Where business acumen and raw creativity meet, that’s where you’ll find Idea Generation. At the intersection of inspiration and innovation, between the areas labeled product development and return-on-investment, wait for the creative ideas that move industries forward, build fortunes, and meet customers’ needs in new and exciting ways. But what is “Idea Generation” exactly, and what creative processes can a business enact to ensure new ideas are nourished?
In this article, we discuss the techniques many businesses use to generate ideas, develop existing ideas, and meet the creative challenge a successful enterprise represents. We think many of these techniques will be useful, regardless of your business’s particular project. This is especially true if your product development and management teams are struggling through a communication gap; we welcome you to try any of these approaches with any combination of staffing, and let us know how you move from “less ideas” to the “best ideas!”
What is Idea Generation?
Idea Generation is the beginning of the process of innovation specifically for new products, innovative solutions, or business models that are innovative, There are a variety of idea generation techniques to help create new ideas. Brainstorming is an example that is well-known, as are mind mapping, role-playing, and reverse thinking. We’ll discuss each of these techniques more thoroughly later in the article.
The secret to Idea Generation is that there is no secret! A successful Idea Generation process is one that leads to questioning assumptions and opening existing methods to new ideas. Businesses find idea generation activities that result in success, and each takes a different approach, but we believe there are some common threads among businesses that turn potential ideas into great ideas.
Before we start unpacking some possible solutions to your innovation problems, we’d like to mention that you’ll find much more about the digital innovation process in our brand-new FREE book, How to Create Innovation. It incorporates comprehensive approaches for innovation and idea generation, including mindsets, structures, and strategies to innovate in less time, with fewer resources and more success. Register for the download now!
Why is Idea Generation Important for Business Growth?
The development of innovative ideas plays an important role in business growth. There are likely any number of quality reasons why your company should use an idea management tool or schedule your next brainstorming session, but we’d like to suggest four of the most powerful reasons to invest in the idea generation process.
1- Identify new opportunities
Bring together stakeholders from throughout your organization to discuss where you might find new customers or new applications for what you’re already doing successfully.
2- Develop new ideas
New ideas are the lifeblood of a business, necessary for the growth that all managers want. Idea generation keeps the wheels turning with fresh approaches to old problems and the identification of new problems you can pivot to solve.
3- Refine old ideas
Gain new perspectives on what you know to be “true” by deliberately challenging these paradigms. You’ll need to build a safe space where people aren’t threatened when their way of problem-solving is challenged.
4- Update current practices
Many times, new ideas help keep what we’re doing up-to-date and fresh. Not every instance of new idea development needs to arrive like a lightning bolt from the sky; sometimes shaking the dust off what we’re doing now is simply enough.
Idea Generation Techniques
There are several Idea Generation strategies that we recommend. Each of them require the use of spare space and an assortment of record-keeping supplies: a whiteboard and markers, butcher paper, or other ways of writing down the thought process behind the ultimate output.
Idea generation should be considered a new challenge and attacked in the same way you’d approach any of the problems your business faces. It needs to be undertaken with energy and enthusiasm, in an ego-free environment. As a leader, your responsibility is to create the space for your crew to invent freely.
Brainstorming is an idea generation method invented by Alex Osborn and further developed by Charles Hutchison Clark. Brainstorming aims to encourage the generation of new and unusual ideas in a group of people.
Alex Osborn based his development of brainstorming on the Indian technique Prai-Barshana, which has been around for about 400 years. He named brainstorming after the idea of this method, namely “using the brain to storm a problem.”
Brainstorming was further discussed in the book “Accidental Genius”, by Mark Levy, which really focuses on freewriting as a way of generating new ideas and getting unstuck from the old ones.
Brainstorming is resource-heavy, in that you need a lot of materials to record the ideas generated by your team or focus groups, but luckily those materials are a modest financial investment. We find going low-tech works best for brainstorming. Get the people together, ask a question, and start writing everything down.
