Team building

Kicking off a project? Six proven ways to unlock your team's creativity


Problem solving too often feels like pulling teeth

As a leader, it can be extremely frustrating when your team struggles to solve problems. You don't want to micromanage, but you also need to land viable solutions that drive results - and do it quickly. In the pursuit of good solutions, leaders often experience many setbacks:

  • Colleagues coming up with mostly bad ideas
  • Colleagues getting emotionally attached to ideas that you know won't work
  • Colleagues having trouble coming up with any ideas at all
  • ...So you lead with answers, and then you're met with resistance and/or are accused of micromanaging

These are all symptoms of a broken problem solving process. Fortunately, there's a 6-step flow you can follow to solve problems effectively, inclusively, and efficiently - without relying on tons of meetings.

Power Up Your Problem-Solving: Expert Tips for Leaders

1. Frame goals as intriguing questions

Imagine you're a baker at a bakery. Which of the following goals is most motivating?

  • Increase sales
  • Sell more cookies
  • Make our cookies more delicious
  • How might we make our cookies more delicious?
  • How might we use new flavor combinations to make our cookies more delicious?

Clearly, the last goal is most likely to engage the team, for a few key reasons:

  1. Framing a goal as a question signals that you don't know the answer, which invites ideation.
  2. Making a question more specific makes it easier to come up with ideas.
  3. Connecting a question to customer impact (e.g., deliciousness) makes the goal meaningful.

The next time you present a goal to your team, frame it as a specific question that clearly connects to customer impact.

In Factor, you can create a board that contains all of the most important problems your team is solving. You can edit the title of the goal at any time, continually refining the question until it sparks creativity.

For any goal, create a stack framed as a "How might we...?" question

2. Share important context

Once you have a great question, provide your team with a few key details to further sharpen their creative minds:

  • Relevant background information - what would someone need to know to start coming up with useful ideas? Why is this problem worth solving?
  • Learnings - what do we already know does or doesn't work well to address this problem?
  • Constraints - what are our degrees of freedom in solving this problem? What sorts of solutions are off limits? By when do we need to start testing solutions, and by when do we need to land on a final answer?
  • Success criteria - how will we know we've solved this problem?

Contrary to the cutesy saying, there is such a thing as a bad idea: one that has no chance of solving the problem. Sharing context like the above is the best way to help your team not just come up with more ideas, but good ideas.

In Factor, it's easy to keep important context top of mind. Just like a real-life bulletin board, you can write a post containing key information and pin it in place right on the problem you're solving. That way anytime someone wants to share an idea, the context is right there to prime their thinking.

Share background context to help colleagues come up with useful ideas

3. Separate idea generation and evaluation

Too often, groups talk past each other because some members are still tossing out ideas while others are trying to narrow down and pick a solution. Both lines of thinking are essential, but it can be infuriating when both are happening at the same time. To avoid this, completely separate the two using both time and visual cues:

  • Signal to your team when you are in "expansive mode", during which they should share as many ideas as possible. Now is the time to get everything on the table, so don't hold back!
  • Set a time limit - a great practice is to ask everyone to share 3 ideas in 3 minutes quietly at the beginning of a brainstorm.
  • Once you've collected ideas, tell the team that you're now in "reductive mode". If you've put a time limit on expansive mode, then this shouldn't come as a surprise. Now is when colleagues should start advocating for specific ideas and discussing how they might execute them.
  • Based on the team's conversation and your own expertise, pick a few ideas to pull forward. If an idea has a lot of enthusiasm from the team - e.g., in the form of emoji reactions - then that is a strong one to consider. But still, trust your judgment as a leader . If you see ideas that you don't think will work, it might be a sign that you have context the rest of the team needs to know. For example, you could say "I see a lot of interesting ideas that require help from operations, but during the winter holidays they're fully booked so we need ideas that don't rely on them." 
  • Keep the full set of expansive ideas in one spot and the narrowed down, reductive set in another.
  • PRO TIP: Sometimes there may be a lot of context around a problem, but you don't know what the team does and doesn't know. In those cases, do a short 3 minute brainstorm first, then share context based on the ideas. It can save lots of time and help everyone apply the context faster. 

In Factor, it's incredibly easy to collect and organize ideas related to any problem. As the team comes up with ideas in expansive mode, they should add them to the board as cards in the IDEATE column. Then, when the team switches to reductive mode, you can drag the most promising ideas into the PLAN column to signify that the team wants to test them out.

Post ideas to the IDEATE column, then drag the best ones to PLAN

4. Embrace asynchronous idea collection and discussion

Raise your hand if you have your best ideas in meetings!

