Before we work with clients to generate new ideas, we often show them an old AirTran Airways commercial that epitomizes the wrong way to brainstorm. In the commercial, a “facilitator” prompts the team to come up with ideas for what they should be putting in their vending machines. The team sits around a table shouting out uninspired ideas, anchoring immediately on the initial ideas of chips and crackers. The only unique idea is also the worst idea—toast—and it results only in humiliation for the proposer. The commercial ends with a man raising his hand to make his only contribution: “You had me fly in for this?”
People often debate whether brainstorming is an effective way to generate new ideas. Unfortunately, many people we talk to have only participated in poorly run brainstorming sessions—those that look eerily similar to the session in the AirTran commercial. An inexperienced facilitator throws out a generic prompt about what the next big solution should be, a few people shout out a lot of not-so-novel ideas, and most people sit quietly wondering when they can get back to work. The only unique ideas that surface are those that the organization will never implement. Moreover, ideas get reduced to a few words on a flipchart, and the discussion and context are quickly forgotten. Then somebody looks at the flipchart a week later and is truly baffled about what might have gone on in that meeting room.
If you see the world through customers’ eyes, the new solutions may appear obvious, save for the fact that no one has ever created them before. Further in this guide, we’ll take a in-depth look at how to use the insights you’ve gathered about your customer to hold targeted idea generation sessions that produce promising new concepts.
The Wrong Way To Generate New Ideas
Brainstorming sessions are often doomed from the start. From who’s invited to the structure of the session, most brainstorming meetings are actually set up—albeit unintentionally—to quash creativity. For starters, boss-led ideation tends to produce fewer original ideas. In those situations, team members worry that ideas that seem too crazy won’t be respected, so they volunteer safe ideas and those that they think their boss wants to hear. People throw out the easy answers—those that every competitor has likely come up with as well.
To expand on the problem, those early uninspired ideas are likely to dominate the conversation. That’s for two reasons. First, it’s extremely difficult to come up with new ideas while you’re preoccupied with listening to and evaluating the ideas that others are presenting. Second, we have a psychological tendency to anchor our thinking around the first ideas we hear. Those safe ideas that were thrown out first have now unintentionally established boundaries for how innovative future ideas will be.
To illustrate the problem, what would happen if we asked you to come up with a list of five different tools? We’ll help you out by suggesting a hammer as an example of a tool, though that shouldn’t be one of your five. What does your list look like? Most likely it contains at least a few other small tools used for building. Perhaps a screwdriver, a wrench, some pliers, or a saw made the list. Maybe, as you struggled for ideas, you branched into power tools. Rarely, with this exercise, do people consider tools from other professions. If instead of an easy answer (the hammer) we had given you a targeted prompt designed to widen your lens (“What are the tools that artists, educators, and accountants use to do their jobs?”), your list would look very different. Importantly, it would also look very different from anyone else’s list.
When a facilitator simply asks for ideas and the first ideas are safe and unoriginal, the tone has been set. One researcher found that by having people record several ideas on their own first—without being influenced by ideas from others—groups generated 20 percent more ideas and 42 percent more original ideas.
One other fallacy of brainstorming is to push for overall quantity of ideas. Clearly just having one or two ideas isn’t likely to cut it. However, don’t mimic the example of a convenience store chain that once approached us asking for a daylong session in which they would generate 2,000 ideas. Honestly? Those ideas were likely going to be incredibly incremental and shallow. Plus, no organization is going to implement anything close to 2,000 ideas, ever. Creativity can be a lazy human function, so it needs to be pushed. Consider only what’s realistic and useful.
Strategies For Better Brainstorming
One of the easiest (and often overlooked) ways of improving the quality of your ideation sessions is to be clear up front about why you’re brainstorming, how ideas will be evaluated, and how far flung ideas can be. Companies often worry that by setting up strict rules, they’ll be limiting creativity. Instead of setting boundaries, they tell everyone to think outside the box. Worse, they throw open the doors to the whole organization, asking for a flood of new ideas. While the intention is respectable, the outcome is unfortunate. Ideas that the organization would never implement are collected and ignored, ultimately demoralizing those who submitted what they thought were good ideas. While you don’t want to judge ideas early on, be clear about what’s realistically going to be considered. Are you just looking for new product ideas, or are business model innovations also in scope? Are acquisitions and partnerships on the table, or do new ideas need to leverage existing assets or those that can be developed in-house?
