Breaking Through: Proven Idea-Generation Practices

By Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny

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:

  • Challenge existing ideas. Don’t start by looking for new ideas; first, identify the lenses you currently look through or the “boxes” you are frequently told to think outside of. Ask yourself, Who do we define as customers and competitors? What are the assumptions inherent in the way we do things around here? Then think about how some of these “truths” might be challenged. How might you redefine what your company actually does?
  • Create new boxes. The reason that thinking out of the box often doesn’t work is that to focus, our brains need boxes—frameworks or mental models. The key to fostering practical creativity is to shape the idea generation effort by creating new boxes that your team can explore. Twenty-five years ago, for example, Philips Electronics undertook a new-box exercise and realized that another world was possible for the company, one that used its existing capabilities to go down an entirely different road of products and profit. Today, some 40 percent of Philips’ business involves health care devices such as blood pressure and heart monitors. A successful brainstorm isn’t necessarily a meeting at which a new concept suddenly arises. It can be a meeting at which an existing concept suddenly makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.
  • 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.

  • Outline binding constraints and criteria for success. Constraints can help creativity by keeping attention focused on productive directions. Similarly, they help everyone understand the criteria that will define success. We have seen many companies invest time, money, and other resources in developing a broad range of ideas only to select those that represent small tweaks to the status quo. Identifying specific criteria in advance—including feasibility, potential financial impact, and risk—puts powerful parameters around any idea-generating exercise.
  • 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.