The Forest: A Perfect New Conference Room?

Posted on Updated on

Is the traditional conference room really a good place to hold an innovation session? Are creativity, energy, and involvement from participants predicated on where the event takes place? In this post I will show you how it really is all about “Location, Location, Location” – a phrase realtors often use in explaining how the value of a home can increase or decrease drastically depending upon where it is.

Many times when planning an innovation session, a lot of attention is given to the structure of the events, schedule for the day, and participants. There are lots of ideas all over the internet and available from consultants on what events to include and their proper implementation. However, when it comes time to find a location, typically a conference room within either the company or some hotel is booked and no more thought is given – the task is done.

Although many hotel conference rooms are convenient due to their catering, climate control, and familiar corporate setting (think large well lit room with table and chairs around it) they still fall short of being an ideal venue for holding an innovation event for the following reasons. First, they keep participants within a familiar surrounding enabling it easy to remain in the corporate mindset. Because of this, participants tend to check emails, talk to colleagues about projects, and in general not be as completely immersed as they should be in the creative process. Secondly, people equate conference rooms with long tiring meetings, and so innovation sessions can unfortunately fall victim rather easily to this psychological association. Overcoming this requires numerous breaks throughout the day to keep peoples attention span at peak performance and hopefully prevent them from fatigue. This takes valuable time away from actual ideation and can become a factor which limits the number of activities that can be done in the allotted time span. Lastly, nothing beyond ideation effectively happens outside the planned events. If you want little extra bonuses like team building or people getting to know each other better, they would have to be built into the events in some way – and even then it is not completely effective. This also takes time away from the main goal of generating new ideas and tends to make it seem as though the team bonding aspect is in some way forced.

So then if the traditional conference room is ineffective, what are some good alternatives? Here is where creativity on the part of the session planner is required. Take some time to choose completely different and non traditional locations. Try to think of places that would either be challenging to the senses or elicit an emotionally uncomfortable environmental response. Off the top of my head, some suggestions may be using an abandoned building, going deep in an underground cave, or ideate while on different rides at an amusement park. Going even further, why not consider renting out an empty space and transforming it into the surface of the moon or some distant planet. Why not be innovative in the construction and planning the innovation event? Recently, Osmotic Innovation was made aware of a large global company within the NJ/NY area that took participants out into the middle of the forest to innovate. No comfy climate controlled conference rooms here – but just imagine the ideas and team building that came from camping overnight while trying to avoid bears and other wildlife! As I am sure most Social Psychologists would agree, a highly effective way to brings teams together while simultaneously engaging different parts of the brain would certainly be that of everyone experiencing and overcoming some sort of emotional experience together. Can you visualize how different the environment would be sitting with colleagues in an old abandoned building? What do you think the ominous sounds, musty scents, and graffiti sprayed on the peeling wallpaper would contribute towards forcing participants to forget about work and be in the moment? Imagine the unique and effective events one could plan while in such an environment (taking safety precautions, of course). I don’t know about you, but I know for sure if I were there, checking work emails and worrying about project deadlines would be last on the list!

Therefore, as Osmotic Innovators, lets push ourselves to think of ways to overturn the traditional (cookie cutter type) innovation session and find ways to challenge participants beyond the events by immersing them in new and stimulating environments. Retire the thought of using boring conference rooms and make innovation sessions both an event and experience. Why do we expect participants to provide creative ideas if the innovation sessions themselves are not dynamic? After all, wasn’t it stated that insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results? Well, the same phrase can certainly be applied to innovation sessions. Push participants even further by removing their comfort zones and you will be amazed at the output and level of engagement you will begin to see in response.

Puzzles: An Exercise for Your Brain to Enhance Creativity

Posted on Updated on

There are many in the field of Psychology and Neuroscience that point to the benefits of solving puzzles. Claims of increasing memory and cognitive performance to delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s all point to solving puzzles as a key factor. In fact, one such professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr. Richard Restak, published a book called Think Smart: A Neuroscientists Prescription for Improving Your Brain Performance. Among many of his tips, one of them is to simply solve puzzles. By doing so, Dr. Restak argues that different parts of the brain will be used depending upon what kind of puzzle you work on.

Within innovation sessions, I have personally observed the increased creativity in individuals when given a riddle or puzzle to solve before being asked to generate ideas. The act of solving something abstract removes the mind from its common everyday “rut” and opens up fresh ways of thinking that are non-linear.

With that in mind, I would like to challenge your creativity and get your brain thinking a bit by providing you with the following mix of riddles and puzzles. How many can you solve?


