Editor’s note: Erica M. Ruyle is vice president, qualitative insights at research firm Maru/Matchbox, Chicago. 

Quick! Close your eyes. Wait – finish reading the next few lines first before you do that. I want you to think of five new coffee-style drinks that would be as popular, if not more so, than anything currently available. 

Got it? Go!

Ding! Welcome back. How’d you do? Did you find the next big coffee-style drink that’s going to be a smash hit? Yes? Maybe? No?

If yes, amazing! Can you throw some credit my way? Maybe name a drink after me? 

If your answer is no, it’s OK. The truth is, you weren’t set up to succeed. New ideas don’t just come out of thin air; they are formed when there is a radical shift in thinking. New forms of thinking require new experiences, which can be achieved through the youthful imagination of play. This frame of mind isn’t easy to achieve as an adult, and is even harder in a corporate environment where you are expected to produce amazing results with the status quo of the day-to-day grind.

Imagine this (no need to close your eyes this time): you take two groups of children – who are arguably the best at dreaming new imaginative ways of play – and ask them to come up with something new that kids their age would like. Both groups are the same in every way, but one group has a playground assortment to fuel their task, both in environment and tools. The second group is in a plain room with only lined paper and pencils. 

Group 1 has a teacher to give them guidance, feed them thought starters and provide encouragement, challenging them to keep thinking crazier and wilder – just don’t stop coming up with ideas! Group 2 is simply told to “think of something.” Beyond that, they have no help. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Even children who are the masters of imaginative play have a hard time coming up with something truly spectacular in Group 2. Can you imagine doing that with a group of adults whose creativity has lain dormant for years? We have a lot we can learn from children by adopting a playground approach to research methods.

Breaking down the conventional walls

Market research best illuminates when the creative playground is put to work, and never more so than when it involves ideation, co-creation or spark sessions, as these break down the conventional walls of thinking. These sessions are best conducted with the three f’s of creative research: fast, fun and fervor. This creative playground approach gives participants (whether consumers, stakeholders or colleagues) the structured means to play.  

Cultivating a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity means playing at work, which in turn provides the space needed to be flexible, motivated, lighthearted, inspired and less stressed. This ultimately allows for transformative thinking, going beyond the conventional. Of course, you also have to set rules – build the playground. One of the most important rules is banishing the negative consequences conventionally associated with wild and creative thought. Individuals often need to be reassured that they have permission to think unconventionally. 

Building the playground

Providing inspiration is integral to creative thought. As a researcher working with people, whether consumers or clients, my job is to build the playground that inspires those within to create. Sessions and activities are purposely designed and carefully engineered to be lighthearted and fun (the often forbidden f-word in the business world). It’s like being the wizard behind to curtain – magic happens but there is a lot of work that goes into making that magic. 

I have conducted quite a few sessions where creative thinking is instrumental to answering an important research question. Just asking you to think differently with no real direction as to how doesn’t actually help. Varying backgrounds, education and experiences all come together and it’s my job to provide the tools of play which will allow people to break away from conventional thinking. Even when a group of very rational individuals, such as engineers, are given the right tools, magic can and does happen. The only requirement for this type of creative research is that the participants are open to the experience.  

It was during one such session with a client in the auto industry that we didn’t just break down the walls, we smashed them. This mixed group of stakeholders, including a large contingent of engineers, had done a number of internal ideation sessions and always hit the same roadblocks ending up with no more ideas than when they started with. The problem? They kept thinking about the issue the same way and with the same viewpoint. 

Over the course of two days we had them playing in different sandboxes, allowing them to think in new ways. We presented them with a myriad of different activities; they had to work fast to avoid overthinking it and think differently each time to keep the mind moving. In one such exercise, each team was given a children’s book and told to imagine they were a character from the book. What type of vehicle did they (that character) need? What features would best fit their situation? 

Instead of thinking about a family heading out on vacation or a person commuting to work, they had to think about what a pigeon who wants to drive the bus would need (after all, that poor pigeon keeps getting told he can’t drive the bus!). Or in an alternative worlds exercise, they were given fictional worlds such as Harry Potter, Wild Wild West (yes, that Will Smith movie) or The Walking Dead. What type of vehicle fit their world? What would that vehicle look like? What could exist there? We wanted the brain to tap into what was known but not be held down by the same conventions used to solve past problems. 

We even brought vehicles into the garage, put participants in them and then deprived them of their senses. Wearing blindfolds or noise cancelling earphones we asked them to imagine particular scenarios – parking, family vacations, towing, etc., but to figure out how you would do that with the lack of certain senses. The more real you can make a situation the better. If, for example, you’re designing for occasion-based concepts or ideas, setting up scenario spaces gives them even more fuel to think. Through reframing the question along with reframing their world, they were able to generate hundreds of new ideas, several of which generated patents. 

A creative spark 

Ultimately, we don’t always need the entire playground. Sometimes, we just need a piece of inspiration along with a creative spark. With the right planning and tool set, even the most reluctant can be brought along. Remember, asking someone to think differently with no real direction as to how doesn’t help them to actually think differently. We need to bring the playground back, and then we need to play hard. Doing so will spark a dynamic shift in thinking, and that is when the real magic in market research can happen.