Three Factors for a Successful Ideation

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”  ~ Dr. Seuss

Last week, in a client meeting, we discussed the paradox of ideation for innovation. We started with the concept that ideas should be grounded in consumer insights, meeting consumer needs and providing them with a relevant benefit. We dove into the idea that true innovation can actually deliver on a need consumers don't know they have.  (Henry Ford once said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.") Then we circled back around to the concept that we can up our odds of success by ideating with the right people, in the right environment. Add to that the need for an action plan and you've got a formula that can take your organizational insights all the way to innovation.

1.  Start with the right people

Who should you invite? While it seems the questions might ultimately be 'who is willing and able' to attend based on their calendars, there are ways to tailor an ideation session guest list for success.

  • The most important invitees are the key stakeholder(s), those with ownership over the challenge; don't exclude people who have to buy-in to whatever ideas you choose to move forward.
  • The best workshops I've facilitated include team members from cross-functions. R&D plus Finance, Marketing plus IT, Customer Service plus HR. Diversity of roles means diversity of ideas, and you want those!
  • If you have relevant subject matter experts, add them to the list; they're great in those moments you could benefit from an on-site resource to clarify information and/or answer questions.
  • I sometimes bring along a few 'trained brains' as I call them -- colleagues of mine who are natural Ideators, trained in creative thinking and the processes I use when facilitating -- to inspire and energize participants as appropriate.
  • Finally, I recommend inviting a few stand-out, open-minded, enthusiastic people with a passion for the organization and it's growth -- their positive attitude will help set the stage for success (see the next section of this blog post about the environment).  

2.  Create the right environment

There's a correlation between the environment you establish, how it impacts the level of participants' motivation, and how that influences the session's output. I hope it's obvious that the more supportive and creative a climate you establish, the more fully individuals will participate and remain engaged with the process, which will lead to a more creative and fruitful output. Here's what I recommend:

  • The ideal environment from a tangible point of view: A playful, comfortable space (preferably off-site when it is possible), with opened seating, natural lighting and access to the outdoors. Coffee, water, food, treats, keeping participants satiated eliminates that distraction.
  • The ideal environment from an intangible point of view: A good amount of time -- limiting yourself to an hour will not help you get to a place of breakthrough. Guaranteeing an openness to all ideas, along with freedom and permission to take risks, will help ensure emotional safety.  Established guidelines for the stages of the process, a bit of grounding on the precepts of creative thinking, and a clear plan for healthy debate will improve the process as well.
  • An objective facilitator: Shameless self-promotion perhaps, but the objectivity of someone like myself goes a long way to ensure that bias doesn't skew the results, that everyone gets a voice, everyone feels heard and no ulterior motives take center stage over the objectives.

3.  Have a process in place for taking ideas forward

There are so many processes around today it's hard to know which is right, isn't it? Design Thinking. Human Centered Design. (Those are kind of the same.) Stage Gate.  Lean Start Up. Agile. Systematic Innovation. Some companies have their own processes, too. I typically combine CPS (Creative Problem Solving), Synectics and Lateral Thinking with the work I do. But the important thing, when it comes to ideation, is that your process has a process for (1) inspiration and ideation (2) evaluating ideas and (3) taking those ideas forward. 

  • Ideate, don't just brainstorm. Participants need to feel inspired, compelled, impassioned to move beyond an initial brain dump of ideas. I'm a natural Ideator, so nothing brings me more joy than the creative tools in my toolbox designed to stretch participants thinking and express ideas that are truly novel, not just safe. In my sessions, participants are brainwriting, forcing connections, taking metaphorical excursions and so much more!
  • Select ideas based on established criteria. The actual criteria varies by session of course. But you need a systematic approach to selecting the ideas that should move forward into development, remain in a pipeline, or be pitched if not placed on a back burner. (This is where I'm often a stickler for consumer insights ... urging my clients to keep in mind consumer needs and potential benefits as they choose ... with permission to choose an idea that simply excites them as well.)
  • Leverage the potential energy of a selected idea. So many ideas never see the light of day because they aren't workable, they are fragmented. But when there is something compelling about an idea, it deserves some due diligence! There are tools for this, too, by the way: A Balanced Assessment, PPCO, ALU, etc. These are all designed to help a team develop an idea into something that has the potential to be a truly workable solution or a breakthrough innovation.
  • Make sure you have an implementation plan. Have you heard the quote from leadership guru Robin Sharma, "Ideation without execution is delusion"? Well, now you have. It's true. If you plan an ideation session, make sure you plan for action after so you can take those ideas all the way to innovation success.