In addition to this early guidance, a good facilitator will focus ideation discussions around specific questions and challenges. Don’t just ask everyone for new ideas; you’ll get concepts that lack context beyond what proposers already know in their own daily work. An insidious result of that approach—invisible but harmful—is that what might be a big idea is made to sound small. Rather, tie your discussions to customer insights. Ask for ideas on how to satisfy important jobs or eliminate relevant pain points. Inexperienced facilitators try to stimulate creativity by creating ridiculous scenarios (“How would your ideas be different if the Earth had no gravity?”). These tactics tend to leave participants frustrated, and they rarely produce better ideas. Instead, use the common job drivers you’ve uncovered to think about how different customer types would react to certain products or problems. Consider how you can overcome obstacles that are particularly onerous for some customers.
After you’ve come up with a few targeted questions to ideate around—and remember that you can introduce additional prompts after some ideas have begun to surface—here are the steps to follow for a better outcome:
- Start off by getting everyone on the same page. Explain the purpose of the ideation session, discuss the boundaries of what will or will not be considered, and elaborate on how ideas will be evaluated. It’s also important to choose the right setting for ideation. Try to choose a location with an energetic vibe. We often look for smaller spaces where people can actively converse with each other without feeling like they’re onstage. Keep in mind that you may want access to additional nearby spaces that can be used for breakout sessions.
- Give participants some time to quietly reflect and ideate on their own. Ask participants to come up with their own lists of ideas first, thus avoiding the anchoring problems just described. Give them a quota in order to encourage them to push themselves.
- Depending on how many people are present, break the group into small teams of people with dissimilar backgrounds to discuss and expand on these ideas, coming up with new ideas and identifying which ideas seem to have the highest potential. Have someone in the group meticulously record the details of the conversation, as this often encourages team members to think more deeply, and it provides something tangible that can be referenced later.
Once all the participants have shared their ideas, you can group similar ideas together. This will help to highlight important themes that run through multiple ideas, and it will also help to focus the discussion on a smaller number of topics. It’s often helpful to separate the ideation portion from the organization and prioritization, such as with a lunch break or even a break for the day. Having a bit of time off gives everyone a chance to gain some perspective, think more critically about their most recent ideas, and better understand the relationships among ideas.
At this stage, it might be a good time to discuss what’s on the table. Without being overly limiting, question whether any of the ideas are too far out of scope. More importantly, spend some time identifying the big questions everyone has about the ideas you’ve generated.
Before you evaluate these ideas, break into groups and build out your ideas in more detail. While you’re not expected to build the business case for your preliminary ideas, create a one-page visual that helps highlight why the idea is a good one:
- What jobs are satisfied and what pain points are eliminated? (Jobs are the tasks that consumers are trying to get done in their everyday lives.)
- What customer types would be interested in the idea?
- How does the idea create value for the business?
- How does the idea satisfy the major criteria identified at the start of the ideation session?
Once you’ve built out each idea, you’ll be able to have a more informed discussion about the merits of the ideas, rather than simply eliminating ideas based on gut reaction. It’s important to ask the more senior team members to hold their opinions until others have had a chance to express themselves. If the actual evaluation and selection of ideas will be done by a more senior group later on, it may be wise to avoid voting on ideas within the ideation group, thus avoiding a scenario where project teams and leadership have reached different outcomes.
Finally, as you prepare to leave your brainstorming session, be clear about what the next steps are. Are the ideas going to be presented to senior management? Will there be a full vetting process with a larger group? Does a business case need to be prepared for the best ideas? Rather than leaving team members wondering, be clear about what needs to happen and who will be responsible for moving ideas forward. Without clear ownership, even the best ideas are likely to die in limbo.
Vetting Your New Ideas
Once you’ve come up with a new idea, it’s easy to fall in love with it. From entrepreneurs to executives, everyone has a great idea that has passed the “I’d buy it” test. Yet as we’ve shown, most new ideas don’t succeed. Assuming you’ve been following the steps above, you’re probably well on your way to some great ideas. But maybe you’re jumping in late and already have some ideas in mind. Or perhaps you’ve brainstormed some ideas and want to think through them before you evaluate them against your organization’s new business criteria. Whatever the case, it’s useful to know that the Jobs Atlas — featured in my book —in addition to being a tool for gathering customer and market insights—also provides a framework for vetting existing ideas.
