Inspire initiative: Create a field to play in

Donna Rae Smith

Donna Rae Smith

IBM recently polled 1,500 CEOs across 60 countries. Eighty percent of the respondents said the business environment is growing so complex that it literally demands new ways of thinking.

Roger is keenly aware of the need to think differently. He heads his company’s internal product incubator — a team of world-renowned researchers and technicians under significant pressure to identify new opportunities and develop innovative products that will ensure continued success for the company.

Although the team has been successful in developing new ideas when triggered by specific business needs, Roger wished the team would take the initiative to develop ideas without these prompts. He longed for a pipeline full to the brim of revolutionary ideas beyond those requested. Roger researched innovation and brainstorming. He read every best-seller on the topic. He scheduled meetings — he titled them things like, “Let’s get creative.” He modeled his meeting space after places like design and innovation consultancy IDEO, thinking there was no way his team couldn’t be creative surrounded by mountains of Post-it notes and Play-Doh.

But, it didn’t work.

In Roger’s quest for really new ideas, he didn’t give his employees much direction. He didn’t want to limit or direct their thinking. He wanted them to take the initiative and not wait for a specific need to surface. The problem is that in his attempt to remove all boundaries, he unintentionally created barriers. People have a hard time when given an ambiguous challenge without any direction. They have no reference point and the scope is too broad. We often see talented, qualified people give up without really trying because they believe they can’t do it, which was the case with Roger’s team.

The good news is that with just a little direction and some useful boundaries, you can give people a place to start and inspire them to take the initiative to go from there. We recommended Roger try the five-minute burst exercise.

At the start of their weekly meetings, Roger posed a specific question to his team, “What if we could … ?” and together, they generated as many ideas as possible in five minutes. The objective was to come up with an extreme number of new ideas. They didn’t need to be fully baked ideas — just nuggets to be researched, analyzed and tested later. At the end of the five minutes, Roger said, “Again.” For the next five minutes, they came up with a whole set of new ideas.

The outcome was dramatic. The team members not only replicated these bursts throughout many of their scheduled meetings, but they also began taking the initiative to generate and consider ideas on their own. They loaded the pipeline with viable, breakthrough ideas in a very short time.

Do you need your team to start thinking differently? Inspire them to take the initiative by giving them some necessary guardrails and tools:

Give them a field to play in.

Create useful boundaries to stimulate their thinking. The five-minute burst tool works well because the time constraint and volume expectations sharpen their focus and energy.

Ask a question.

A question helps direct their thinking to a specific topic. The question format is especially useful because it naturally stimulates a response.


Celebrate ideas for quantity, not quality at this stage. The objective is to generate enough ideas that a few make it through all the hurdles of viability. Not all the ideas have to be good ones; this takes the pressure off and lets the creative juices flow.


Use the five-minute burst tool often for not only the results you’re sure to get but also as a way to practice the behaviors you want your team to master, like taking initiative for unconventional thinking.

Donna Rae Smith is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a behavioral strategy company that teaches leaders to be masters of change. For more than two decades, Donna Rae Smith and the Bright Side team have been recognized as innovators in organizational and leadership development and the key partner to more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, please visit or contact Smith at [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *