Build Your Creative Confidence: The Dream/Gripe Session

May 29, 2019WORDS BY Tom Kelley

Everyone is creative. This belief runs through everything we do at IDEO, and in 2013, it led my brother David and me to write a book that would help others—even those who don’t think of themselves as “creative types”—to unleash their creative potential. Creative Confidence has inspired thousands of people to adopt a creative mindset and apply it to the diverse real-world challenges they face. In this series, we’ll share some exercises from the book that can help you approach your challenges from a new perspective.

Creativity Challenge #9: Define a problem to work on.

Innovators often face the task of which challenge to focus on, or how to frame a challenge they are given. At IDEO, we use the term “Phase 0” to describe all the activities that take place before the problem is fully defined.

Talking about problems doesn’t necessarily inspire ideas, or energize you to act on them. Nor does wishful thinking. The Dream/Gripe Session helps you translate those discussions into creative thinking challenges you can start to tackle. This tool was adapted from an exercise in the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, developed by IDEO in partnership with Riverdale Country School.

Tool: The Dream/Gripe Session
Participants: Pairs in groups of any size
Time: 15-30 minutes
Supplies: Pen and paper


Step 1: Decide on a topic for discussion. The dreams and gripes may relate to internal matters like the culture of the organization or external ones like interactions with customers.

Step 2: Pair up with another person and select one person to go first (Partner 1).

Step 3: Partner 1 airs their dreams and gripes for five to seven minutes, while Partner 2 listens and takes notes.

For example:

DREAM: “I wish we could get our customers to read the instructions.”
GRIPE: “It’s so noisy around here that I have trouble concentrating.”

Step 4: Partner 2 reframes the dreams and gripes into open-ended questions that make for good innovation challenges. We usually start with the phrase “How might we...?” A good “How Might We” question should not be so narrow that it suggests a solution (even if it’s a good idea). Initially, you're just trying to capture the problem, not jump to possible solutions. It should also not be so broad that it stymies the flow of ideas (rather than generates them). A good “How Might We” question should allow someone to easily come up with 10 different ideas.

Partner 2 should aim for three to five well-framed innovation challenges and share them with Partner 1.

For example:

GRIPE: It’s so noisy around here I have trouble concentrating.
Challenge that’s too similar: How might we reduce noise so you don’t have trouble focusing?
Challenge that’s too narrow: How might we create more private offices so employees can concentrate better?
Challenge that’s too broad: How might we help people focus?
Challenge that’s just right: How might we design the space to accommodate a range of working styles?

DREAM: I wish our staff got their expense reports in on time.
Challenge that’s too similar: How might we get people to be more timely with their expense reporting?
Challenge that’s too narrow: How might we use a smartphone app to speed expense reporting?
Challenge that’s too broad: How might we get people to have more respect for deadlines?
Challenge that's just right (with empathy for the employee): How might we simplify the expense reporting process so that people can complete it more quickly?

Step 5: Switch roles and have Partner 2 air dreams and gripes while Partner 1 listens and then offers “How Might We” innovation challenges.

Step 6 (optional): If you are doing this in a group setting, compare lists of all of the innovation challenges across the pairs. Look for patterns, themes, and common issues. This should help focus the discussion and suggest an opportunity for what innovation challenge to take on next.

This post was taken from Chapter 7 of Creative Confidence. Purchase the book for more on how to use creativity to solve problems, or read more from this series of creative exercises on the IDEO blog.

  • Executive Portfolio Director, San Francisco

    Tom Kelley is the best-selling author of Creative Confidence, The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation as well as a partner at IDEO. As a leading innovation speaker, Tom addresses scores of business audiences on how to foster a culture of innovation and tap into the creative potential of their organizations.