Each of the eight categories in the Jobs Atlas can be used to help evaluate an idea you’re considering. We’ve highlighted some key questions based on the Jobs Atlas that can help you critically assess whether you’ve truly come up with a winning idea. It’s strongly recommended that you invite others to participate in the vetting process, asking the tough questions that you may be tempted to gloss over. That will also improve organizational buy-in to the ideas.
Fully answering these questions and vetting your idea may require some research into the dynamics of the market you’re attempting to serve, as well as some consideration of the business model that will support your offering. For those creating solutions within established businesses, you’ll also need to consider how your new idea ties to the business’s strategic objectives and evaluation criteria.
Generating Ideas The Right Way
A client once called us and asked for our help leading an ideation workshop. The goal was to help identify and select growth opportunities outside the core business. Before the workshop, we arranged to have discussions with the organization’s leadership team and the individuals who would be participating in the session. We wanted to know what ideas had already been surfacing, but we also wanted a better sense of why we were being invited in. We wanted to learn how ideation had worked in the past, what the results had been, and how folks felt about past efforts.
What we heard was fairly typical; two issues came up repeatedly. First, conversations tended to wander off topic, often turning into repeat discussions of old ideas rather than the exploration of new ideas. Second, some people felt that the “real” decisions were always made by senior leaders outside the sessions without much indication of why the chosen ideas were better.
Knowing that the group would be skeptical, we carefully planned a process that would encourage new ideas and avoid the problems of the past. Well ahead of the workshop, we conducted some research into the dynamics of our client’s industry. At our first meeting with the workshop participants, we filled them in on why we were there. We discussed why the organization wanted to explore adjacency growth, how much money it would be investing in the projects that would come out of our session, and how the new opportunities would need to fit into the organization’s overall portfolio plan. We then shared some of our earlier research and had a discussion on what it meant for the organization. When the conversation began to drift into a discussion about the past, we put those topics onto a “parking lot” list so that the team could discuss them in more depth after the session.
Eventually, it was time to come up with ideas. We talked the participants through a few scenarios based on what we knew about industry trends, key competitors, and customer demands. For each scenario, we asked the participants to individually write down some ideas for how the organization could respond. At the end, we compiled all the ideas, grouped them into themes, and shared the full collection with the group. Discussion of the ideas yielded new options, which we added to the collection. We broke for the day to give everyone some time to reflect.
At our next session, we used stickers to vote—with relative anonymity—on the ideas. Each person had five stickers to put on their top ideas. The group seemed happy with the results, because they had thoroughly bought into the process being used. We then split the participants into breakout groups, each of which was given two or three ideas to build out in detail. Each team was also given a series of questions to answer. They recorded detailed responses that could be shared with future project teams, and they also prepared one-pagers to facilitate sharing the built-out idea with the group. Senior leadership ultimately chose a few of the ideas to advance, reporting back to the group why each idea was or wasn’t selected.
Sometime later, we followed up with the client to see how things were progressing. Not only was the ideation team more satisfied with the process, but the new projects that had come out of the session were generating real excitement organization-wide.
To recap, keep these four points in mind for more productive ideation:
1. Bad brainstorming is common but quite avoidable. The key to generating great ideas is following a structured process designed to maximize context sensitivity, creativity, and ruthless prioritization. The best ideation sessions reduce the temptation to go after the low-hanging fruit, instead encouraging people to dig for more innovative ideas. They eliminate the pressures for participants to please their bosses, and they ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate. By adding structure and guiding the discussion around important topics, ideation can be not just exciting but also productive.
2. Bad brainstorming sessions occur when only a few people participate, shouting out easy ideas to impress others. Avoid anchoring the discussion around those early, unoriginal ideas. Give everyone a chance to quietly reflect and ideate.
3. The best ideation experiences follow an eight-step process that involves level setting, reflection and ideation, collaboration, organization, discussion, build-out, evaluation, and follow-up. Start by getting everyone on the same page about why you’re there and how ideas will be evaluated. Then provide structured questions, and encourage teams to fully build out their ideas.
4. Whether you’re coming to the table with ideas you’ve already thought up or you’re leaving an ideation session with loads of new ideas, it’s important to critically vet those ideas. Beyond looking at whether those ideas are right for the business, use the Jobs Atlas to think about how your ideas reflect customer needs and circumstances.
More of this approach is featured in my new book JOBS TO BE DONE: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.
The Blake Project Can Help You Create A Brighter Competitive Future In The Jobs To Be Done Workshop
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