One of my favorite ways to start a presentation to a team of employees, whether it’s sales, marketing, customer service, or just about any team seeking new ways to inspire innovative thinking, is with the following exercise:

I ask everyone to write down the name of a company or product that they absolutely love, and are loyal customers to that brand. It should be a product or company that they spread the word about even though they are not on the payroll.

Go ahead and play along! Take a second to write down the name of a company that you absolutely love.

In seconds, you see people smile as they jot down their answer. Immediately, they are in a better mood.

One of my favorite companies is Porter Airlines based here in Toronto. It’s a little regional airline that just gets it. Yes you read that correctly: an airline gets it.

In an industry known for poor customer service, Porter treats everyone like a first class customer. From the little things like having employees that actually smile, to the free newspapers, coffee, cookies, wifi and much more in their private lounges. And to top it all off, they serve free alcohol on their flights.

Compare that experience to how you usually feel about a trip to the airport.

OK, back to the group of employees I am presenting to. We go around the room, and people can’t wait to share their answer, and to tell the group why they are raving fans of their favorite companies.

I record their answers on flip chart paper:

  • Outstanding customer service
  • They make me feel special
  • Exceptional quality
  • They are always innovating
  • They go above and beyond
  • They get me
  • They are quirky
  • They take care of my problems quickly

And the list goes on. What all these companies have in common is that they are creative, innovative, and are always evolving to create a unique and memorable experience for their customers.

I then step back and look at the long list, and ask “how many of these thing do you do here at Company XYZ?”

Silence. Awkward silence, where everyone suddenly gets very interested in looking at their shoes, and definitely not interested in making eye contact with me.

People recognize great companies when they see them, but often get stuck when it comes to nurturing those qualities in their own business. Furthermore, with the rapid pace of constant change, they get bogged down in keeping up with daily operations, and lack the time and bandwidth to find innovative ways to create exceptional customer experiences, or inspire innovative thinking in their teams.

Here are my top tips to help you inspire innovation, and get better results:

Borrow Ideas from Other Industries

Often we hang out mostly with people from our own industry. The problem is we see the world through a very similar lens. Bankers think like bankers, lawyers think like lawyers, you get the idea.

To get started, simply copy the exercise that I shared in the introduction. Think through the answers in relation to a challenge you are currently facing. If you’re suffering from slow customer response times, look to businesses in other fields that excel in that area. A high customer churn rate? Figure out which businesses inspire loyalty, and look for inspiration in their services. Do some research and ask around. Make a list of your team’s five favorite companies (bonus points if they aren’t in your space), and brainstorm how you think they would handle your current challenges.

Start in a Small Way

There is a great book called The Spirit of Kaizen by Jakob Browning, that discusses the anxieties and challenges that often accompany change.

Often when we hear the words “innovation,” or “creativity,” our minds draw a blank. Maybe you think back to high school art class and think “I’ve never been creative,” or you just don’t know how to start the process of being innovative. I love how this is explained in the book:

“When you need to make a change, there are two basic strategies you can use: innovation and kaizen. Innovation calls for a radical, immediate rethink of the status quo. Kaizen, on the other hand, asks for nothing other than small, doable steps toward improvement.”

Sounds good, but how do we start with small steps? For example, in your next meeting, ask the group questions like: “What is one thing we can do today to make our customers feel special?” Or, “what is one bottleneck or roadblock that we can remove?”

“For reasons that nobody truly understands, the brain cannot reject small questions. Any small question, especially one you ask repeatedly, prompts your brain to begin its own Google search.”

One client I work with asked this question to his team: “What one thing we could eliminate today that would make your day?” Each of the six people on the team wrote down their answer on an index card. Five out of the six had a version of the same answer: “fewer meetings that require the entire team to be present.”

The team leader was surprised that nobody had ever mentioned this before. It opened up a real conversation with the team, and they started coming up with solutions. In a matter of ten minutes, they made a small change and piloted a program that only had one team member on each call. Six months later, the pilot is the new way of doing business for their team and everyone is loving it—and getting better results.

Only when we start asking the “small” questions can we experience BIG change.

Rethink the Lunch and Learn

Don’t get me wrong, two things I love are food and learning. Don’t ditch the concept, just rethink your approach. There are plenty of ways to combine eating and learning that don’t include listening to someone drone on from the front of the room. Here are a few ways to upgrade your next learning event. 

1) Host a TED Party

I am a big fan of TED talks, and talk about a library of choices. I just went on the site and found 215 talks on innovation! Best of all the talks are free to view, and are each less than 20 minutes.

Pick a talk, create an event (serving food helps), watch and have discussion questions ready for after the talk. Super easy, fun, and productive.

2) Take a Field Trip

Remember back in school how excited you were about taking a field trip? You got to leave behind your school and routines for a day. Changing your environments changes your thinking and opens you up to new possibilities.

Where you go is entirely up to you. I once worked with a team in NYC and suggested the idea of going to the American Girl Store on 5th Avenue, and brought some guiding questions like:

  • What was your first impression?
  • What do they do well?
  • What is one thing we could learn and apply immediately?

Even a short trip can inspire innovative thinking, and help you make connections that aren’t evident from your usual workspace.

3) Talk to Me About Having Better Conversations at Work

In just over an hour a month, I can help your team develop a learning culture that is embedded in the context of your daily operations, provides micro learning when you need it most, and results in sustainable behavior change. Sound too good to be true? Give me a call and I’ll tell you how.

We all want our organizations to succeed and thrive, and to inspire the kind of loyalty and enthusiasm that I see when I run my exercise discussing the companies that people love.

As the business landscape continues to undergo rapid and constant shifts, we can no longer rely on stability in the market (if we ever could), and need to be thinking creatively and strategically to stay ahead of the shifts.

Use these approaches to inspire innovative thinking with your team. What other creative tactics do you have for approaching problems with an innovative mindset?