We really recommend brainstorming when you’re considering how your company differentiates itself from others, and we discuss using it to build Capability Maps in our book, How to Create Innovation.
2- Creative Thinking
Coming up with ideas, especially innovative ideas, needs creativity, and can be supported by certain creativity techniques. The creativity process is usually applied through a person, product, process, and place. Thus, creativity means that a creative person develops great ideas and novel products through a creative process in a creative environment.
Creativity processes use these influencing factors as they support the search for ideas, problem-solving and evaluation, and selection of ideas via rules, a group of people, and a creative process. The workshops are therefore based on creative idea generation techniques that follow individual steps.
But what does creative thinking look like, and doesn’t scheduling it run counter to how we usual conceive of the creative process?
It’s true that you can’t write “Be Innovative” in a datebook and assume inspiration will hit, but we can make room for different ideas by building rewards and opportunities for creativity into our company practices. One fun way to inspire your team is to sponsor an “Idea Challenge.” Publicize within your company a contest for most creative solution to a common problem, or a problem specific to your company, and have the entire staff vote on the result. Make your Idea Challenge anonymous, have a prize, and watch how the flexibility and passion for more ideas impacts the rest of your business solutions.
3- Design Thinking
Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving and ideation process that works through four key elements:
- The user as the starting point
- Interdisciplinary team
- Iterative process
- Creative environment
In the design thinking process, the customer’s needs are first determined through an iterative process and a question is defined. Then creative solutions and ideas are generated through brainstorming or mind mapping and visualized via prototypes for user feedback.
Depending on the feedback, process steps are repeated or a successful idea is implemented. Certain rules and an environment that promotes creativity are recommended for the workshops.
There are some specific Design Thinking process rules we recommend everyone follows:
- Do not criticize, but offer a problem solving approach.
- Visualize creative solutions via mind maps and prototypes.
- Protect and promote diverse concepts through brainstorming ideas.
- Promote a positive mood and mindset throughout the ideation process.
- Quantity is more important than quality.
- Include all participants in the creative process.
- Conduct the workshop in a bright large room, with whiteboards and flip charts and colorful post-its and markers.
- Use materials such as Lego or plasticine for building small prototypes.
4- Complex Opportunity Recognition Techniques
Opportunity Recognition describes the identification of opportunities to generate growth for companies. The different idea generation techniques of opportunity recognition are based either on the market, the company, or the company’s environment.
In order for this approach to be suitable for young companies, it must meet the following requirements:
- Not too resource-intensive
- Suitable for workshops
- High growth potential
- Don’t require existing structures or certain age of the company
A) Product Trend Approach
The product trend approach describes opportunities that arise from global trends. This idea generation approach must fulfill several criteria in order to be sufficiently relevant.
The trend must be present in several areas of an individuals life and must influence both private and professional life situations. It must have a strong influence on individuals, serve different market segments, and last several months to years.
Once this trend has been identified, companies can add features and attributes derived from the trend to their products, combine the products with trend products or weaken negative features of the product from the trend point of view.
This approach to generating ideas can be interesting to start-ups and young companies as the resource expenditure is low and established companies often pick up on trends too slowly or not at all.
B) Innovation Mapping
Innovation mapping means taking on opportunities in market segments that appear unattractive to some. This idea generation approach is based on the concept of disruptive innovations.
Disruptive innovations reduce the products to their basic features and functions.
There are three main points where these opportunities can be identified when looking at:
- Currently non-customers
- Currently not relevant customers
- Products that customers want but don’t yet have a solution
Innovation mapping is used to create new markets. This is why it is highly relevant for start-up companies, as there is a comparatively high growth potential when generating ideas through an innovation mapping process.
In existing companies, a change in values usually has to take place and a fundamental understanding of the individual segments of the market has to be created. Out of all the idea generation techniques, Innovation mapping is therefore relatively resource-intensive.
For start-ups, this change in values and thus this expenditure of resources does not apply. This approach has high growth potential because new markets can be created.
