The Secrets to Effective, Efficient Ideation

by Adam Malofsky

The Secrets to Effective, Efficient Ideation

We all want to win the never-ending race for great, effective, profitable new ideas. We want these ideas without a huge effort, without a huge risk and without a huge investment. We also want ideas with impact, that are rapidly actionable and ideally that utilize mostly existing resources and relationships.

Most ideation is done in a highly periodic, no idea is bad, let’s go for quantity over quality kind of way. Usually an important, expensive consultant gets involved. The often given guidance for these all-day or multi-day activities that involve too many people for too long, but insure a long, expensive consulting engagement:

  1. Conduct periodic, major events
  2. Involve a large group of internal people
  3. Reserve judging ideas
  4. Go for as many ideas as possible
  5. Employ a professional facilitator
  6. Use a highly structured process or procedure
  7. Conclude by filtering, ranking & documenting the ideas

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have ever met a great inventor, scientist or businessperson who said “four times a year I’m going to brainstorm, maybe even just once or twice and do all of the above”.  Even better are those “innovate 10% of the time proclamations”. Does that mean that you are not innovative the rest of the time? The Apollo 13 crisis staff at NASA certainly did not do things that way. Neither did the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison.

So, then, what are the real secrets? Let’s try this guidance, building upon the great business people and inventors of the last few hundred years:

  1. Start not with ideas but with debating, noting global trends, needs, abstracted ideas
  2. Brainstorm constantly, as time allows, alone and in small groups – every day
  3. Involve diverse people, by experience, function and market
  4. The above, now including customers, their customers – the whole ecosystem
  5. Make absolutely sure you include the frontline – sales, tech service, biz dev, etc…
  6. Iterate a lot, identify what’s valuable – kill bad ideas quickly
  7. Go for relevant ideas that serve major trends in context to other options
  8. Develop varied internal champions to serve as facilitators
  9. Use a contexted approach, using tools sets that work for your unique group
  10. Regularly, periodically filter and re-rank documented ideas – it’s never over

Real ideation effectiveness means ideation whenever you can alone and in small groups, especially as the epiphany, the moment hits you, your group.  Even if you are forced into the big program, why not be examining trends, needs, abstractions and then developing ideas all of the time?  Ideation, realize, is not scheduled!

I also often involved contrarians who I knew would not easily be agreeable and or those who I knew had little knowledge about, say, the technology and so they would ask a lot of great, but simple, questions others would be coy about asking.  Go for a vigorous, live, aggressive debate. Small groups then can consistently develop more detailed, conceptual ideas and the associated pitch, storylines and min-business plans any start-up or corporate initiative should have.

These small group sessions often occurred around the water cooler, in an empty conference room, in someone’s office or at a restaurant over lunch. Many occurred and were initiated by sales and marketing after an extended trip or a unique customer visit. The point here – waiting for these highly structured, facilitated, often off site, periodic and infrequent brain storming sessions can by their nature be missing dozens of ideas before they ever got off the ground.

Great ideas come from a holistic, contexted world view. To this end, I’ve often involved highly varied co-workers, but not just friends, in my own groups. I always involve my customers and suppliers on understanding trends, needs and wants that often are indeed ideas. Your sales staff are the ever present customer contacts as are customer service and technical support. The big ideas often come from these constant exchanges. Build upon this and insure that these critical staffers have regular, encouraged contact with their in house, technical counterparts. Even better – require the internal technical, support, service and and marketing staff to spend time with customers, on the road regularly throughout the year. Get creative here. Customers usually truly appreciate the intent and purpose and the involvement.

The best? Have a idea about something? See a challenge? have the group, you, whoever do the actual job, use the actual products, experience the impact versus simply questioning, listening. Don’t just observe it, do it! This truly blows out the thinking and productivity.

Yes, there are bad ideas. Lots and lots of bad ideas. How many of us have heard the utterly absurd and then had an equally uninformed facilitator tell us to just let it go, to get the ideas down.  While filling time and pleasing the uniformed makes work and helps a consulting group fill the docket and justify a big bill, it does nothing for productivity. Time, people and money are scarce corporate resources to be carefully allocated and utilized.  Silly, bad or unsubstantiated ideas serve to frustrate those who see it right away and are not allowed to challenge or ask obvious questions. Allowing a person or group to present those ideas without question in the moment and then carry forward with them can be professionally damaging. Finally, they are just plain distracting and a waste of time. Sometimes the bad may actually be good, but without any rules or thought, the idea never seems good to begin with even if it is.

So what’s the solution? Companies must constantly develop context via a clear corporate mission and the surrounding influencing trends, communicate them constantly to provide employees that context and then often create multidisciplinary groups where soft knowledge and communication hones everyone’s understanding of the company and the context of their products and activities within the bounds of influencing trends. With this, bad ideas can be minimized.

To develop an idea, I think it’s important to have a few criteria for presenting one:

  1. What challenge or opportunity does the idea serve?
  2. A one line bi-line or pitch for the idea – the billboard phrase.
  3. How can we make money?
  4. Why would we be better?
  5. How can we quantify its value relative to other solutions or the situation?
  6. Have a customer and a customer’s customer around when you can for real feedback
  7. Experience the current solution and the new one, somehow – to truly understand

Such a simple approach forces the individual or small group to really look at ideas or concepts holistically and see where the fatal flaws may. The presentation also allows for developing deeper questions, modifying and improving the idea or by leaving an area blank, acknowledging to the group the hole and can someone please fill it in. This alternative approach delivers fewer but higher quality ideas to develop and then for rapid fire, continuous iterating and ranking to occur.

Now let’s talk about facilitation. I have found that while occasionally needing a professional facilitator, it’s often far better to train and develop staff for future business and management opportunities by allowing them to first self organize ideation groups and present the results for either other to review or subsequent further development. For emerging managers, particularly multidisciplinary or operation management, the ability to brainstorm and lead solution definition, conception, selection, development and implementation is critical to their and the company’s success. Utilizing outsiders may be great for training the aforementioned, but too often may add no real value long term to the organization and only exacerbates the punctuated innovation issue.  Indeed, attend training or coaching separately is best. There are many courses and programs for teaching these tools, but the bottom line is that some people are innately better and may need little to no training at all beyond discipline and a profound respect for others. The message – go inside long term for better benefits to your organization.

Now then, let’s talk about tools for ideation. The message here is that there should be no highly or overly structured process. Each group, whether one person, a small group or a large one will have it’s own likes and dislikes and so when one uses great internal or external facilitators, they are keen on understanding the people involved, their styles and backgrounds and the corporate culture and thus what tools will work for that particular group, time and situation. A general approach, or simplified process, should then be equipped with those tools the facilitator or individual sees as germane.   The point here – adapt to the situation, the group for maximum ideation effectiveness and results.

To close, utilizing a constant, ever evolving approach to internally led ideation can be far more effective and efficient for an organization.   Communicating the results and constantly monitoring the quality, quantity, life cycle and end results provide metrics for better corporate management versus the punctuated, periodic end of the big session summaries where the in between is lost.

Indeed, constant innovation, ideation, analysis and experience activity leads to a living organizational learning experience with terrific results far more often, at far less risk and at a far lower cost.

 
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Adam MalofskyAdam Malofsky, PhD is the Managing Director of Elemence, a cwhere they don’t just tell stories, they uncover them, experience them with you and together translate that into actual profitable products and services that fly off the shelf and change peoples lives. Reach Adam directly at 513-518-3550 EST!

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