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How to use Workshops to Boost Creativity, Team Commitment and Motivation

Posted by Ulf Eriksson on Jan 31, 2014 |

Creativity is a powerful motivator for both individuals and teams. And it’s not something only artists have – with the help of specific techniques, it can be taught, trained, and enhanced. Workshops are a popular format for creative meetings that elicit participants' intrinsic drive and motivation. In this article, we’ll explain a number of techniques for enhancing creativity that you can use immediately to get more out of your team’s next meeting or workshop.

Why workshops?

Many of the challenges we face today can only be solved by a group, not an individual. Whether it’s the need for broad buy-in, or more expertise than any individual has, one person alone cannot solve the problem even with unlimited time and resources. In systems development, typical group tasks include identifying requirements and needs for a future or existing system, compiling a complete list of stakeholders, selecting features to be tested, or identifying risks. Another good reason for meeting as a group is operational planning, where the group needs to come up with new ideas, and collectively make decisions about those ideas on the basis of consensus and feasibility.

A well-executed workshop is far superior to a traditional meeting in multiple ways. The workshop shifts the focus from the facilitator to the group, resulting a more democratic process where everyone contributes and is invested in securing a great outcome. Participants are more motivated and active, and if you run it right, you’ll even get more done in less time than you would in a meeting. And the participants have fun!

What makes a workshop successful

Many disparate parts have to come together for a workshop to be successful:

  • Practical basics: Right location, time, and length.
  • Creativity: The facilitator's ability to get participants' creativity flowing, so they generate as many ideas as possible during the workshop.
  • Group dynamics: The facilitator's ability to manage the group so, for example, quieter participants have their say and no participant "takes over" and dominates the discussion at the expense of others.
  • Skills: Participants' interest in the subject and experience in relevant areas.

This article is written for workshop facilitators, and focuses on how a skilled facilitator can help the group reach new creative heights.

People have to be confident to be creative

To be creative, participants have to feel comfortable both with themselves and with the group. They need to know that their ideas will be accepted in the group, and that everyone's opinions count equally. They need to feel welcome in the group and comfortable with the facilitator.

Experienced workshop facilitators make a conscious effort to help the participants feel safe, and set the tone that maximizes motivation and creativity in the group. Effective workshop facilitators:

  • ... Use icebreakers to get participants into a collaborative mindset, and more rapidly establish an energetic group.
  • ... Resolve the conflicts and other problems that can arise in any group.
  • ... Ensure that no individual participant or clique takes over, and encourage quieter participants to get involved.
  • ... Let every participant have their say, and showing equal respect for all the views presented.

When participants feel comfortable, they can put aside their fears and focus on their creative abilities. With that foundation in place, they can begin to question assumptions, open their minds to new perspectives on problems, and learn new techniques for tapping into the limitless creativity of the human brain.

Practicing creativity with creativity-boosters

In order to establish commitment and interest in the group, the workshop facilitator needs a toolkit of exercises with an innovative element, much like what we call creativity-boosters. There are plenty of creativity-boosting exercises to choose from – finding the right exercise is a matter of looking at the problem to be solved, the group of participants, and your own preferences as the facilitator. Each exercise demands a different degree of preparation in advance: the simplest way you can enhance creativity is simply opening a window to let fresh air in – literally – while more complex exercises include scripting, building, and role-playing that help participants see a problem from a new perspective (or many new perspectives!). Here are six examples of Creativity-boosters you can use at your next workshop:

“Keep them on their toes”: Brainstorming at the whiteboard

The easiest way to boost your participants’ creativity and interaction with each other is to simply arm them with pens and sticky notes, line them up in front of a blank whiteboard, and tell them to start generating new ideas. If you’ve ever tried this before, you know it’s a great way to create ah-ha moments of insight.

Time: ongoing during brainstorming, grouping, and prioritization.

Structure: Participants stand in front of the whiteboard and write their ideas on sticky notes. It’s best if they generate ideas in silence, without explaining what their notes mean – explanations and discussion can be left for later.

When to use: Creating team spirit, helping participants to learn from each other, increasing participants’ comfort in an unstructured environment. Surprisingly, “staying on your toes” is more than a metaphor -- people often think better when standing!

“Pun and games”: playing with words

Time: 5-10 minutes.

Structure: Prepare for the exercise by creating a few anagrams (jumbled-up sequences of one word that create other words). You can create them on your own with some effort, or use one of the online tools like http://wordsmith.org/anagram/ . For example, an anagram for the word "test manager" is "greatest man". See if you can find an IT-related word in the phrase "dense ruse" (answer below). The participants' task is to figure out the correct order of the letters to identify the original word, and they can work individually or in groups. You can make the activity more personal and interesting for the group by using expressions they frequently use, or names of departments or individuals.

