Innovation Failure Points – Idea Generation

Innovation Failure Points - Idea GenerationAs strange as it may seem, one of the most innocuous and simple activities within an innovation process is also one of the most common failure points. Idea generation, a task that any child can do effectively, is a daunting task for many firms, and a common innovation failure point, for a number of reasons. This post is part of a continuing series of posts on innovation failure points across the innovation process. Previously we’ve examined a “weak link” at the start, when linking to strategy, and when gathering insights from customers and prospects. Today, we look at the strangest failure point of all – the one task everyone should do well.

The first reason is cynicism. Too many people approach an idea generation session with a tremendous amount of cynicism. Most of them don’t expect the meeting to be conducted well, don’t expect their ideas to be heard or valued, and don’t expect anything to happen to the ideas once the session is over. In many ways, idea generation often fails before it starts. It’s hard enough to encourage people to lower their defenses and actively engage, especially when the cynicism about idea generation is so high. Most organizations fail to get the best ideas out of their people, and are usually happy to walk away from idea generation sessions with very obvious incremental ideas. Most idea generation sessions are failures hailed as triumphs.

The second reason most idea generation sessions are failures is due to poor facilitation and planning. Many idea generation sessions are run by the individual who needs the ideas, and who has pre-conceived notions or bias. Many of these individuals aren’t even aware that they steer the conversation and reject ideas out of hand during the event. Often there’s little planning, poor problem definition and scope development. The facilitation of the event matters as well. A good idea generation session involves everyone who is invited, breaks the participation barriers and encourages wild, even crazy ideas, to allow those ideas that are just beyond the mainstream to emerge. Poor planning and facilitation dampen the engagement and involvement, and once again lead to a small number of ideas that are relatively obvious.

The third reason most idea generation sessions are failures is due to a lack of follow up. Even in situation where the planning and preparation work is done well, and the cynical participants are pleasantly surprised by the engagement of the team and the positive facilitation, it is exceptionally easy to fail if the individual or team responsible for actually evaluating the ideas fails to do so, or simply becomes a “black box”. If the ideas aren’t followed up, and if the results of the session aren’t publicized, then all the good work up front goes for naught.

The final reason most idea generation sessions are failures is that we overly emphasize one tool – brainstorming. Like the old adage says, when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail. If there are fifty ways to leave your lover, there must be nearly as many methods and techniques to generate ideas. Brainstorming is a valuable tool, massively misused and overused. Consider learning and implementing some new techniques, like brainwriting which will involve those more reticent to provide ideas in public, or SCAMPER to provide a set of tools, or use analogies from other industries. These are just a few tools that can help generate ideas. Remember the tools can be situational and more or less valuable depending on the participants and the kinds of ideas to be generated.

No doubt you are thinking that idea generation is a serious failure point. You’d be right. A task that is conducted everyday, in many organizations, that is considered such a useful tool, is so often abused and misused that it creates a tremendous amount of distrust and cynicism, which then creates a vicious cycle. Each new idea generation session that’s run poorly, or planned poorly, or doesn’t result in actions on the ideas simply ramps up more cynicism. What should be a fun, engaging and valuable experience becomes drudgery that people choose to avoid if possible, and usually results in very incremental ideas.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

Jeffrey Phillips




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No Comments

  1. Maya Mathias on May 22, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Hi Jeffrey, I really enjoyed reading this post! It brings back not-too-pleasant memories of being constantly demotivated by failed brainstorming and idea generation sessions throughout my corporate career 🙂

    Speaking of a multitude of idea generation techniques, you may find my recent articles on applying improvisational principles to business creativity/innovation interesting. I’ve been amazed at the power of this tool to quell cynicism and foster true co-creation.


  2. Roger Richardson on May 24, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    When looking at brainstorming sessions output has the gorilla in the room effect been considered? When you are asked to count the balls you cannot see the gorilla. The same thing applies when discussing ideas. The concentration is on a single area of expected improvement so ideas are seen through that mindset. IF there was a meeting on the unused ideas later without concentrating on a specific problem solution there might be discarded jewels in those ideas.

  3. Adam on June 5, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Hmmm. I have to say I disagree completely. In my experience, idea generation is easy. I can’t say I recall seeing an idea generation session fail to produce lots of ideas (some of them good ones). What I have seen time and time again is these ideas go nowhere because the organization didn’t have the guts to push them forward.

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