The Science of the Breakthrough Game!

I teach innovation techniques to everyone from top scientists to Silicon Valley executives, and I am often struck by the disconnect between the way groups think they come up with new ideas and how those groups actually come up with new ideas.

Most organizations and individuals, when asked to come up with an innovative concept or solution, find themselves stumped. Those few that have any sort of formal approach to being innovative will fall back on approaches like “brainstorming,” a method developed in the 1950’s that has proven to be unreliable.

Based on decades of research, we now know that the innovation process involves many steps, each of which is important to developing breakthrough ideas. I wanted to make this complex process exciting, fun, and importantly, effective. That is why I worked with Justin Gary, an award-winning game designer, to come up with the Breakthrough Game. Our game makes it easy to apply the science of innovation to any problem of interest in about an hour. This document will explain the science behind the game, and give you some tips to make your playthrough both fun and effective.

Before You Start: Framing the Question and Building the Team

Before you start to play, you need to decide on a question you want to answer. While there is no simple way to generate amazing questions, researchers have developed a few tips. First, focus on real results, not particular methods of doing things. Asking “How can we make ordering cheeseburgers faster at our restaurant?” will result in less profound results that focusing on what your real end goal is: “How might we decrease customer frustration at our restaurant”? You should also follow the advice of Hal Gregersen: “Questions are most productive when they are open versus closed, short versus long, and simple versus complex.” Aim for quick, punchy, open-ended questions. Innovators at IDEO also suggest starting questions with “How can we” or “How might we” – which helps make them open ended.

Who you invite to your Breakthrough Game session also matters. Teams with diverse backgrounds and experiences are more likely to come up with new concepts than teams where everyone has a common point of view. Additionally, people who are good at generating ideas in one context are often good at coming up with ideas in other contexts – if you can invite the most creative people in your network or organization to play, you will likely have better results. You can certainly play with a group of friends, but research indicates that the more diverse the people in the game, the more likely you are to develop true breakthroughs.

Another key to running a successful Breakthrough Game session is to set the mood. Research has shown that the best way to innovate is to be in a playful, energetic and peppy mood –this sort of mood increases idea productivity by over 13%. The Breakthrough Game is designed to put you in just such a mood, adding the fun of games and helping you feel at ease sharing your concepts. You should feel free to grab a cup of coffee or chat before launching into the game. If you really want to set an innovative mood, you may want to consider sharing embarrassing stories (really!). In one recent study, groups that were asked to “describe a time they’d felt embarrassed in the previous six months” generated 26% more ideas and were more creative than other groups.

Phase One: Lots of Ideas

To come up with a great idea, you first need lots of raw ideas (which can be of widely varying quality). A study by Stevens and Burley found it takes around 3,000 raw ideas to create one commercial success! Fortunately, additional research has shown that you don’t usually need that many ideas to solve most problems, but you do need at least 100 or so raw ideas to ensure that you have the best opportunity for something really innovative.

The way to create a lot of good raw ideas might be counterintuitive, given how popular group brainstorming generally is, but the secret is that you want to start by coming up with ideas on your own. As soon as you start to work as a group all sorts of social pressures come into play. You become self-conscious, you suppress some of your ideas to fit into the group, and you focus on what other people have to say rather than your own ideas. To get the most diversity of ideas, you need to start with some solo brainstorming, which is what the first phase of the game is designed to do, using the Idea cards.

Phase Two: Constraints Make You More Creative

Another trick to generating good ideas is to give yourself constraints. Psychological experiments have shown that when people have limitations on the ideas they can pursue they are often, paradoxically, more creative. In the Warped phase, we introduce a lot of unusual constraints on your ideas to help you break out of your box and start thinking in new ways. We also keep you on a tight clock, limiting your ability to be overly reflective and judgmental about your own ideas, further increasing creativity.

Phase Three: Recombination

Innovation often involves recombination: combining old ideas in new ways. In the next phase of the game, you finally start working together as a group using the larger game board. Your goal is to create new and improved concepts using the ideas you developed individually. You want to create new ideas that combine elements of the old ones, while still aiming for big leaps, not little refinements. Similarly, you are looking to generate new ideas or novel combinations, rather than categorizing or sorting your cards. Finally, you can eliminate ideas that are very close repeats to cards you have already played, since you are aiming to create new ideas, and not rehash old ones.

It helps to have a few basic rules during this session and here the three of the rules from the original work on brainstorming by Alex Osborn still work:

  1. No criticism is allowed, that inhibits innovative thinking
  2. Encourage wild ideas, they can always be pruned back later
  3. Improve and combine on the ideas of others, as well as generating your own novel ideas.

The key to implementing these rules successfully is respect and consideration for the people around you. Harvard Prof. Amy Edmondson, working with Google, found that the key to innovative team success was psychological safety, the feeling that anyone is safe sharing ideas, even bad ideas, with the group. As you go through the recombination process, you can create a feeling of safety by asking each other questions about ideas, rather than making judging statements. You can focus on the fact that there is no right answer, and everyone needs to work together to succeed.

Phase Four: Reframing

Groups, even creative groups, can get fixated on a particular way to solve problems. These common frameworks can often make it hard to recognize innovative ideas, and to understand how they can be used to create change. For example, studies of Kodak found that, even though they were an inventor of the digital camera, managers couldn’t understand how the new invention would challenge their film business. They chose not to release the innovative project, which eventually doomed them in the market. In the fourth phase of the Breakthrough Game we force you to consider multiple frames using the Frame cards, to help you test your idea and avoid groupthink.

Phase Five: Voting

Your most intriguing ideas at the end of an hour session are just that, ideas. Many of them will need more help and research before being fully developed. In order to keep your options open, voting is not a simple up-or-down process, with the most votes winning. Instead, by marking ideas as “Biggest Impact,” “Low Hanging Fruit” and “Exciting” you can preserve optionality – the ability to explore multiple paths before you commit to one.

Voting is social, but the process is a little more serious at this stage than before. Research has found that a shift in mood is important as you make choices. You still want a positive, playful vibe, but evidence is that some negativity is good – you need be willing to reject and be critical!

Phase Six: Committment

The most important phase is the one that has you follow up on your ideas. Without follow up, most intriguing innovations die. You are going to volunteer to take at least one idea and do something to help it on its journey. Evidence from studies of successful entrepreneurs suggests that initial ideas change a lot along the way, and, by volunteering to gather new data to push your idea forward, you can help the concept develop and grow.

As you finish the game, you might want to glue down the cards and take the game board with you (or at least take a picture and upload it). Researchers call these physical or digital objects that participants can share, pass around, or show to others “boundary objects,” and they play an important role in innovation. They help keep everyone on the same page about ideas and communicates excitement and vision. Make sure to keep a copy of your boundary object to motivate you going forward!