Generating a large number of ideas is a key part of the creative thinking process. The more ideas you come up with the more likely you are to find something truly innovative. But having a long list of ideas creates an issue. How do you select the best ideas to carry through to implementation?
Have you ever been in a brainstorm session where you filled flip charts with ideas and then the manager said, ‘Thanks very much, leave those with me and I will analyze them later.’ And then you never heard anything again? The ideas on their own are just the starting point. Without proper evaluation there will be no follow through to completion.
For brainstorms and creative thinking sessions the evaluation phase of the process is critical and typically needs as much time and attention as the idea generation stage. In evaluation we switch from suspending judgment to exercising critical judgment in order to whittle down the ideas to a short-list of actionable items.
How do you evaluate the ideas? By setting some selection criteria. The criteria should be reasonably broad but not vague. ‘We are looking for good ideas,’ is too fuzzy – all sorts of things can get through. ‘We want ideas we can implement immediately with no extra resource,’ is almost certainly too tight and will result in good ideas being rejected.
Say you were analyzing ideas for new products. The criteria you agree might be:
- Will customers like it?
- Is it technically feasible?
- Will it make money?
Each idea is then assessed against these measures. A recommended general set of criteria for all sorts of ideas is the FAN method from Synectics. Are you a FAN of the idea? i.e.:
- Is it feasible?
- Is it attractive?
- Is it novel?
The third criterion here is important to ensure that fresh ideas are valued highly.
The British retail giant, Tesco, uses the following criteria for selecting ideas in brainstorms or suggestions sessions.
- Is it better? (For customers)
- Is it simpler? (For staff)
- Is it cheaper? (For Tesco)
Any idea that is better, easier and cheaper is likely to be a good idea and will probably be approved. Putting the criteria into context – e.g. simpler for staff – makes it easier to understand and apply.
Choose the criteria you want and then apply them rigorously to the ideas on your list.
Group evaluation methods
If you are working in a group and have used the criteria above to construct a short list here are some methods for selecting the best ideas to implement:
- Each person is given 5 ‘ticks’ they can spend. They come to the front and puts ticks next to their favorite ideas. The ideas with the most ticks go forward. This method is quick and energetic but it does mean that some of the more obscure ideas may be overlooked. Their potential may be developed if they are discussed. Another possible drawback is that in controversial or political situations people can be inhibited or influenced by the opinions of others.
- There is a secret ballot and people write on slips of paper their favorite ideas. This overcomes the problem of political correctness where people may be afraid to support controversial ideas or may be influenced by the more powerful voices in the room. There is no discussion during the ballot but once the ideas are ranked the group discussion can begin.
- Each person in turn states their favorite idea. The facilitator goes around the room and gives everyone the opportunity to speak. This is quick and interactive but it means that the people who speak later can be unduly influenced by what has gone before.
It is important to remember to separate the two types of thinking used in the two stages of the brainstorm process. We use divergent thinking while generating ideas. We suspend judgment and generate a long list of ideas including silly and unreasonable ideas. When we have enough ideas or when we have exhausted our creative process then we use convergent thinking to select the best ideas. We can now be critical and analytical. We compare the ideas against clear criteria and make judgements as to which will succeed and which will not. Many people mix the two methods and apply convergent thinking to eliminate lines of enquiry as they go along. This is fatal; many potentially fruitful ideas will be killed at birth. Stay divergent in idea generation and only use convergent thinking when you move to the evaluation phase.
Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.