“Building a Fire from Ice” Teaches Innovation Lessons

Building a Fire from IceMy daughter’s Brownie Troop embarked on an outdoor excursion one February evening in Minnesota, about 15 years ago. We were on a weekend retreat, and I’d signed up to build a fire in an outdoor fire ring. Meanwhile the other moms would take the girls to a pond for a curling match. Arriving at the fire pit, everyone moaned to see a random collection of half-burnt logs frozen solid in a bed of ice. “So much for the fire!” The troop marched onward to the pond.

One other mom was assigned to help me so she stayed back. Fortunately, I’d arrived with supplies: plenty of kindling, newspaper, and logs. The frozen mass presented a challenge. After a little reflection, I decided that the tipi-style fire construction would work best. (This structure creates a chimney for heat to gather and smoke to escape.) The fire could get established while the icy foundation melted. I kept adding kindling and paper to coax the flames along. Once the fire took hold, I piled on more logs to fuel the flames. When the troop returned from their curling game, everyone exclaimed about the blazing fire. We gathered around the fire for songs, stories, and warmth.

Afterwards, a few moms who were friends of mine expressed amazement that I pulled off the fire challenge. They told my husband, “You won’t believe that Jean figured out how to start the fire.” Knowing my fire-building skills, he replied, “I know that Jean can build a fire.”

I learned how to build campfires growing up in a family that did a lot of camping. Also, in college I lived in a house that was heated by a wood stove. During that cold Wisconsin winter I mastered the craft of fire building. I learned how to kindle a fire without excessive smoke and keep it in control. In the warmth and comfort of these fires, I relished the magic of flickering flames with their ethereal essence and elusive patterns.

Of all the fires I’ve built before and after, the blazing Girl Scout campfire remains my most triumphant one. It also started my fascination with the interaction between fire and ice. One of my newer hobbies is making luminary ice candles. These two extremely opposite elements create a magical scene.

Campfire Storytelling Can Fuel Innovation


When alone, staring into a fire draws me into peaceful reflections and my worries fade away. Curling up with a book in front of a fireplace ignites my imagination, transporting me to other places and times. Making luminary candles in ice pillars enchants me. While fires nurture these solitary activities, I also love to draw people together around a campfire.

There is nothing like a campfire to get people in the mood for telling stories. Someone tells a tale and before you know it, stories ping-pong around the fire. Archeology suggests that civilizations formed when humans mastered fire and shared wisdom through stories. Perhaps the warmth and glow of a crackling fire kindles our inherent desire to connect with others and form communities.

In Once Upon an Innovation, we describe a technique that simulates a campfire to inspire storytelling to solve business challenges. This activity attempts to create the mood and environment of a campfire—relaxed, comfortable, trusting, and organic—where participants feel free to share stories and give witness to other peoples’ stories. Simulating a campfire circle is a quick and easy way to collect stories from groups of people (project teams, stakeholders, consumers, and end-users).


Stories open up imaginative thinking, which helps a team develop a vision. We like to use elements of the Discovery Phase of Appreciative Inquiry, in which individual team members conjure memories about a “best” experience that relates to the business challenge. They craft a story about this memory, then share their stories with small groups in Campfire Story Circles. Participants find common themes among their stories and start to identify their hopes and dreams for the future. Through story sharing and open dialogue, individual visions become a shared vision for the organization.

Discovery and Clarification

During the phase of understanding and clarifying the challenge, Campfire Story Circles help a team extract meaning out of the data they’ve gathered. By sharing stories along with data and analytics, a team gains empathy, clarifies insights, and understands the why. Team members can share stories they observed in ethnographic work with users. Or they can tell stories about their own experiences with a product or service (or an analogous product or service). For example, if a doctor’s office or wellness program wants to improve its quality of care, participants could share their best and worst healthcare experiences. Or use story circles with consumers to gather stories about their unmet needs and how they use a product or service.


Campfires Story Circles are also effective in ideation. This technique sparks the flow of ideas and gets participants in a freewheeling mood. Simulate the spontaneous energy that campfires ignite. Start by sharing a story or story prompt and, like kindling on a fire, soon their stories will flow naturally. After the story circle, lead the team through an idea-generating exercise and capture the ideas. Chances are the ideas will be imaginative and rich with emotional context.

How to Facilitate a Campfire Story Circle Exercise

It’s easy to lead this activity in either virtual or live sessions. Divide participants into groups of four to five. In virtual settings, use Zoom Rooms or the equivalent technology on MS Teams or WebEx. Instruct the participants to turn on their cameras and use the Gallery setting, so everyone’s face is equal size.

In a live setting, you can add a few more touches to create the mood of a campfire:

  • Set up a circle of chairs or seat everyone around a table.
  • Dim the lights to create the atmosphere of a campfire.
  • Download a campfire app onto a mobile device (numerous options include images of flickering flames accompanied by the crackling sounds of a fire burning). Put this “burning fire” in the middle of the circle.

Campfire Story Circles do not require a lot of instruction before you send them into break-out groups. A simple story prompt related to the project is all you need. Stories beget stories, so once someone starts sharing, other stories spontaneously flow. During Discovery and Clarification, as well as Ideation, exercises, we like to keep the story circles pretty unstructured. But this technique works equally well for participants to share stories they’ve crafted and find common themes.

If it’s important to capture the stories accurately, use an audio recording rather than scribing on a flip chart to keep the conversation flowing naturally. Ask each group to identify the best story (based on whatever criteria they decide) from their discussion along with the insight it illustrates. The small groups share their best story and insight when they rejoin the large group discussion.

Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.
—McCormick McCarthy


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  1. Curt Hottinger on March 1, 2021 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks for the great article!!
    Campfires are magical 🔥

  2. Peter A Seymour on March 1, 2021 at 7:02 pm

    Ok. Ok. But WHAT ABOUT S’MORES????

  3. Peter A Seymour on March 1, 2021 at 7:02 pm

    Ok. Ok. But WHAT ABOUT S’MORES????

    • Jean Storlie on March 1, 2021 at 7:20 pm

      I’m sure that some other mom’s brought stuff for s’mores! Personally, I enjoy roasting a perfectly toasted marshmallow. But I hate the taste of s’mores.

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