Creative project team thinking

Robert Tettelbach, PMP Oxley Enterprises, Inc., Director of Consulting

John Eubanks, Oxley Enterprises, Inc., Associate Consultant

Sam Papkin, Oxley Enterprises, Inc., Senior Consultant


Creativity and innovation are not present in all companies. Yet, it can yield the cutting edge idea that transforms how an organization takes a product to market and set the organization aside from its competitors. This paper will address the environment needed for innovation, brainstorming techniques, and problem solving techniques.

Creating an Environment Conducive for Creative Thinking

Companies are looking for the competitive edge. They need to do things faster, cheaper, and better. Companies rely on their number one resource, their people, in order to stay competitive. Often, however, employees do not have the environment in order to improve the company's products or services. In order for employees to be innovative, the environment must stimulate creativity and exhibit the types of behaviours that accompany the creative mind set.

There are nine dimensions required in order for an innovative environment to exist (Prather, 1999, ¶9):

  1. The work must be challenging,
  2. Employees must have freedom to decide how they are to do the work,
  3. Employees have time to think about things before making a decision and acting upon it,
  4. Some new ideas are tried out,
  5. Employees believe it is safe to speak their minds,
  6. The environment is fun,
  7. The environment has little conflict,
  8. Employees are able to debate about issues, and
  9. Employees know it is ok fail.

These dimensions comprise that optimum environment where employees believe they can make a difference and have the support necessary to do so. At the same time, they are not stagnant and do not have to conform to the way it has always been done.

Employees must be free to ask why (Semler, 2004). Why are we doing something this way? Why have we always done it that way? When employees become stagnant and go through the motions, many opportunities for improvement are overlooked. Successfully implemented employee ideas may be the stimulus for differentiation in the marketplace.

Next, the techniques that inspire creativity are investigated.

Brainstorming Techniques

There are many brainstorming techniques. The following techniques will be described: individual brainstorming, team brainstorming, and nominal group brainstorming.

Individual Brainstorming

Individual brainstorming, a problem-solving method, stimulates creative thought through various techniques and exercises. Some of the most popular techniques are free writing, word associations, and spider-webs.

Free Writing

Free writing stimulates creative thought through duration and continuity. Individual prospective free writers should create an environment in which they may work uninterrupted (Osborn, 1960). Then they set an alarm for a chosen point of time and begin to write. The pen should not leave the paper until the alarm sounds. Free writing ignores grammar and spelling during a free writing session, as they aim solely to generate a variety of ideas.


Word-association entails writing a list of words and forcing those words to relate to the topic at hand. This causes the individual to develop far-fetched and creative ideas in large quantities. The ideas may bear only a very loose relationship to the words (Osborn, 1960).

Spider Webs

A spider web is a visual note taking technique in which a thought process is diagramed. By using a spider web, one idea will stimulate many other related ideas (Mind Tools, 2005). See Exhibit 1.

  1. 1. Put the topic or the problem in a circle in the middle of a page.
  2. 2. Draw lines out from the circle for subject headings. These subject headings are just possible ideas for solutions to the problem. Label this #2 to help organize the thought process visually.
  3. 3. Draw lines out subject heading and write an idea-- any idea--related to these subject headings. Label these items #3.
  4. 4. Continue to create more layers for the allotted amount of brainstorming time. Do not try to create a perfectly symmetric spider web but write freely and follow any train of thought without critique.
Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Team Brainstorming

In team brainstorming, the participants are encouraged and expected to share their ideas with one another as soon as they are generated (Siau, 1997). As ideas come to mind, they are captured and stimulate the development of better ideas.

Brainstorming sessions have four basic rules:

  • – As many ideas as possible
  • – No idea is out of place
  • – Innovation is welcome
  • – Combine and improve ideas

Short Brainstorming Session

Brainstorming is very well suited for ad-hoc problem solving. A short brainstorm session can be applied in many occasions where a quick solution is needed (Siau, 1997). Examples include: students working on a project, a support team looking for a quick solution for their customer, or a project team who has to deal with the illness of one of its members.

Complex Brainstorm Session

Complex brainstorming sessions have a common and set structure that is needed to ensure that productivity is met through the session. Without some consistent structure in a complex session the group can lose focus and accomplish nothing.

Set the basics around:

  • – Defining the problem
  • – What is the background/history of the problem
  • – Who are the stakeholders essential to improving the process
  • – A clear set of questions that should be asked during the session

Duet Brainstorming

Duet brainstorming is a concept that works when looking for ideas and innovation for solutions. Duet brainstorming is working with one other person and developing ideas by using each other as a sounding board. A trusted colleague can bring a unique approach.

Duet brainstorming can also provide an ally when going into a team brainstorming. Many team brainstorming activities have a tendency to become guided by a single point of view of the group for ideas and solutions. The duet brainstorming approach may allow for better and even compromised solutions the ability to be heard.

Team Brainstorming Case Study

Gartner, Inc. successfully used this technique during a world wide sales conference to develop innovative solutions to the question, “How can we improve the sales process?” The team brainstorming exercise was done with approximately 600 sales people seated at 100 tables of 6 people each. Each sales representative has a sheet of paper to list as many ideas as they could in one minute. The individually generated ideas were then passed to the left and each person had one minute to piggy back on the ideas generated by their neighbor. This piggy back process was done five times so that after only six minutes of time, each person at a table had generated individual ideas and added any additional thoughts to the ideas generated from the other people at the table.