Hands I do not have, yet I grasp so tight.

I love darkness, my enemy is light.

Both the mighty and low know me well,

For in the hearts of men I dwell!

What am I?


Echoes from a shadow realm,

whispers of things yet to come.

Thoughts strange sister dwells in night,

is swept away in dawning light.

What am I?


I am said by one letter    

I am spelled by three

Two letter the same in me

I am double or single

Or brown, blue, or green

I am read from either end and understood

What am I?


I can be touched,

but I hurt those who touch me.

I move swiftly through a dry forest,

but die in a mountain stream.

Where I pass, I leave a black shroud.

What am I?


A boy and a girl have some candies. If the girl gives one candy to the boy, he will have double the amount of candies that the girl does but if the boy gives the girl a candy, they will have the same amount. How many candies does the girl have and how many does the boy have? Hint: The boy and the girl don’t have the same amount.


If you put a coin in an empty bottle and insert a cork into the neck of the bottle, how could you remove the coin without taking the cork out or breaking the bottle?


You must cut a birthday cake into exactly eight pieces, but you’re only allowed to make three straight cuts, and you can’t move pieces of the cake as you cut. How can you do it?

Does Mathematics Enhance Creativity? (Part II)

Posted on Updated on

In the first post in this series, I explored how despite the common tendency to categorize mathematics as a subject concerned with rules and complexity, it can actually provide ways to lead one to think creatively. Instead of getting lost in the specific complexity of Calculus and Differential Equations, we took a step laterally and showed how these areas manifest themselves in the creative beauty around us.

In this second part, I would like to introduce another area of study within mathematics that is commonly viewed with dread when one decides to either major or minor in the subject – mathematical logic and proofs.  Many (if not all) math textbooks contain a section proving how and why different theorems work. Although ignored by many students due to their high complexity, they are the reason why the theorems work and are rather important to the field of study. So why does a course in something like mathematical logic help enhance creativity? Put simply, it forces you to think differently. In mathematics, the goal is to find truth and proofs are the explanation we use to convince ourselves and others. I am not going to now go into any further discussion on how to write mathematical proofs, but instead focus on some of the simplistic components. In writing a proof, you have a few options:

  1. Simply find an example of something that works
  2. Contrapositive – which simply means negating both sides of the statement
  3. Induction – try using a low number and then if it works, prove that it will work for when that number is increased by 1
  4. Contradiction

There are many other ways, but I don’t want to get too caught up in the details. So knowing this, you may now wonder how it could be applied in your next innovation session. As a starting point, it is important to note that each of these techniques enhances reasoning and enables you think creatively by forcing you to look logically and break things down, analyze them, and build them back up. Therefore, you may want to try a few of the following:

  1. Break the challenge statement down into its components
  2. Ask questions assuming the opposite situation is occurring
  3. Use contradiction – find examples of things that didn’t work and ask why. Then add something incremental to it (e.g. a motor, magnet, sensors, etc) and ask if that works
  4. Examine a new product idea that really resonates with consumers. Ask why as many times as possible to get to the core as to its success
  5. Take something from a completely different industry and try to apply it to your challenge

Lastly, allow me to provide you one more example of a problem found in the book Mathematical Proofs: A Transition to Advanced Mathematics that is solved using techniques from Mathematical proofs

Three prisoners have been sentenced to long terms in prison, but due to overcrowding, one must be released. The warden devises a scheme to determine which prisoner is to be released. He tells the prisoners that he will blindfold them and paint a red or blue line on each forehead. After this is done, he will remove the blindfolds and a prisoner should raise his hand if he sees a red line on at least one of the other two prisoners. The first prisoner to identify the color of the line on his own forehead will be released. Of course the prisoners agree to this. The warden blindfolds them and then proceeds to paint a red line on all three prisoners. He removes the blindfolds and, since each prisoner sees a red line, each prisoner raises his hand. Some time passes when one of the prisoners exclaims: “I know what color my line is! It’s red!” This prisoner is then released. Now, we must ask: How did this prisoner correctly identify the color of the line painted on his forehead?

I will let you think about that and have some fun with it. Hopefully by now in reading the two blogs about mathematics, you have some better appreciation and understanding how such a subject can indeed enhance creativity and exercise the mind.

Mathematical techniques like proofs challenge the practitioner to become adept at understanding the process by which you reach a conclusion. Having all that skill can improve innovation and creativity by allowing a person to inherently examine the truth in a problem and solution – not to just take it for granted. That level of analysis can manifest itself in recognizing new solutions or incorrect assumptions to create better innovations

Creativity, as we all know, comes in many forms and is a huge part of Mathematics. Allow me to end with the quote from well-known writer J.K. Rowling (author of Harry Potter novels).