C) Business Model Innovation
The business model innovation approach generates opportunities by bringing existing products to old or new customers through a change in customer benefit. This could be a new value proposition, a new revenue model, or new value creation.
Improving customer value can be achieved, for example,
- Converting products into services (e.g., flying lessons instead of airplanes)
- Offering to lease or renting instead of buying (e.g., renting tools)
- Creating performance dependency (e.g., performance-based consulting)
- Freemium offer (free and premium, free basic service, and additional service for a fee).
With this approach, new markets are conquered and new customers can be acquired. This approach basically pre-supposes an existing product.
This is also interesting for company start-ups as the change of the complete business model is the main focus and the implementation is relatively low in resources.
Reverse thinking can be a unique way to inspire a team that’s stuck or looking to shift its perspective. It can also be entertaining, to some degree, because it turns the world–and the team’s directives–upside down.
During group discussions, the team outlines their ultimate goal, and then brainstorms methods for achieving the opposite.
While this may seem counterintuitive, if the practice is successful, it works as an idea generator because it shakes the team loose of its set perspectives. By approaching the goal in this backwards fashion, unique ideas often reveal themselves.
Those can be mined for actionable approaches to the real goal.
6- Role Playing
If your team is a little dramatic, they may find role playing an effective brainstorming technique. This time, ask your team to adopt the persona of target groups: potential customers, current users of your services, visitors to your social media platforms, whatever group you’re hoping to reach.
The idea is to generate feedback as a member of that group. In order to successfully complete this idea generation experiment, you need to deeply understand the concerns and needs of the target group. Depending on your company’s needs, you may find someone in your organization already a member of that group. It’s an excellent opportunity to welcome voices into your product development program that aren’t often heard.
7- Forced Relationships
Another approach that can be a fun way of encouraging new ideas, particularly for product development, your team brainstorms different ways to bring two unrelated item or ideas together in a forced relationship.
For example: what products would you develop by combining your microwave with a touchscreen? A remote control unit with a teddy bear? A library of botanical information with a photosharing website?
The forced relationship encourages innovative thinking and the potential for creating new products.
It can also be a good way for your team to loosen up if you encourage some truly Seussian constructions!
What does the perfect interaction with a prospective client look like?
In storyboarding, teams take a page out of movie production and sketch out – literally – how a scene will progress. The process of drawing the scene prepares the team for potential challenges and helps them develop reactions to customers’ questions and solutions to their problems.
Don’t let your team get hung-up by their inability to draw like professional artists! The process of creating the storyboard and getting a visual on paper is the key, and that can be accomplished with stick figures, if necessary.
Idea Generation Processes
Invoking the Idea Generation Process requires dedication of resources. While good, new ideas can come at anytime–and they should be welcomed at anytime–more often, creative thinking is a result of seemingly uncreative preparation and structure.
Decision-makers need to create the environment and provide the tools that facilitate idea generation. Most importantly, leaders need to decide to make space for specific generative processes, deliberately and with an open mind that makes room for discovering the best solution at any given opportunity.
It’s a process without ego, where the desired outcome is the discovery of the next great idea, no matter where it comes from.
Young companies, such as start-ups, need an innovative idea generation technique with high growth potential and little resources needed. Opportunity recognition approaches offer one way to find and generate ideas for company growth, though any manner of formalized idea generation process can help an organization grow.
As Digital Leadership has laid out in this article, a good way to generate many ideas with few resources and in a relatively short time is a workshop.
Workshops bring participants together to explore a different perspective, certain idea generation techniques, and their own ideas to help them gain a better understanding of innovation processes. The conductor of the workshop should have a clear understanding of with idea generation technique the workshop is using, what the end goal is, and how to properly account for the intellectual work accomplished by the participants.
Some of these specifics will make an excellent topic for a future article.
Ultimately, bringing people from different departments together to brainstorm, create mind maps and involve them fully in the idea management and idea generation process will not only strengthen your team but lead to creative innovative changes far beyond what is possible on your own.