Race for unconventional ideas when your idea flow stops

Race for unconventional ideas when your idea flow stops

Innovation Method
Published On:
May 22, 2023

I have been a runner all of my life. In my 20s and early 30s, I even transformed from a mediocre football player into a competitive middle-distance runner, winning championships on a regional level in my home country Germany. I also competed in prestigious international events such as racing in the European Cup for Cross-Country Championship Teams in Portugal with my club Saar 05 and —four times— the Chase Corporate Challenge in New York with the Deutsche Bank running team. So would you be surprised if I also made running part of our Ideation efforts in X-IDEA workshops? Today, let’s talk about the Idea Race, one of our Ideation Tools in the X-IDEA Toolbox, and why I like to use it for Ideation whenever there is enough time at hand.

Background: A Swiss inspiration connecting my passions for ideation and running

Running has always been an activity that I have deeply enjoyed and is an essential part of me. I love adjusting the pace between jogging, running, racing, and, at times, even sprinting before feeling exhausted but happy at the end of a run. Apart from its physical benefits and the emotional and social thrill of racing against others and yourself, running has always had a mental and even spiritual dimension for me. And here, in particular, it has always been a surefire way to give me ideas, especially when I needed them most (as explained in the article How to beat the odds of getting a Eureka).

Roughly twenty years ago, I found out in Nadja Schnetzler’s book The Idea Machine that the Swiss innovation company Brainstore included running as part of their ideation activities. The moment I read these lines, I saw  The Idea Race coming to life in my mental eye and becoming a key feature of every longer thinkergy Ideation session.

What is the Idea Race? And why is it a powerful Ideation technique?

In the Idea Race, participants in an Ideation session alternate between jotting down ideas for a challenge they tackle with their team and running a lap to collect a fresh worksheet. As such, this I Tool combines Ideation with a playful competition, helping ideators to unlock their subconscious minds.

Because the Idea Race puts time pressure on participants, they tend to stop their internal voices of judgment and ideate faster. The race format also raises the energy levels and excitement of ideators. What’s more, the mental and physical coordination needed to run activates both hemispheres of the neocortex of each idea racer. In sum, the idea race tends to produce more ideas in general and more unconventional ideas in particular compared to most other ideation techniques.

How to stage an Idea Race?

First, we remind everyone of the Final Challenge we’re working on and seeking ideas for. Then, we give one Idea Race worksheet (with space to write down five ideas) to each participant, assemble them in a special ideation zone, and brief them on the Idea Race instructions:

  • When the race starts, write five ideas on how to resolve your challenge on your Idea Race worksheet.
  • As soon as you have five ideas, run on the idea racetrack to the first station (idea check), where we will check your ideas to make sure they really are ideas.
  • Run to the second station to get a new worksheet. Keep your completed worksheets with you. Then, run back to the ideation zone.
  • Repeat the above three steps until the time is up.
  • The winner of the Idea Race is the ideator who has generated the most ideas.

Next, we start the Idea Race and keep it up for 5-8 minutes. At the end of the race, we have everyone count their ideas and celebrate and reward the winner with the highest score of real ideas.  

What to keep in mind when hosting an idea race?

We follow two maxims when selecting an appropriate race track: Work with the given environment and keep it simple. We aim to avoid any steps or “traps” on the course that might make runners stumble and pose a threat of injury. While we prefer to have the ideators race outdoors, we can also do it indoors in an event room. In the latter case, we get everyone into a central ideation space in the middle of the room and then have the idea racers run laps around this inner field.

One variation from the standard format is to require the ideators to run some part of each lap backwards. Aside from adding to the fun of the exercise, this additional constraint also has a concrete, practical benefit: Because backwards running is a highly unusual physical activity that most people rarely or never do, the extra coordination efforts activate parts in the right hemisphere of the neocortex (where most cognitive activities that are associated with creative thinking) take place. So when the idea racers return to the ideation zone after running part of their idea race lap backwards, the higher stimulation of their right brains increases the likelihood of thinking creative, original ideas.

Here is another vital aspect that we address to ensure good idea outputs: When giving out the Idea Race instructions ahead of the start of the race, our facilitators emphasize the necessity for the ideators to write down real idea sentences and not just scribble short words that cannot be read well onto the Idea Race Worksheet. A real idea is a complete sentence of at least 5-10 words about a possible course of action related to the given challenge. As such, an idea sentence needs to have a verb as an action element, such as “create,” “make,” or “use”). We alert the idea racers that we won’t count Idea Race Worksheets that mostly contain unformed ideas. The Idea Race is about running and ideating fast but in the appropriate form.

Conclusion: Running is an idea you can run with

“If you run out of ideas, follow the road; you’ll get there,” noted the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Likewise, when a group of ideators runs out of ideas toward the end of an Ideation session, have them compete and ideate in the Idea Race to get more ideas out of them. The competitive race format motivates most ideators to give their best, both ideating and running. And because the heat of the race also silences their inner critics, they come up with more and more unusual ideas. So: Ready, set, go!

  • The Idea Race is one of over 150 thinking tools in our X-IDEA Toolbox. Find out more about X-IDEA on our website or by downloading this booklet.
  • Would you like to experience the Idea Race with a group of Ideators? Then book our 3-day flagship training, The X-IDEA Innovation Playshop. Or even better, have us work with your teams on a real-life innovation challenge in an X-IDEA Innovation Project.
  • How else can we support you in achieving your innovation goals in 2023 and beyond? Contact us to tell us more about your executive agenda and get a free consultation session.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2023. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.