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Ideation Success Formula: Eight Suggestions

Apr 12, 2008
There are a lot of fancy consultants running around these days conducting "ideation" sessions. I know because I'm one of them. We all have different tools and techniques but at the end of the day, at some point, we all tend to rely on some form of brainstorming. After all, to get to a new product you need to think up a new product idea, and they don't grow on trees.

Ideation if you haven't heard the term is structured brainstorming. The structure can include pre-ideation session research (both qualitative and quantitative), highly focused objectives based on the research, and a variety of in-session techniques that on-target ideas.

Given the investment of time and money, and there is a lot of time and money invested, it's disheartening how often these sessions fail to result in producing marketable concepts. I am often asked what can be done and so without further ado, here are my eight suggestions to improve your odds for success.

First Suggestion: Don't Facilitate the Session Yourself, Get Professional Help

For a variety of reasons, the most common being cost-control, many organizations decide to facilitate their own sessions. This is not a good idea. It is amazingly hard for the already involved to stay out of content. A facilitator's first job is to be neutral and to focus on process. If your team has a facilitator on staff, and they are not on the project team, they can be ideal facilitators for a session. The point is you need an empowered and neutral party. They also need facilitation skill, ideation requires knowing a lot of tools and techniques to keep people generating ideas when they think they have run dry. New ideas don't spring forth from analytical thought; they spring forth from a mindset of openness, curiosity, wonderment, novelty, fun, and risk. That's a difficult environment to create and maintain! So, hire a professional ideation facilitator that specializes in new product ideation. Spend the money, get someone experienced, and check references.

Second Suggestion -- Allow Time for Incubation Before the Session

Unfortunately ideation sessions are often the result of a corporate emergency. You've been there -- the competition comes up with an innovation that could put you out of business or you need some sales promotion ideas by the end of next week to be in time for the holiday season. Bad news gets management motivated. The ideation session you've been putting off for months suddenly becomes a top priority with management support. That's the good news. The trigger is immediately pulled - bam - let's do the session. Now!

Everybody is flown in from the far corners of the globe overnight, and put into a hotel conference room. Everyone works hard at the session but even after an entire day generating ideas you still don't have anything special, the ideas are flat and unexciting.

There's a reason they are unexciting. Basically the participants haven't had enough time to think. Allow time for incubation of the challenge. Give participants notice of what's going to happen in advance and give them (fun) tasks that will get them thinking, a lot, about the challenge. Send any research out in advance (don't dump it all on them when they get to the session!). A homework assignment may include a shopping trip, the observation of certain products in use, and/or internet desk research. These activities will give the brain a chance to ruminate and make new combinations.

Third Suggestion: Have a Very Clear and Realistic Objective

It's amazing how often you hear the desire for "breakthrough innovation." Whatever happened to good old-fashioned improvement? Innovation -- big leap ideas -- seems to be what everyone desires, and many ideation sessions are planned with this thought in mind. A big leap objective, however, often leads to two disappointing outcomes. One is that the ideas generated (while usually worthwhile) are too general or ambitious to be realistically implemented - at least in a short timeframe. Managers might "chicken out." And two, a more specific outcome, which might be more appropriate, is not achieved.

Many ideation sessions take a u-turn back towards the immediately practical about half way through the session. Managers see the wild ideas and realize they are going to walk away with a lot of blue-sky ideas and nothing they can use right away, so they make the shift. A lot of valuable time is wasted, and you get about half of what you are looking for.

So, while it's very obvious, you have to know what you want. It's totally fine to devote an ideation session to practical ideas for improvement, in fact your odds for success are much higher than a session dedicated to breakthrough innovation. Clearly define your challenge and direct your ideation towards that specific need.

Suggestion Four: Ideate Frequently, Get Ideation Training, Use Trained Brains

Getting together the whole team is difficult in a decentralized organization; it's expensive and logistically challenging. When the effort is made to pull a group together for a big session, expectations rise. The session is viewed as the time when the magic bullet will be discovered. Let's look at your ideation team. Unless you are going out-of-house (and that is an option worth considering) your ideators are people who spend most of their time in active and complex management jobs. These jobs require constant critical analytical thinking -- and rarely imaginative thinking. So, they fly in for the pow-wow and spend two solid days idea generating. It's not at all what they are used to doing, it's not what they are trained for, and let's be honest here - as a group they are not very good at it. They try, but they tend to mental burnout very quickly.

