Divergent mentors teams in the Innes 48 business start-up competition, and this year we were tasked with being the mentor experts on ideation.
I was called on to help teams at various stages of ideation, and their needs generally fell within three categories; generating ideas, generating ‘good’ ideas, and choosing an idea to progress with. For generating ideas and generating good ideas, I worked through five techniques with the teams. These techniques for ideation are as valuable for more established organisations as they are in start-ups.
The first challenge for some teams was generating ideas. Our approach to generating ideas is brainstorming. Usually, a brainstorming activity has a well-defined question as the central topic. In the Innes 48 event, teams were ultimately working to develop a business idea, and they had a theme to work to; “Business with purpose”.
1. Don’t just stand there – say something!
The first part of this technique – ‘don’t just stand there’ – implies people are standing. For one team, the first thing I had them do was get on their feet. This was met with great relief; “Oh, it’s sooooo good to be standing up!”. Once everyone was gathered around a clear wall space, equipped with post-its and markers, there was a palpable feeling of readiness for work. The change to a more action oriented physical posture was key to creating momentum for the brainstorm.
The second part of this technique, ‘say something!’ is obviously about talking – verbalising ideas. For another team I helped, this was about simply getting the talking started. The team members had gathered around a whiteboard and each was deep in thought, but the whiteboard remained blank. I discovered they were struggling to formulate clear business ideas, and were holding back from committing anything to the board, for lack of conciseness or clarity.
For this team, I suggested simply writing up what they each had so far. Thoughts didn’t need to be be fully articulated business ideas at this stage. Semi-formulated ideas and single words were all OK. When these were out of minds and onto the board, the team quickly realised they were all talking about the same thing, but in different ways. This gave the team a central topic to lock on to and created impetus to explore it in depth.
Generating ‘good’ ideas
A common question I have heard from teams at the Innes 48 competition over the years is, “Do you think this [idea x] is a good idea?”. My response is that it’s not my job to have an opinion on that (my job is to mentor them through the process of developing the business idea for the competition). But this goes to show that people want to know if an idea is worth capturing, even in an early brainstorm.
2. The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
This great quote from Linus Pauling is a fundamental brainstorming principle. One of the first things I was checking on with teams was the number of ideas they had. Not the actual number (although a requirement of brainstorming is that there is more than one idea) but if they had exhausted their idea bank, for now. Some teams benefitted from some prompting, to get every last idea floating around (as well as some that had been excluded earlier) onto a post-it.
3. There is no such thing as a good idea in a brainstorm
When brainstorming, and especially early on in the innovation process, it’s not about good ideas or bad ideas, it’s just about ideas. It is important to quiet the voice in your head that is filtering ideas before you share them, as well as your physical voice that is evaluating or critiquing ideas that are being contributed. This may be easier said than done. A brainstormer must to actively adopt this mindset in order to let ideas flow.
4. Divergent thinking about problems and solutions
Once the team could answer yes, they had thought of everything they could, I had them ask themselves, first: “What problem is this idea solving?” and then, “How else might we solve that problem?”.
The first part of this process, identifying the problem, was really helpful for some teams, who realised, that while a solution idea might be possible, it may not be very useful. And a solution that was of little use was likely to be of limited value.
For other teams, thinking about an idea in terms of the problem they were trying to solve with it, was really valuable for generating ‘good’ ideas; they discovered there was always more than one solution. Some added constraints while thinking of all the possible ways of solving a problem, also helped the divergent thinking. “What if the solution must not be reliant on internet?”, for example, was a helpful challenge.
5. Customer need statements
Many teams got to the point of saying, yes, they had thought of all the ideas they could, they just weren’t sure if they had any good ones, or couldn’t agree, which were the good ones. For a few teams in this scenario, I had them unpick, or interrogate their ideas a little.
We did this by crafting customer need statements for each of their solution ideas. Customer need statements are clear, concise statements that identity and describe the customer (or user) the solution is for, the need (or problem) they have, and a little about the ‘why’ behind that need (an insight into the customer’s world, that is the reason this solution may be desirable and valuable to them).
These techniques for thinking about ideas in terms of problems and solutions, and customer needs, strip ideas back to their core components. This is necessary in order to evaluate the worth of ideas with some objectivity. It also helps people to separate themselves from ideas; especially helpful in cases where people have ‘favourite’ ideas and struggle to see past them.
The next step is evaluating ideas in order to select one (or some) to progress with. I’ll write about that next.
I used these five techniques in the ideation phase of a start-up competition scenario, but we use them equally in the design and innovation process for established organisations.
What other techniques would you add to this list for having ideas and having good ideas?