How to inspire creativity and innovation with one simple prompt

Posted on May 17, 2021.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of collaborating with Daniel Stillman on a client engagement. Daniel led a series of activities with the client team teaching them Design Thinking. The first exercise he ran with the team consisted of two simple prompts:

Draw a vase for holding flowers. 

Zoom team meeting screenshot of team showing off sketches of vases.
The team and their vases.

This was the first prompt. The team worked individually with paper and pen to come up with a variety of vase designs. There were tall ones and short ones. Round ones and square ones. Some were hexagonal. Some had designs on them. Some were plain. All of them were vases — a container that held water and had room for flowers. 

Daniel then changed the prompt: draw a way to experience flowers

Working alone, again, each team member envisioned their own approach to experiencing flowers. Some designed edible flowers. Others created physical environments. Still others came up with digital approaches. And yes, there were a couple of fancy vases too. But the collective output of the team was infinitely more innovative and creative after the second prompt than the first. 

Zoom screenshot of team holding up sketches of ways to experience flowers.
The team designing ways to experience flowers.

Why was that? 

When prompted to draw a vase, the team had their options constrained. They were told what the product should be. They had some freedom to adjust the vase but it was clear that only a “vase” would meet expectations. There was little room for innovation. In fact, you could argue that innovation was discouraged. The “client” — in this case, Daniel — was very clear on what he believed would meet the needs of his customers. 

When prompted to design a way to experience flowers, the challenge and the environment within which the challenge was to be solved were radically different. This time around the client set an outcome as a goal — ensure our customers experience flowers. He didn’t dictate a solution. He didn’t assume he knew the best way for flowers to be experienced. He left that discovery and innovation process to the team

He didn’t dictate a solution. He didn’t assume he knew the best way for flowers to be experienced.

By reframing the requirement away from a specific object to the intended result, Daniel explicitly created the psychological safety for creativity and innovation to take place. The team felt safe to explore new, different and sometimes unrealistic ideas. They stretched and through that exploratory process were able to come up with some amazing ideas to recreate an experience in an exciting new way. 

If you’ve struggled to get the kind of creativity and innovation the market expects these days out of your team, ask yourself what you’re asking them to do for you, your clients and your customers. Are they drawing vases? Or are they designing ways to experience flowers?