What can we learn about creativity from pipe cleaners?

What can we learn about creativity from pipe cleaners?
In my innovation workshops, we believe in learning from playing with ordinary objects. I’ve written recently about improving creativity using LEGO pieces. But pipe cleaners can also be very useful for exploring creativity.

What’s special about pipe cleaners? They are simply thin wires coated with some fuzzy plastic material. What can they do, besides clean tobacco-smoking pipes? What is their greatest virtue? They are infinitely flexible and can be bent into any shape, limited only by your imagination and the dexterity of your fingers. That makes them a very powerful tool to create 3-D physical representations of your thoughts. When using such a simple tool, the representations are crude, but can effectively show the essential concepts.

How does a multi-functional team respond, when challenged to come up with a new product idea? Members will typically want to demonstrate how knowledgeable and clever they are in their areas of expertise. For example, engineers might rave about all the new technical features. Marketing folks may focus on their cleverness with language. But, how do we get our team to focus on the key business question: “How and why will the new product engage customers?”

The question sounds simple, so why do we look for complicated answers? From a practical point of view, how can we get our minds to think “simply”?

Pipe Cleaners Creativity Exercise

Here’s a quick and fun “game approach”. Give the team 10 pieces of pipe cleaners. Tell them they have only 10 minutes to use the pipe cleaners to illustrate their new product idea. After 5 minutes, announce that you are taking back 5 pieces, simulating a “management decision” to cut the budget for the project. At the end of the 10 minutes, ask the team members to describe what they came up with and how they felt about the experience. What do you think they will learn?

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