Ideation Success Formula

Eight Suggestions to Improve the Odds
By Gregg Fraley © 2008

There is a growing industry of consultants and companies (Eureka Ranch, What If!, Ideas to Go, Landis, Research International, Brainjuicer, IDEO, and many more independents like myself ) who specialize in assisting the Fortune 1000 with new product development. They all have different methods – some design oriented, some observational, some with highly structured problem solving methods, others more creative-from-the-gut, but at the end of the day, at some point, they all tend to rely on some form of brainstorming. After all to get to a new product you need a new product idea, and, as they say, they don’t grow on trees.

Brainstorming has been around for years of course. Alex Osborn coined the term and wrote the original book on the subject, Applied Imagination. In the USA the term Brainstorming has fallen out of favor — instead people are doing “ideation”. IBM is even making fun of the new term (and all its attendant wackiness) in a series of satiric adverts. In the UK ideation is not the preferred term as of Winter 2008, they would say idea generation or brainstorming. In any event, rest assured, they are doing plenty of whatever you want to call it in both the UK and the USA – deliberate and continuous innovation is a growing trend. I can’t speak for the rest of Europe and the world, but I do know there is strong interest everywhere. China and Singapore are both hosting creativity conferences this year which feature speakers talking about ideation, brainstorming, and all its various mutations.

“Ideation” tends to be more structured than the brainstorming sessions of years past. The structure includes pre-ideation session research (both qualitative and quantitative), highly focused objectives, and a variety of in-session techniques to not only generate more ideas, but also more on-target ideas. The added structure works – brainstorming often didn’t work in the past and understanding more about what you want out of the session helps. Older style brainstorming had other problems as well, some of which the more modern ideation sessions have inherited. I’ll talk more about that in a moment. Suffice to say, more corporations are realizing the benefits of ideation and are jumping on the bandwagon. Managers are often pleased with results — but are also often disappointed.

I’ve facilitated quite a few of these sessions and in my experience there are about 8 reasons why an ideation session fails, if you can address these things you have a formula for success.

Let’s take a look at the typical ideation session and make sure you know what I’m talking about.

Idea generating sessions require commitment, focus, and a considerable investment of time and money. Generally, they include groups of at least 15-25 participants, and are done in a long format meeting. These are one or even two full days. If you’ve ever been part of one of these marathon sessions you know it’s hard work. It’s often exhilarating as well, but when you are done it is definitely Miller Time.

It’s an expensive marathon at that; as participants are flown in from regional offices, and put up in hotels. High paid consultants (like myself!) are often hired to help plan and facilitate. If the sessions are conducted off-site — which is critical for minimizing disruptions and controlling the environment — there are facility and equipment rentals and food expenses. The cost of taking people out of their operational roles is also significant, if less quantifiable.

Given the investment of time and money, it’s disheartening how often these sessions fail to result in producing marketable concepts. Some companies are walking away from ideation altogether and doing extensive market research as an alternative. Essentially they are asking a large number of consumers what they want and starting the inventing process from there. Others are hiring experienced product inventors, or setting up trained consumer panels as alternatives.

So we have our group ready to begin ideation. Where can things go wrong? Let’s start with who runs the meeting.

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.

The manager of a group, who is intimately involved with content, is a risky choice. Team managers have a difficult time managing process and time, while resisting the urge to contribute ideas. They may subtly edit the ideas and thoughts of others. People notice, and the flow of ideas, particularly the wild out-of-the box ideas, shuts down.

Many groups don’t have anyone qualified to lead an ideation session. This is not to say there are not great leaders in these groups, but ideation facilitation is a niche skill. Even trained facilitators in strategic planning are not necessarily good choices for ideation because the processes for ideation are fundamentally different than more critical/analytical processes. Some of the most powerful consulting groups in the world (they will go nameless here) are ill-prepared to assist with ideation because their skills are rigorous analysis oriented. Yes, there is a time in any ideation session where analysis, convergence, is necessary, but any facilitator that tries to sell you a process that is primarily logic-driven or analytical is suspect. New ideas don’t spring forth from analytical thought; they spring forth from a mindset of openness, curiosity, wonderment, novelty, fun, and risk.

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. It’s some kind of bad news that gets everybody 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 they haven’t had enough time. In the haste to get a session together quickly – the leaders, consultants, and participants are not given the chance to think about the challenge ahead of time. There is no time to conduct, review, or research data which might inform the ideation. There is no chance for an exploration that might reframe the challenge.

You need to 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.

One good way to do get started earlier and stretch out the length of time of the session is to use online tools before and after the in-person session. There are excellent web based tools, some generic like the wiki tools out there, and some more specific like WebIQ, which can be tailored for a very specific ideation session data collection need.

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.

