How to Break a Team Out of Its Rut and Spark New Ideas

Jan 23, 2017
13 Min Read
How to Break a Team Out of Its Rut and Spark New Ideas

How to Break a Team Out of Its Rut and Spark New Ideas


No matter how talented a team may be, sooner or later they may fall into a rut. Ideas seem stale. Solutions are the same old, same old. It’s not as if everyone has given up, but rather that approaches seem less inspired.

The challenge for leaders: finding a way to jump-start the team and then keep it from falling back into that rut. But how do you take such action quickly and effectively without jeopardizing customer satisfaction or a competitive edge?

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Bernhard Schroeder, director at the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center at San Diego State University, often challenges his students to come up with better solutions to problems. He’s also worked with companies like Amazon and Nike and mentored various startup founders.

Schroeder says to keep teams continually thinking up fresh ideas, company leaders must send a strong and consistent message to team members that their continuous growth is a priority. As part of that effort, team members must learn to “neutralize any weakness and make it a strength,” Schroeder says.

For example, Schroeder recalls a young man who had “superstar potential” but couldn’t communicate well.

“I told him, ‘I love you on the project management side, but your communications suck.’ I told him I was sending him to a six-week Dale Carnegie course and you know why? Because I wanted him to know that he was a potential superstar and he wasn’t done learning,” he says.

Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist, finds in her research that the most creative people are polymaths – people who have broad interests in many fields.  She’s also determined that “high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life.” However, those with creative ideas do work much harder than the average people “and that’s usually because they love their work,” she says.

In her research, Andreasen explains that she was always curious about what made some people better at coming up with creative ideas or solutions and says she found that such people “are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections and seeing things in an original way – seeing things that others cannot see.”

Start With a "Growth Mindset"

Other research from the Harvard Business Review finds that creativity is 20% inherited inclination and 80% learned behavior.

Schroeder believes that any team can turn out better ideas, as long as the right techniques are put in place to spur them to greatness. The key: having team members with a “growth mindset.”

“We must believe that we can learn and grow our intelligence beyond what we were born with,” he says. “We need to assemble diverse teams of people who think different but all agree on the problem at hand and strive to solve it together.”

In a new book, “Simply Brilliant: Powerful Techniques to Unlock Your Creativity and Spark New ideas,” Schroeder suggests one of the biggest obstacles to teams churning out better ideas consistently is that they often don’t know what problem they’re trying to solve. Why not? Because teams simply fail to ask the right questions so they can identify the problem, he says.

“I cannot tell you how many brain cells I have lost in brainstorming meetings that were such a waste of time because we didn’t even know what the problem was,” he says.

That’s where the CIA comes in handy – or at least a method the agency uses to help with tough or cold cases, Schroeder says.

The “Phoenix List” used by the CIA is helpful when a team is stumped, he explains, because it uses simple but smart questions to help define a clear vision of the issues involved. Some questions from the list include:

  • Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
  • What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
  • What is the unknown?
  • What is it you don’t understand yet?
  • What is the information you have?
  • What isn’t the problem?
  • Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem?
  • What would you like the resolution to be? Can you picture it?
  • What have others done?
  • Who will be responsible for what?
  • What milestones can best mark your progress?
  • How will you know when you are successful?

“The key is to not overreact to what you see going wrong. Peel back the layers and really look at what is a symptom and what is a problem,” Schroeder says.

Further, leaders may want to ensure they’re not pushing teams too hard. Andreasen says her research of people who come up with new or better ideas finds that “almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.”

Specifically, one subject in her study explained that he might be watching television or reading a book, and he makes a connection that “may have nothing to do with what I am doing, but somehow or other you see something or hear something or do something, and it pops that connection together.”

Leaders who want teams to keep ideas churning should also seek out members who are interested in learning new things, even if it’s not something that will directly lead to a promotion or more responsibilities.

Andreasen says her research shows that people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are autodidacts – “they like to teach themselves rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings.”

“Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting,” she says. “They prefer to learn on their own.”

Process Improvement Playbook

Customer Truths

When trying to discover problems and find new ways solve them, many teams forget about a key component in that equation: the customer.

“When you look to solve a customer problem, you need to validate that it’s a real pain point with potential customers so that when you look to create solutions, they actually need to solve the problem,” Schroeder says.

He suggests teams will be better able to find the best solutions for customers if they:

  • Hang out with them. Teams need to observe how customers interact and purchase products and services that are being targeted for improvement.
  • Act like them. Teams should buy their own products, then those of the competition. What was better or different about the shopping experience? What can be learned by walking in the customer’s shoes?
  • Get closer. By talking to the people who sell a product, teams will get another perspective of those who work closely with customers. What problems do they see? What are common complaints by customers?
  • Go undercover. To get a true picture of what’s happening with the customer, teams should try shadowing employees who deal daily with customers or put themselves in a customer environment for a day. This will give them a chance to learn what they don’t know. “I’m shocked at how many companies don’t spend time in their customer’s environment. They may do focus groups, but they never learn anything earth-shattering,” Schroeder says.
  • Talk to them. While this seems obvious, “I cannot tell you how many corporate leaders and entrepreneurs fall out of touch with their customers,” Schroeder says.  Listen for problems, then determine if there is a potential solution that meets their needs, not their wants, he says.

Schroeder points out that many product development teams want to “scratch their own itch” and focus on the product they want to see in the marketplace.

“They are the worst kind of customer,” he says. “They are their own customer.”

As competition increases, the number of products grows and attention spans decrease, teams have to focus on “must-have” products instead of “nice-to-have” products, he says.

Just as Google made online searches better and Amazon simplified online buying, teams must focus on solving painful problems for customers and solving a pressing need.

“Every good product solves some sort of problem. Even video or app-based games solve a problem – they provide a way for people to unwind after a stressful day and fulfill a fantasy,” he says. “If you want to be successful, your natural response to any given problem should always be to ask yourself how you can solve that problem.”

Leaders that encourage teams to focus on how to solve a problem – and not who is to blame for it – will find that problem-solving becomes a habit, he says.

“As you become alert to problems with no solutions, you become alert to new ways to create, grow, develop and innovate new products,” Schroeder says.


Now that you know how to break your team out of its rut, think about eliminating those manual processes that make you inefficient.  Download the Process Improvement Playbook to start improving your processes today.

Process Improvement Playbook - Overcoming Manual Processes in the Workplace


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