Great business ideas might seem like bolts from the blue. But modern science shows that, while there's always some degree of mystery to creativity, you don't just have to sit there tapping your pencil waiting for the muse's arrival. There are plenty of things that will make it more likely a great idea will strike. 

Cultivating diverse and seemingly unrelated interests, leaving empty space in your schedule for ideas to "marinate," and getting away from overly fixed routines are all great long-term ways to boost creativity. There are short-term options as well (just taking a walk is among the easiest, though there are plenty of wackier suggestions too). 

Now Stanford executive director Sarah Stein Greenberg has another out-of-the-box suggestion to add to this list: use the contents of your fridge to boost your creativity. 

What's in your fridge? 

Her advice isn't about nutrition. Nor is it related to the incredible power of breaking bread together to bond groups. Instead, in an excerpt from her ner book,  Creative Acts for Curious People, on Insights by Stanford Stein Greenberg suggests teams that want to innovate together start by channeling their inner food influencer and taking a picture of the contents of their fridge. 

Here's the basic breakdown of this out-of-the-box but effective icebreaker for teams: 

  • Put people in pairs and ask them to share photos of the inside of their refrigerators.

  • Have each partner make observations about the other's fridge. What did they notice? What do the contents imply about the person? Put the photos side by side and note the difference. Ask a lot of why questions. 

  • If you sense you've hit an emotional nerve, probe deeper. "You know you're doing well if you start to hear family stories, embarrassed laughter, pride, fears, hopes, or rituals," Greenberg writes.

Alternately you could show pictures of your bookshelf, hall closet, or any other semi-private space and discuss in a similar way. 

Discussing your colleagues' oversupply of soda or obsession with hot sauce might seem far away from nailing that new marketing campaign or brainstorming new product features. But Stein Greenberg insists these offbeat but revealing conversations help teams innovate better together. 

"What people think they should do is often very different from what they actually do," Lia Siebert, the design pro who originally made up this exercise, explains to Stein Greenberg in her book. "In that gap lie important insights about beliefs, values, barriers, challenges, and motivations. Once you get people talking within this gap, you reveal many opportunities for creative solutions."

Why it works 

There's plenty of research to suggest that Siebert and Stein Greenberg might be on to something. "Psychological safety," or the feeling that you can bring your full messy, imperfect self to work and still be supported, has time and again been shown to be a key ingredient for high-functioning teams. Sharing a picture of last week's leftovers certainly helps build it. 

The very wackiness of this exercise might also help boost creativity too. One study a few years back showed sharing embarrassing stories with your team before a brainstorming session increased the number of ideas generated by 26 percent. The researchers suspected that laughing at themselves before the session helped participants loosen up and suggest more outlandish and ultimately more creative ideas. I imagine it would be hard to get through this fridge exercise without at least a few giggles. 

So next time you're looking to gather your team together to solve a tough problem or come up with a groundbreaking idea, consider asking them to bring a picture of their fridge (or bookcase) with them. Sharing these images will help make your team more honest and more open, and that can only be good for creativity.