If you’re going to pursue a goal of “breakthrough innovation” – be prepared. Managers see a wall full of wacky, far out, impractical, expensive, and illegal solutions – and they start feeling a bit like jumping out the window. Brace yourself — that’s exactly the kind of thinking you want when you are trying for breakthrough ideas. Breakthrough ideas are usually ideas outside the current paradigm; they could change the business drastically. It might be a new distribution channel, it might mean a spin off company, it might mean a new factory to produce a radically different product. These things take time and big money to implement. Managers typically have a shorter-term focus. 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. In-the-box thinking is exactly what you want sometimes. Don’t frame a session with an “anything goes” opening and change horse’s midstream. If you are seeking breakthrough innovation you’ll want to adjust the tools and techniques used and gear them to deep problem exploration, cross-domain perspectives, and long term horizons. In short, out-of-the box thinking. Clearly define your challenge and direct your ideation towards that specific need. Finally, remember that the wacky ideas an out-of-the-box session generates are just a beginning. Concepts need to be developed in a more practical way as an ending step, or post-session step, to bring ideas into more do-able form. Again, consider using the new web-based tools for immediate consumer testing.

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.

Who might these people be?

Depending on your own personal creative style, you will tend to invite those who think a lot like you. The outsiders in the organization are, as usual, left out. It’s understandable, you want a productive session. We won’t go into why people are outsiders, there are lots of reasons, but it’s very typical for them to be crossed off the ideation invite list. Sessions with homogenous teams feels productive — – there are few conflicts at the session – and everybody has similar ideas. You quickly identify the most promising ideas and everyone agrees on how to move forward. It shocks you to learn later that you have missed the mark completely or just bored management to death. Then you are back at square one without a solution.

You need creative diversity to get a broader range of ideas. Creative style has been well- defined by researcher Michael Kirton with his “adaptor/innovator” scale ( ). The idea is that everyone on the scale is creative, but they are creative in different ways. Kirton has learned that it’s easiest to communicate with people of your own thinking style – it requires less negotiation. The father apart on the scale people are, the more they are viewed as “trouble makers.” So, by not inviting the trouble makers you are cutting out a lot of creative thinking diversity. Diversity you need!

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

A vague or deliberately generalized objective in an ideation session can lead to a really wide range of ideas being generated. You’ll get ideas for all areas of the business. This happens when it isn’t clear just what problem you are trying to solve, or what opportunity or need you are trying to exploit. This is not necessarily bad, sometimes you want a “free for all” kind of session to gather ideas for various business goals.

When you are trying to reach a specific consumer market however, it makes a lot of sense to get into the consumers “head” – intimately. The traditional way to do this is — you guessed it — death by PowerPoint! The marketing manager may drone on, “Here are the findings from our focus groups” as he relays how one woman feels about aging, or how tweens use cell phones. Trust me, this is not how to get people into ideation. They need to know the data, but it should have been read and digested a week before they got to the session (see the incubation suggestion).

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 their own interviews of the target. Consider having the team do observational research. Then, explore the challenge in some artistic way, through music, dance, or drawing. This begins 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

It’s 2:00 PM on the first day of a two day session. The morning went okay, but you know you are not “there yet.” The ideas are only fair and you’ve had to make some adjustments to your objectives. Some people arrived late due to bad weather in Chicago and now you’re behind schedule. The facilitator gets everybody in a circle and hands out “angel cards.” You think it’s absurd but you go along. Then she (or he) starts tossing about an imaginary ball – you pull her aside and tell her to get on with the show and to cut all the energizers for the rest of the day in order to get back on schedule. She agrees reluctantly. You feel better but an hour later everybody looks like the walking dead and the idea flow has slowed to dribs and drabs. For the rest of the day people are walking out, taking their own breaks, getting a bit snarly, talking on cell phones, etc. They are emotionally uninvolved. By the time they leave the group looks something like the walking wounded. It’s not pretty, and results have suffered.

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.

Many of the games/exercises used for energizing were originally designed for the theater. The intent is to bring the actor into the present moment, enabling him or her to respond to stimulus authentically. These exercises are time tested and they work well to bring people’s minds into the room – instead of cranking away on other problems and challenges in their lives. Once a state of “presence” is achieved you will have more effective ideation. This state is hard to maintain, however, and that’s why about once an hour you need to refresh. You want people to play with ideas, and these games help establish the environment of playfulness that allows those magic ideas to pop up and be heard by the conscious mind. If you want the magic bullet, play with the magic ball.

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. Once the data is “digitized” distribute it to the ideation team so they can see the fruits of their labors. Invite them to “build” and continue the process. Don’t forget to scan drawings and other ideation output that is not text based. Use digital cameras, video, and audio tape during the session to capture rich discussions and debriefs. You’ve spent the money to conduct the session, by all means preserve the product! And don’t forget to follow up six months from now!

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.

Gregg Fraley

Gregg is the author of Jack’s Notebook, a Business Novel About Creative Problem Solvingpublished in March 2007. It’s the first business fable about deliberate creative problem solving and personal innovation. The book reveals “CPS” a proven six-step process for addressing complex business or personal innovation challenges. CPS training is expensive and not widely available. Now, with a fast-paced and inspirational story, Jack’s Notebook is becoming to the field of creativity and innovation what The Goal was to the manufacturing industry. It gives innovation teams and small companies a common language for problem solving and a complete system for taking ideas into action. Fraley is a recognized expert on creativity and innovation; he speaks internationally and consults with many Fortune 500 companies on new product development. He is the co-host of the Innovise Guys, a leading podcast on innovation and improvisation. For more information about Jack’s Notebook or Gregg’s consulting or speaking services, visit or email him directly –