As the two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling observed, the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. Many executives are rightly skeptical of unconstrained creativity or Building New Boxes: How to Run Brainstorming Sessions That Work. In our experience as well, this type of blue-sky, “every idea is a good idea” exercise rarely leads to anything useful. Nonetheless, we are big believers in “ideation” done right. This requires investing significant time in preparation, as well as in developing a thoughtful selection process to sort through the ideas that emerge. On the basis of our work with numerous companies throughout multiple industries, we have developed the following suggestions for running an ideation process effectively:
Pursue a range of inputs. Defining new boxes requires a mixture of analysis and art. Boxes need to be grounded in fact. Different sectors will call for different inputs. Some, such as megatrends and customer research, are relevant for nearly all situations. Others—IP or network analytics, for example—tend to be deployed more narrowly.
The classic approach to examining trends (such as demographic, technological, and market-based trends) is to start with a long list and narrow it down using criteria such as preparedness and level of impact. Consider another method: pick a single trend that could have a massive impact on the business in the next five years. What are the different ways this could happen? Or how might two trends combine? What would happen if a low-impact trend was analyzed incorrectly and ended up having a huge bearing on the organization in 2020? In each of these scenarios, what new products, services, markets, and channels could emerge? Take this trend analysis further and develop a set of possible outlooks using scenario planning.
IP and network analysis is another useful tool. Tracking competitors’ innovations in products, processes, and marketing, for example, can lead to new ideas. Mapping opinion-leading experts and influential third parties, especially in technical fields, can point to unthought-of directions. In each case, it’s a question of using all the types of analysis available to help expand your field of vision.
Frame the question effectively. Having the right new boxes is a great start, but you also need to shape the questions that your team should address within those boxes. Good questions—the kind that lead to results—tend to be narrow and specific. A question such as How can we sell more widgets? typically results in incremental solutions. Asking a question in ways that challenge existing perspectives can lead to more transformational possibilities. Should we really be a widget company? What problems are our customers using widgets to address? If you are a pen manufacturer today, is the more attractive future in writing instruments or in inexpensive, disposable plastic products?
Low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, Southwest Airlines, and JetBlue have reimagined—and thoroughly disrupted—the airline industry. But think about how they built their low-cost models. A broad shift in approach was the consequence of many smaller adjustments and adaptations, such as moving from diverse fleets to flying one type of aircraft, abandoning main airports for secondary facilities, giving up marketing through travel agents in favor of selling directly, and replacing all-inclusive ticket prices with unbundled pricing. Other companies can benefit from asking what kinds of analogous before-after shifts might apply to their businesses.
Allow sufficient time to select ideas. Planning and preparation are crucial, but once a broad set of ideas are in place, it takes time to narrow and focus them. Some high-level prioritization can often be done immediately—for example, moving from hundreds of ideas to dozens—but the remaining ideas will probably need additional research or business-case development before a top few can be selected for further development.
With one client, we spent several weeks examining the strengths and opportunities for each of its business units. We used client and other stakeholder interviews, research among more than 500 employees, and other tools to develop more than 2,500 ideas for improvement—before starting a brainstorming and creativity workshop. We took time to prioritize the top 1 percent, and those 25 alternatives were analyzed in detail. The company conducted even deeper evaluation for a still smaller number before any implementation began.
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