartpad. Smaller mini-teams and even individual work time can produce great ideas if you have the right activities and assignments. It’s a great approach for small business innovation.

While there are a plethora of possible things you can do, I’ve collected here a short list of 15 of my favorite ideation activities for small business innovation and marketing. I’ve specifically chosen these because they are not only effective, but easily used by smaller teams.

The 15 activities consist of 5 ice breakers and 10 ideation exercises. Try these out at your next offsite or workshop. Your team will collaborate better and be happier with their work, whether it’s coming up with a new marketing idea, product, process or service.

5 ICE BREAKER ACTIVITIES FOR SMALL BUSINESS

  1. Pass the Ball: Icebreaker questions are written with Sharpie on a blown up beach ball (e.g., what’s your favorite vacation destination, most embarrassing moment as a child, if you were a woodchuck how much wood would you chuck :-), etc.). All participants stand in a large circle. The ball is tossed across/around the circle. When someone catches it, they read and answer the question closest to their right thumb. Continue until all participants have received the ball.
  2. Pass the Stone: Break up into two teams, about 5-10 people per team. Create two parallel lines that face each other. Each team gets a stone. The stone begins at one end of the line and moves down the line to the other end. The two teams do this at the same time. The game is to secretly pass the stone without the other team seeing if it’s actually being passed or not. Each team secretly stops passing the stone at some point in their line (and continues fake passing thereafter). Once complete, the opposing team must guess who has the stone. The trick is to keep an eye on the opposing team while you are also passing your own stone. Keep score and see who can get to 3 correct guesses first.
  3. This is Not a Rope: A metaphor race using rope, discs and/or balls. This works with groups that can be split into two teams (alternatively you can do this as a single larger group). Each team stands in a circle and will race the opposing team. Each person in the circle holds the object and says, “This is not a rope, it’s a ______________,” filling in the blank with a metaphorical object and then passing the object to the next person. For example: “This is not a rope, it’s a noodle.” The next person does the same thing, but may not repeat an object that’s already been mentioned. The first team to make it all the way around the circle wins. You can go for best 2 out of 3 and use 3 different objects (one for each round).
  4. Birth Date Sort: Participants sort among themselves into a shoulder-to-shoulder line by date of birth (month and day, don’t worry about year). In order of birth date, each person introduces name, function, date of birth, and favorite thing about being born during that month.
  5. Rainforest: This follow-the-leader sound activity creates a wave of sound that mimics the sound of a rainstorm as it approaches and passes. It’s best done in a U shape. Participants are instructed to do exactly what the person on their left does. The leader at the front of the U begins by gently rubbing hands together. The person to their right must mimic and do exactly as the previous person, and so forth down the line. The leader will then gradually switch to snapping, then to clapping, then to patting on legs, and then reverse the order and work their way backwards. It sounds cool with larger groups when the team does it properly, but may take a few attempts as inevitably some people will not properly follow instruction.