Each table was then given five minutes to select the top ten ideas for the table. At the end of this step, there were now 1,000 ideas! Tables were then grouped together in groups of three to review the top 10 ideas of each of the three tables. Each group was given 10 minutes to review the ideas and select the top five ideas. After only 21 minutes, the world wide sales force had generated roughly 165 ideas for the Sales Management team to read and consider.

Later in the day, the list of 165 ideas was shown to the entire sales team so they could see the ideas generated and see the results of their brainstorming exercise. In this manner, each sales person had buy-in to the process and was more likely to support the changes that were subsequently made as a result of these ideas.

Indeed, this is an example of how to effectively use team brainstorming to drive substantial results within an organization.

Nominal Group Brainstorming

Nominal group technique introduces structure to the process. It is useful in ensuring that all participants have an equal say and can be used to generate a ranked list of ideas (Wellner, 2003). Typically each participant is asked to write down their ideas. Then the moderator asks each participant in turn to express one of their ideas. The moderator writes down each idea on the flip chart. Then each participant copies the group's final list on a blank page giving each idea a score. The pages are collected from each participant and the scores summed, providing a rank-ordered list.

Brainstorming techniques are helpful in getting issues and problems out on the table for a group or team. It is then necessary to utilize problem solving techniques in order to quickly rectify any issues or problems that have been identified.

Problem Solving Techniques

There are many problem solving techniques. Tools can be broken down into several categories: process analysis, cause analysis, planning, evaluation, and data collection and analysis (Tague, 1995).

Process Analysis - Relations Diagram

A relations diagram, or commonly an interrelationship diagraph, is utilized when analyzing complex issues for causes (Pyzdek, 1996). The issue is defined and then explored through brainstorming. Any ideas surrounding the issue should be captured. The ideas are then evaluated to identify if an idea is related to another idea. Arrows should be drawn connecting related ideas using in and out arrows. The arrows should be counted and the ideas with the most arrows are the key ideas. Causes are the ideas that have the most outgoing (from) arrows. Final effects are the ideas that have the most incoming (to) arrows. (Exhibit 2).

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

Cause Analysis - Cause and Effect Diagram

A cause and effect diagram, also known as a fishbone diagram or Ishikawa diagram, is a useful tool to sort information into categories (Juran, 1988). A problem statement is developed which is the effect. Next, the team brainstorms potential causes of the problem. Common headings for potential causes are: method, equipment, people, materials, measurement, and environment. Each potential cause should be evaluated into further sublevels. Two to three layers should be explored. (Exhibit 3)

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

Planning - Flowchart

A flowchart is a tool that can be utilized by the team to flow out a process to identify problems or bottlenecks (Griffith, 2000). It is a diagram of the sequential steps in a process. The team brainstorms all the steps in the process without considering sequence. The steps are then arranged into sequence. Decision points should be evaluated more closely to see if all steps have been captured. Identify inputs and outputs and place them properly in sequence. (Exhibit 4)

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 4

Evaluation - Multi-voting

Multi-voting is a popular technique to narrow down priorities (Cochran, 2003). Number the list of items. Identify how many votes each member has. Members vote. Drop the lowest items off the list (5 or less members – items less than 3 votes, 6 – 15 members – items less than 4 votes). Members vote again. Go through the process until the final item or top items surface.

Data Collection and Analysis - Importance-Performance Analysis

Teams may utilize the importance-performance analysis technique to assist in focusing on those items that are most important (Tague, 1995). Key customers are asked to rate the importance and performance of services using a scale of 1 – 5. For importance, the following rating scale is used: 1 – not needed, 2 – nice to have, but not necessary, 3 – of some value, 4 – important, and 5 – critical. For performance, the following rating scale is used: 1 – consistently lacking, 2 – needs some improvement, 3 – adequate, 4 – exceeds expectations, and 5 – greatly exceeds expectations. Teams can also rate themselves for comparative purposes. The information is then plotted. (Exhibit 5)

Exhibit 5

Exhibit 5


There are many techniques that can be utilized to establish a creative environment for employees and teams. Brainstorming techniques are useful to generate large quantities of ideas and to prioritize the most important ideas to the team. Problem solving techniques are valuable to assess processes, causes, planning, evaluation, and data collection. Engaging employees with these techniques establishes the creative mind set for innovative ideas that set companies aside from their competition.


Cochran, C. (2003). The continual improvement process. Paton Press: Chico, CA.

Griffith, G. K. (2000). The quality technician's handbook, (4th ed.). Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Juran, J. M., & Gryna, F. M. (1988). Juran's quality control handbook (4th ed.). McGraw Hill: NY.

Mind Tools. MindMaps: A powerful approach to taking notes. Retrieved on September 17, 2005 from

Osborn, A. F. (1960). Applied imagination: Principals and procedures of creative thinking. New York: Scribner.

Prather, C. W. (1999). How is your climate for innovation? Retrieved August 1, 2006 from

Pyzdek, T. (1996). The complete guide to the CQM. Quality Publishing, Tucson, AZ.

Semler, R. (2004). The seven-day weekend. Penguin Group: NY.

Siau, Keng L. (1997). Electronic brainstorming. Innovative Leader, 6(4): 251-300.

Tague, N. R. (1995). The quality toolbox. ASQ Quality Press: Milwaukee, WI.

Wellner, A. S. (2003). A perfect brainstorm. Magazine.

© 2006, Oxley Enterprises, Inc.
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Santiago, Chile



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