When to use: Use this tactic when participants get stuck in a rut, when they need a break from more complicated tasks, or when they get bogged down in misunderstandings or stalemates. The post-lunch food coma is also a time when groups can have trouble focusing and need a more lighthearted activity like this one. By the way, “dense ruse” is an anagram of “user needs”.

“You are what you eat”: engaging extra senses with exotic fruit tastes

Time: 15 minutes.

Structure: Set out a bowl of exotic fruits (you can often find these at specialty grocers or immigrant markets) and ask the group to guess or find their names. Durians, dragonfruit, lychee, rambutan… sometimes the names are as exotic as the flavors, skins, and smells. Be sure to buy enough so that everyone in the group gets to taste afterwards.

When to use: This activity can be used to rapidly achieve a group-esteem by trying something new together and helps you dare try and comment on new ways of thinking.

Opportunities in opposites

Time: 30 minutes.

Structure: Make up sentences that are the opposite of what you actually believe, know, or hope for, as a means of getting closer to that goal. For example, you might write, "How can we make the quality of our work as low as possible?" Participants brainstorm ideas using sticky notes while standing at a whiteboard. After they’re done coming up with ideas, the participants group the ideas on the board together with the facilitator. They give each group of notes a header and convert the title to its positive opposite. For example, they might make a group containing notes about not having enough time, lack of planning, late delivery, etc. and title it "proper planning".

When to use: When the group is stuck in old modes of thinking about long-standing problems, this activity helps them come up with creative new approaches that can get them re-energized and motivated to try to tackle them again.

Role-play

Time: 15-60 minutes.

Structure: Develop a few case studies or stories that reflect some of the challenges facing your business. Divide the participants into small groups, and give each group a case to present. After giving them time to take on roles and script some basic dialog, each group plays out their story for the other participants. Then, the group collectively discusses the problems, the reasons they arose, and most importantly what they can do to solve them.

When to use: When group members have stopped seeing situations from (each) others' perspectives, or are stuck in problem situations that require structured analysis, brainstorming, and buy-in from the whole group.

“Drawing a blank”: helping each other see

Time: 10 minutes.

Structure: Pair up participants and have them stand back to back. Give one participant in each pair an image that the other person has to draw based solely on verbal instructions from the first person. The person doing the drawing can ask questions in order to get clarification on an instruction (since in a real-life situation, a tester or requirements manager can have a dialog with the developer). The images to be drawn can range from the simple to the more complex: a square, a man, a house, a yacht. The person doing the drawing – who can’t see the original, of course – needs to ask enough questions (and get detailed enough answers) to be able to sketch the correct object, as well as any important details. The point of the exercise is communication, so both parties need to consider what information the other has or needs in order to complete the drawing. When the participants have finished drawing, they should discuss what went well, what didn’t, and what they could do differently to make the results even better next time. Now, repeat the exercise with a new image and the participants in opposite roles. Hopefully, the second image will be markedly better than the first thanks to better communication between the partners.

When to use: When participants need to be shown or reminded how difficult it can be to communicate intelligibly, and to understand another person. For example, I’ve seen great results using this exercise with requirements managers and system developers.

Summary

In the right situation, workshops can be far more effective than traditional meetings. An effective facilitator shifts participants’ focus from him/herself to the other participants, helping the participants feel more comfortable and cohesive as a group. The facilitator’s responsibility is to create this sense of reliance on other team members, so the participants’ involvement and engagement with each other grows. Facilitators can increase the group’s problem-solving ability through creativity-boosting exercises that are simple to implement and produce results quickly. These exercises work well in many other situations as well. You can use them to increase a group’s energy and find solutions to problems during a meeting or kick-off, or even just to break up the monotony of day-to-day work.

About the author

Ulf Eriksson is one of the founders of ReQtest, an online bug tracking software hand-built and developed in Sweden. ReQtest is the culmination of Ulf’s decades of work in development and testing. Ulf is a huge fan of Agile and counts himself as an early adopter of the philosophy, which he has abided to for a number of years in his professional life as well as in private. Ulf’s goal is to life easier for everyone involved in testing and requirements management, and he works towards this goal in his role of Product Owner at ReQtest, where he strives to make ReQtest easy and logical for anyone to use, regardless of their technical knowledge or lack thereof.  The author of a number of white papers and articles, mostly on the world of software testing, Ulf is also slaving over a book, which will be compendium of his experiences in the industry. Ulf lives in Stockholm, Sweden.

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