10 IDEATION ACTIVITIES FOR SMALL BUSINESS INNOVATION

  1. Homework Debrief: To get the team in a creative mindset, assign an advance homework assignment and instruct the team to bring their completed homework to the session for a group debrief. You can have them write a letter, conduct a shopping trip, keep a personal journal/log/diary, answer pre-thinking questions (about their habits), find/interview a friend, create a collage, complete mad libs, or perform a specific task. The team can debrief together and share the ideas generated. If time does not allow shareout and discussion, consider simply collecting/posting the ideas from the homework.
  2. Competitor One-up: Use competitive products/services or advertising materials as stimuli and come up with ideas to out-claim the competition. How can we claim one step better or offer improved performance? Improved ingredients/components/process? What weaknesses or shortcomings can we address? What don’t they do that a customer might wish for? Knowing our brand equity, what would be our spin on these products?
  3. Power Claims: Use advertisement stimuli (e.g., print ads) sorted by claim type to spark ideas for new claims. Buckets can include competitive comparisons, numeric/clinical data, self comparisons, absolute claims, or other types as needed/relevant. Move stimuli from table to table or provide them at the front of the room for all groups to see.
  4. RTBs: Similar to Power Claims above, but use stimuli for RTB (Reason to Believe) types such as design/engineering feature, endorsement (celebrity/consumer/organization), ingredients, unique process/source, and mode of action (how it works).
  5. Tension/Convention Busters: Provide customer tension/category convention stimuli in the form of chartpads, lists, stimuli on the wall or decks of cards. The task is to come up with new ideas that would turn the tension or conventions upside down and answer them. Conventions in particular are meant to push the boundary of what’s possible.
  6. Creative Artifacts: Typically larger provocative/surprise items (stimuli) spread out over a large table. Teams send a representative up to select 3 items. Teams keep 2 items and pass 1 “screw” item to the team to their left (meaning they’ll receive one as well). Take 5-10 minutes max to ideate and then return the object to the table, taking new objects as time permits. The artifacts in this game should push participants way outside of the box (think small statues, musical instruments, medical supplies). They can be loosely related to the topic, but should not feel that way in practice. For example, someone might use a rubber iguana to come up a new idea for a cleaning tool that uses a “gecko foot” or “shark scale” surface design to pick up more dirt. Or maybe a fun “lizard lime” flavor for ice cream.
  7. What Would Brand X Do: Similar in structure to Creative Artifacts (send a team rep to pick, rinse and repeat). However, the stimuli are small boards/cards with brand logos/personality images on them. For example you might have logos of Crest, ADT or Startbucks. Images of Superman or Steven Spielberg. What would an outsider brand or famous personality do if they entered your industry? The brands/personalities should be carefully selected to bring outside but relevant inspiration from other categories into our own. Also, mix in a few that are really just unrelated (e.g., What would Morpheus from The Matrix do in spa services?). The results will often surprise you – people tend to get really creative with the hardest ones!
  8. Empathy Immersion: Go out and visit/do what the target customer does in real life, or even talk to them directly. For the purposes of an ideation, you may not have the time/resources to do a full scale ethnography. But that shouldn’t stop you from immersing and observing in easy and efficient ways. If you are working on a new sports service, attend a sporting event or even a team practice and ask a few questions. Put on some pads and throw the ball around! If you are working on new microwave meal ideas, get inspired by visiting a trendy Italian restaurant and exploring some of the most interesting items on the menu. Cook up a meal yourself! Do the job. Assign the team to complete a task that is identical or similar to what a customer experiences in the real world. For example, have them visit a doctor, go to a spa, visit a local park, etc. Have participants reflect on what as difficult, frustrating or not ideal and then come up with ideas for how to improve the experience.
  9. Expert Interview: Bring in 1-3 experts/trend-setters in a field of interest. They may be in your direct category of expertise, or they could be tangentially related in some way. Interview them as a panel, have them present trends/inspiration to the group, and/or have them participate directly in your ideation alongside the team.
  10. Tension and Release: Use customer problem statements that are pre-written in first-person to generate new product ideas and solutions. Try to write them in the voice of a real person, either as statements or questions. Financial services example: “The time between work and getting home is crazy for me and I don’t have much time to spare. So why is it that the bank always closes at 5pm?” Personal care example: “I knew I shouldn’t have stayed out in the sun for so long yesterday. Why does it take so long for sunburn to start feeling better?” You can place the statements on cards and post them on a wall. Then have participants take a card down and write a solution directly on it. Hand them in or possibly repost them for others to build upon.

TRY IT

Find at least one idea on the above list that might apply to your small business and do a team activity. You’re sure to generate at least one good marketing or innovation idea you can implement to grow your business.

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”About

Kevin Namaky

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Kevin Namaky founded Gurulocity Gurulocity, a marketing education company, to help small business owners and entrepreneurs hone their strategic marketing craft and unlock their potential. As a brand marketing leader and former Head of Strategy at a global consulting firm, he created billions in new value for companies big and small. He now brings those marketing secrets to small businesses everywhere. Connect with Kevin on LinkedIn.

Comments 2

  1. A very pragmatic approach that is sure to deliver more focussed and actionable solutions. I like your thinking, Kevin! Thanks!

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