“Sometimes ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works.”

Where Good Ideas Come From

Posted on Updated on

Ever wonder how the best ideas come together? Here Steven Johnson gives a preview of his book on the topic while detailing the importance of allowing ideas to develop, mingle, and grow.

Creating an Effective Innovation Group

Posted on Updated on

In the growing competitive corporate environment, the demand for new innovative products that help drive growth becomes of vital importance.  In Businessweek magazine[1]IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano was quoted as saying “The way you will thrive in this environment is by innovating – innovating in technologies, innovating in strategies, innovating in business models”.   This sentiment is echoed in companies like Google, Nissan, and Apple to name a few.  Therefore, to meet this demand it is rather common for most companies to conduct group innovation sessions.  Considering this, the question then is how we can create an effective innovative group?

In creating this, one of the most important steps is in choosing the participants.  But what kind of person are we exactly looking for?  There are numerous personality type tests one can use to either screen job applicants, or better understand the people within an organization.  With the demand placed on innovation it is no surprise that 80 percent of fortune 500 companies use some kind of personality test, with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator being most favoured, according to an article in Psychology Today[2].  These tests not only have their pros and cons in the Psychology community, but they can also be expensive and most likely need a professional to administer.  Therefore, I propose a more simplistic approach in modelling a group and deciding participants.

For the sake of simplicity, lets draw a line representing personality types and on the left side label it “Very Artistic” while on the right side we place the label “Very Structured”.  Who might we place on the left side of our graph?  Most likely “Very Artistic” conjures to mind those who are artists, dancers, improve actors, and anyone else with a talent or career that is solely dependent upon bringing to life limitless imagination.  Therefore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, defining “Very Structured” becomes rather easy: Accountants, Engineers, Mathematicians, or any type of person who is either drawn to a very structured environment or has a very structured career.  We can then consider the span between these two extremes as the degree to which someone is near either one – taking into consideration possible outside talents, interests, level of education, etc.  In thinking of a group structure, there will be varying levels of intensity toward either end, so the use of a box will perhaps best capture this.  For example, consider a company that is primarily focused on manufacturing and selling chemicals.  I’m sure we can all agree that such a company would likely have a research and development group containing a large percentage of people with some kind of focused technical background.  We can then pictorially represent this by placing a box near the “Very Structured” side (Figure 1)

On the other hand, consider a Theatre company employing a group of interpretive dancers.  In this case, one would expect most of them to be somewhere near the “Very Artistic” side and so with a box placed there, our graph would then look a bit like Figure 2.

In looking at the differences between the two examples, it can be hypothesized that the nature of a corporation essentially preselects the members of that group and therefore makes obtaining people from different end of the spectrum rather impossible.

Therefore, with use of such a model to describe the dominant nature of a group, one can then ask: is it advantageous to select people strictly from within the group, or would it be more valuable for the company to have a sampling from different locations on the graph?

Should we primarily select within a particular segment of the spectrum, we know we would get people who share a similar educational background and interest in the field they have a career in.  However, although a broad commonality is shared, each one of us is unique and brings to the table a spectrum of emotional and intellectual diversity that in of itself may be sufficient enough to tackle the challenge at hand.  Ask the participants about their hobbies outside of work and somehow incorporate that into the session.  Discover more about the people in the session and tap into their previous experiences and talents.  Using such methods will certainly bring something different to the innovation session, but the facilitator must still be wary of how immersed they are in the challenge.  Often times, even with these techniques, it is a bit difficult to get people thinking outside of what they are familiar with.  This brings me to the next (and personally preferred) method: inviting people outside the group.

In contrast to selecting within the group, we can consider the option to select people from different locations along the plot that exist outside the group.  In doing this, a wider array of creativity and alternate viewpoints can be introduced.  Think of what would happen if someone like a magician were to attend an innovation session being conducted by an engineering firm.  Would doing this successfully contribute anything?  If we consider the art of Magic, there is clearly lots of innovation and creativity that goes into any small to large illusion.  Therefore, one way to utilize someone like this would be to have them perform a few small tricks.  After each one, the engineers would be challenged to try and think of different ways it could have been accomplished.  In doing this, the engineers will essentially be solving a rather unique puzzle while getting their minds primed to think in a different way.  Have the magician then reveal the trick and allow the group to discuss the different ways they approached an explanation to what they just saw.  This is just one example of taking someone near what we termed “Very Artistic” and placing them into the group that may be more near the “Very Structured”.  I am sure with a bit of your own creativity you can come up with other examples.

