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5 lessons about innovation from the New York Times spelling bee

When you think you’ve thought of everything, you haven’t.

5 lessons about innovation from the New York Times spelling bee
[KOTO /AdobeStock]

Confession: I’m obsessed with Spelling Bee, a word game published daily by The New York Times as part of its games collection.

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For the uninitiated, the game is simple: You’re given seven letters arranged in a honeycomb shape. Your task is to see how many words you can form using those letters, with the catch that each word you form must include the letter at the center of the honeycomb. The more (and longer) words you form, the more points you’re awarded; the highest points are reserved for words that use all seven letters.

My wife and I play almost daily, competing to see who can score higher (she can), and we’re not alone. There’s a whole community called the Hivemind built around the game, and an entire vernacular to discuss the puzzles. “Queen Bee,” for example, refers to someone who finds all possible words for a given day’s puzzle; “Queen Bee All By Myself” refers to someone who does that without help or hints.

As someone who spends my days helping companies think about innovation, I can’t help but see similarities between the word game and best practices around the process of ideation. Given that, below are five ideation lessons you can learn from the NYT Spelling Bee.

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WHEN YOU THINK YOU’RE OUT OF IDEAS, YOU’RE NOT

One of the unique aspects of Spelling Bee is that you can constantly see how your score stacks up to the total possible points in the puzzle. It’s mildly infuriating to hit a point where you think you’ve exhausted every possible word, only to check your score and discover you’re far short of what’s possible.

It’s a valuable lesson that has implications for innovation, though: When you think you’ve thought of everything, you haven’t. It’s the reason I like the Crazy 8s ideation exercise in Jake Knapp’s book Sprint. The exercise calls for you to take one idea and, over eight minutes, sketch out eight different variations of the idea. It forces you to scrape the proverbial bottom of the barrel—and more often than not, that leads to ideas you hadn’t thought of yet.

CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE TO FIND NEW IDEAS

In Spelling Bee, one of the most helpful ways to find new words is to shuffle the placement of letters in the game’s honeycomb grid. Simply changing the order in which letters appear can help your brain see new patterns and identify words not previously seen.

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What does that have to do with ideation? In ideation, as in Spelling Bee, changing your perspective can help you generate ideas you hadn’t thought of previously. If I’m thinking about how to meet a particular user need, for example, in order to spark ideas, I might intentionally think about solving the need for a user who never touches technology, then shift to solving the same need for someone on a mobile phone eight or more hours a day.

BAD IDEAS CAN LEAD TO BREAKTHROUGHS

Similarly, when I get stuck in Spelling Bee, I’ll try letter combinations that I don’t expect to form real words simply because doing so helps me think of words I hadn’t seen. In today’s puzzle, for example, typing “pillet” (not a real word) led me to realize I’d missed the real word “pellet.”

It’s the same in ideation; “bad ideas” often lead to better ones. It’s the reason you’ll sometimes hear workshop facilitators claim there are no bad ideas, or even explicitly call for bad ideas as part of the brainstorming process. Those bad ideas may not have merit themselves, but they spark other, more promising ideas you may not have considered.

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TAKING A BREAK REALLY WORKS

When tackling a given day’s Spelling Bee puzzle, I’ve often experienced the dynamic of hitting a wall, convinced I’ve thought of every possible word, only to come back to the puzzle hours later to almost immediately find multiple words I’d missed the first time.

The dynamic illustrates that breaks really do pay off, especially in generative work like ideation. Psychologists report that breaks not only help relieve mental fatigue, they also help spark more creative thinking—and this is especially true when the breaks involve physical activity like walking (see this study by Stanford’s Marily Oppezzo for one such example). In ideation, then, plan for breaks to maximize thinking.

IT’S BETTER WITH A BUDDY

One of my favorite activities when completing the Spelling Bee is to compare my list of words with my wife’s list at the end of the day. Invariably, we’ll each have identified at least a few words the other missed, leading to those “how’d I miss that?!” moments. Individually we might be good at solving the daily puzzles, but together we’re great.

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The application in ideation is clear: As many ideas as you might generate alone, there’s almost always value in involving others in the process. Research has shown value in both individual and group brainstorming in terms of problem-solving. On the one hand, working with others allows you to bounce ideas around and build on one another’s thinking; on the other hand, it can promote anchoring and groupthink. Because of this, I like to use a combination of both individual and group exercises when running sessions.

Following this logic, there are very likely other ideation lessons to be gleaned from the Spelling Bee. If you’ve played the game and see something I’ve missed, let me know—and good luck both spelling and ideating.


Jake Carter is Chief Innovation Officer and Partner at Credera, a global boutique consulting firm focused on innovation, strategy, technology and data

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