Why wait to begin ideation until everybody is in one physical place? Why wait at all, you should be generating, and managing, ideas all the time. With email, web, and database technologies people could be contributing ideas wherever they are, and whenever the spirit moves them. Virtual sessions can be coordinated by a facilitator for highly focused efforts. Or, instead of flying everyone to a central site, organize in-person sessions at regional centers and post results to a centralized data collection site. If you want to have skilled idea generators on your team they must practice the skill. Practice in small teams, for short bursts of time, frequently! Then when the marathon session happens - your team is conditioned to handle it. Train those brains! Finally, do bring in outsiders who have creative thinking/brainstorming training - they inspire teams, and, contribute great ideas.

Suggestion Five: Invite the "Trouble Makers"

Developing the invitation list for an ideation session is a real challenge. You want your best people there, your best thinkers. You review the list of candidates. You cross folks off the list who have a history of, well, being a pain in the rear. Resist the urge, you need creative diversity to get a broader range of ideas. Make sure you invite a diverse team that includes both innovative ("different") and adaptive ("better") thinkers. The cross-pollination of different thinking styles generates the most creative solutions. The adaptors can help make the ideas of high innovators workable. The innovators can expand on small improvement ideas and add real value.

Suggestion Six: Know the Consumers Needs and Get Them Involved

When you are trying to reach a specific consumer market it makes a lot of sense to get into the consumers "head" - intimately. Consider different ways to include the consumers thinking. Perhaps invite one or more to the ideation session itself - hire their thinking. Consider having the ideation team conduct interviews of the target. Consider having the team do observational research. Then, find ways to use the research, or the consumers, in the ideation exercises. Begin the session with an imaginative experience that invokes the emotion, and the spirit of the consumer. If this sounds too airy-fairy just know that by avoiding this kind of exploration you are avoiding the kind of understanding that leads to breakthroughs.

Suggestion Seven: Make Sure You Have Some Fun

In some ideation sessions I facilitate I am pulled aside and asked politely to stop wasting time on what we call "energizers." Managers feel like it's a waste of time.

It's classic, this mistake of cutting out the fun, and it happens a lot. The value of games and energizers is unbelievably undervalued in ideation sessions. Most facilitators are sensitive to time requirements (and resistance to touchy-feely) and usually only put in "just-enough" games and fun stuff. They are well aware that these games are often viewed as a waste of time by the less experienced skeptics. When cuts are made to the agenda they are often the first thing to go.

Resist the urge to cut these activities. In fact, add more. These games and energizers are exactly what the brain needs to get into, and stay in, imaginative mode. According to Pierce J. Howard, author of The Owner's Manual For The Brain, physical exercise is highly effective in improving the speed of recall, and much research points to an effect on the quality of mental function and the amount of recall. It releases endorphins, the neurotransmitters that relax us into a state of cortical alertness. Humor works as well. Tests of problem-solving ability yield better results when they are preceded by laughter.

Suggestion Eight: Don't Allow the Data to Gather Dust Afterwards, Digitize, Distribute, and Get Into Idea Management

A month after the session the business crisis that triggered the ideation has passed. You were able to use a few of the ideas to triage the problem, and that's been "good enough" - maybe even quite successful. It's easy to rationalize, well, we got what we wanted from the session - we don't need to explore or expand upon the "other ideas" generated that day. You think that someday you should explore the list of unused ideas - but you never do.

Somebody should take ownership of all the ideas. That person should distribute a report as soon as possible. The data should always be easily accessed (leverage that corporate Intranet!) The longer the data gathers dust the less likely it will ever be used. Keep in mind that buried in that data could be the next idea that fuels the growth of your company. That data is a strategic asset and should be treated as such. Ideas that seemed silly or impractical at first are often the best ideas, but your brain and/or the corporate culture isn't quite ready to accept it the first time it's articulated. Out of the box ideas are sometimes so jarring that your immediate reaction is "no way." On further reflection you might see a way.

Digitize the data. Get it entered into documents and databases. Consider and buy an Idea Management System.

Ideation is a powerful technique for innovation. Don't learn the hard way, adopt my eight suggestions and you'll have a formula to increase your odds for success.

(Originally published on Gregg Fraley's website and reprinted with permission)
About the Author
Gregg Fraley is the author of Jack's Notebook, a Business Novel About Creative Problem Solving - the first business fable about deliberate creative problem solving and personal innovation. Fraley is a recognized expert on creativity and innovation who speaks internationally and consults with many Fortune 500 companies on new product development. Visit Gregg Fraley or email gregg@greggfraley.com.
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