Innovation can take many forms. Whether innovation involves creating a new consumer product or service, an innovative business model or your innovation is simply a new way of doing business, innovations fuel competitive advantage for your organization that helps you stand out to consumers. Innovation also helps build a stronger economy that makes things better for everyone.
But, where do those innovations come from? Occasionally, innovation comes from a moment of pure inspiration like the little light bulb above a character’s head in a comic strip. More likely, innovation comes from processes (and organizations) that foster ideation – that fuzzy front end where ideas form.
To help generate more ideas, here are some brainstorming strategies from IDEO, a leader in innovation management:
1. Sharpen the focus.
Start with a well-honed statement of the problem at hand. Edgy is better than fuzzy. The best topic statements focus outward on a specific customer need or service enhancement rather than inward on some organizational goal.
2. Write playful rules.
Ideo’s primary brainstorming rules are simple: “Defer judgment” and “One conversation at a time.” The firm believes in its rules so strongly that they’re stenciled in 8-inch letters on conference-room walls. “If I’m the facilitator and somebody starts a critique or people start talking, I can enforce the rules without making it feel personal,” Kelley says. Other rules include, “Go for quantity,” “Be visual,” and “Encourage wild ideas.”
3. Number your ideas.
“This rule seems counterintuitive — the opposite of creativity,” Kelley says. “But numbered lists create goals to motivate participants. You can say, ‘Let’s try to get to 100 ideas.’ Also, lists provide a reference point if you want to jump back and forth between ideas.”
4. Build and jump.
Most brainstorming sessions follow a power curve: They start out slowly, build to a crescendo, and then start to plateau. The best facilitators nurture the conversation in its early stages, step out-of-the-way as the ideas start to flow, and then jump in again when energy starts to peter out.
“We go for two things in a brainstorm: fluency and flexibility,” Kelley says. “Fluency is a very rapid flow of ideas, so there’s never more than a moment of silence. Flexibility is approaching the same idea from different viewpoints.”
5. Make the space remember.
Good facilitators should also write ideas down on an accessible surface. Ideo used to hold its brainstorms in rooms wallpapered with whiteboards or butcher paper. Lately, however, the group has started using easel-sized Post-it notes. “When the facilitator tries to pull together all the ideas after the session,” Kelley says, “she can stack up nice, tidy rectangular things instead of spreading butcher paper all the way down the hall.”
The core of IDEO innovation lies in its group brainstorming sessions operated in a non-threatening way that encourages innovative ideas. A key element implicit in IDEO is the composition of the group — which should include positive people with various backgrounds. To avoid group-think, brainstorming sessions should vary participants.
But, what if you’re not working for a large organization? Here are some suggestions for innovation and ideation in smaller organizations:
- Join or form a group of other folks interested in your industry to share ideas. A document should outline ownership of ideas so you avoid the problem Mark Zuckerberg had with others claiming ownership of Facebook.
- Crowdsource innovations from customers or other interested consumers. Some of the best ideas come from those who will use the innovation. For instance, the minivan is based on a concept derived directly from consumers’ reflections of transportation needs.
- Slow down and smell the roses. OK, they don’t have to be roses, but you should set aside time from your busy day for playful reflection. Sure, it’s important to be very strategic, but a certain playfulness (and daydreaming) promotes innovation.
- Take a class. Not something related to your work (although I strongly encourage lifelong learning), but something fun. Maybe a photography class or a cooking class. Travel and experience different cultures. Just keep your mind open to see things from a new perspective.
- Don’t be afraid to share ideas. Despite notions that the idea is the key to innovation, it’s often the commercialization that’s the biggest hurdle, not idea generation. Look at Xerox. They developed the interface Steve Jobs later incorporated into Apple computers — the graphical interface — but were never able to make any money from it.
- By the same token, be careful who you discuss innovative ideas with. Not because they might steal them, but because they can be negative about any idea and discourage you from pursuing something remarkable. Accountants and attorneys (except for patent attorneys) tend to be very risk-averse, so avoid discussing ideas with them until you’ve vetted the idea with business people.
My own recommendations are:
- to keep a notebook close at hand ALL THE TIME (or a small tape recorder). Many folks keep one next to their bed as great ideas often come at the moment just before you go to sleep or immediately upon waking.
- Read, listen, network — the more you’re exposed to news, gossip, or other bits of information, the more you’ll be tuned in to what others are thinking. I get my best ideas from All Things Considered on NPR as I’m fighting traffic home every evening. The key here is to get out of your comfort zone.
- There’s no such thing as a bad idea. People try to begin analysis during a brainstorming session. This is deadly to the creative process. All ideas should be considered. The next step is the point where analysis comes in.
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