With both options discussed, is one technique better than the other?  I challenge you to come to your own conclusion, but to those who think something very specific and technical is best solved by a room of PhD’s using complex equations – remember one important thing: Kekule daydreaming about a snake biting its own tail provided the structure for Benzene, which at the time revolutionized the field of Organic Chemistry.

Decreasing Conformity in an Innovation Session

Posted on Updated on

If I were to ask you to quickly recall the last session you went to, most likely the first thing you will say is “Well, a group of us got together and…”  You will probably then continue to focus on what activities were done, where you went, and the results that were obtained. However, a critically important component is often overlooked – the effect of the group on an individual.  Are individuals in a group setting really contributing to the best of their abilities?  Yes, we all know there are the introverts and the extroverts, but despite that we still get the best from each person, right?  Don’t be so sure.

Lines from the Asch Conformity experiment.

Consider the Solomon Asch conformity experiment: A straight line was shown to a group of college students who were all in on the experiment except for a single test subject.  In the test, a card with a straight line (line A) was shown, followed by a card with another set of lines (lines B,C,D).  When asked which line is closest to A, all the students who were part of the experiment were instructed to purposefully give the wrong answer (line C).  Because the experiment was preceded by several sets of cards where correct answers were given by the group, and trust established, the test subject was in a position of distress: follow the group or give the correct answer?  Over-all, the test subject gave the wrong answer (line C) 32% of the time.  During the course of repeating the experiment, about 75% of the time the subject conformed at least once.  Only rarely was an individual observed who gave the right answer (line B) each time, while there was a minority (5%) that conformed to the group every time.

Experiments like this one and others that have been conducted in the field of Social Psychology demonstrate “Conformity”.  According to Elliot Aronson, author of The Social Animal, conformity is defined as “a change in a persons behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people.”  There are several factors that contribute toward conformity, but for simplicity, the main factor to consider is the desire for one to be accepted by his/her group of peers.  Considering this, the question for the innovator becomes one of how can we lessen this tendency and encourage more individuality when placed in a group setting?

The answer depends to a large extent on how the innovation session is conducted.  There are numerous techniques to engage people and bring out their creativity that are readily found in books, online, and even from professional facilitators.  Everything from the colour of the room to specific physical activities has been reviewed at one time.  However, one thing not often addressed is how to decrease conformity in a group and nurture an environment where individuals can contribute more to the innovation session.

Ok, so now what?  How do we do this you ask?  As one may expect, the size of the group has an effect on whether or not someone conforms to the group they are in.  As Rod Bond from the University of Sussex[1] describes, a maximum of 3 to 5 people induce this behaviour (with 5 people being where it levels out), while groups of two drastically reduce the effect.  This also ties into the next point: having an ally.  In a variation of the experiment conducted by Asch as previously described, one of the students acted as an ally to the test subject.  Just as before, all the students gave the wrong answer except for one student who was instructed to give the correct answer.  In this situation, when the time came for the test subject to provide an answer, the correct one was given.  What happened? The pressure to conform was drastically reduced.  What does this tell us? Try breaking your large group into smaller groups of two to accomplish a task.  Encourage those paired up together to share something funny about themselves.  In doing so, you will not only help people create an “ally”, but conformity will have been reduced because you have broken down the larger group.

Some other things you may want to try:

  1. Break a complex problem down into smaller, more manageable parts.  Typically when members of a group are uncertain about a problem, they begin to look to others for confirmation.
  2. Conduct innovation sessions without the presence of either someone of authority (e.g. Managers or Directors) or an expert in the field that is the focus of the innovation session.   This will reduce the tendency of others in the group to look to such figures of authority for approval by agreeing with them.
  3. Create an activity where members need to make a commitment to their initial judgment, idea, or response.  In doing so, their probability to change their mind or conform to the group will greatly decrease.

Why is this important for innovation sessions?  Think about it: the Asch experiment drives home that in a typical session, there is a high probability that people will not be giving their own true answer or contribution.  By using these techniques, the innovation session facilitator can likely maximize the contribution from each person and hopefully obtain even more ideas and increased levels of creativity.


Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal.  10th ed.New York: Worth Publishers, 2008.

Gleitman, Henry, Alan J. Fridlund, and Daniel Reisberg.  Psychology.  6th ed.New York: Norton, 2004.

[1] Bond, Rod; Group Process & Intergroup Relations, 2005 Vol 8(4) 331-354