...Didn't think so. Nobody does their best thinking in meetings. Inspiration typically strikes us when we're at ease or in a flow state unrelated to the problem we want to solve. You might even be cooking dinner, taking a walk, or watching TV when an exciting idea pops into your head. That's why it's so important to enable colleagues to share ideas asynchronously - i.e., outside of meetings, when they're on their own.

In addition to improving the quality of ideas and discussion around them, asynchronous ideation reduces time spent in meetings.

Raise your hand if that sounds nice! Thought so.

Asynchronous ideation is Factor's bread and butter. Whenever someone on your team thinks of an idea, they can find the relevant problem on the relevant board and drop in a new card. If you want to kick off an asynchronous ideation sprint, you can tag your team or specific colleagues, and they'll get a notification that they can respond to whenever inspiration strikes.

What's more, teams typically do a better job discussing ideas asynchronously rather than in meetings. Meetings encourage knee-jerk reactions from the biggest talkers to fill silence, resulting in low-quality thinking.

Instead, you can use Factor to have slow, deliberative, high-quality, back-and-forth communication on any problem or idea you're working through. When you have something to share and are in the mindset to share it, simply compose a short post - a few sentences or short paragraphs is best - and tag your colleagues for their thoughts. They can then respond on their own time, after they've digested what you've shared. After a few thoughtful messages back and forth - which may unfold over several days - you will likely have worked through any misalignment, all without ever jumping into a meeting or sending a single email or DM.

Discuss ideas and make decisions outside of meetings using rich-text posts

5. Categorize ideas to identify patterns and blind spots

Once you have a solid set of ideas, one of the best ways to unlock more creativity AND drive toward consensus is categorizing those ideas. For example, take our challenge around a bakery trying to make their cookies more delicious using new flavors so that they can take back market share. They might find that each of their ideas falls into one or more of several categories:

  • Changing ingredients
  • Changing the baking process
  • Special campaigns

They might notice that they have a lot of ideas around changing ingredients, but relatively few around changing the process. That might inspire them to come up with more ideas for changing the process. And so on and so forth.

In addition to stimulating new ideas, they can use these categories to help determine which types of ideas are most promising. They might realize that while changing the process is exciting, it's much easier to change the ingredients, so those are the ideas they should focus on when going into reductive mode.

It's easy - and extremely helpful - to categorize ideas in Factor. For any problem, you can create a tag - aka a "custom data field" - with a name, description, and set values. For example, our bakery team might make a tag for "Type of idea", with the values set to the three categories above. Factor then automatically tallies up how many ideas of each type the team has. You can also reorganize the board so that there is a column for each of the idea types, which would quickly show you which idea types have the most and fewest ideas.

Use custom data fields to categorize ideas, illuminating themes and blind spots

6. Use clear criteria to choose ideas

When raising a problem with your team, it's important to share background context to help guide decision-making (see step 2 above), including constraints and success criteria. You should explicitly refer back to that context when deciding which idea(s) to push forward. Every problem will have unique criteria, but some of the most common include:

  • Cost
  • Expected revenue or savings
  • Level of effort or time

Just like when categorizing ideas, you can use custom data fields in Factor to tag ideas based on decision criteria. For example, you could create two tags - Effort and Impact - each with the values High, Medium, and Low, and then tag every idea with values for both of those tags. The most promising ideas to pursue would likely be the ones marked Low Effort and High Impact - which you can use a filter to find quickly. This will help your team identify "low-hanging fruit" that they can "pick" immediately to drive results fast.

Use data fields like effort and impact to prioritize the best ideas and make decisions

Now you can solve any problem

By asking questions, sharing context, separating idea generation and evaluation, working asynchronously, categorizing ideas, and using clear criteria for decision-making, you can transform problem solving from a miserable slog to one of the most joyful elements of your work. Adopt these strategies to transform your team's problem-solving skills, motivate them to think creatively, and ultimately, achieve better outcomes for your customers and organization.

Try Factor to kick off a project and unlock your team.

Originally published at:

Will Corbett

Will is Vega Factor's Head of Growth as well as the leader of Vega's Education practice, working with districts around the country to address inequities and infuse learning with play. With nearly a decade of experience in performance coaching, Will specializes in helping team leaders, directors, and executives unlock problem solving and inclusive collaboration. In addition to the Education space, he has coached hard-charging leaders in nonprofits, hospitals, healthtech, finance, real estate, and more. Outside of work, Will performs in New York's underground hip hop scene and builds user-facing products to solve common human challenges (e.g., how to build motivation and follow-through for exercise).

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