Five Successful Ideation Session Essentials

Five Successful Ideation Session EssentialsBy Dr. Michael Ohler and Dr. Phil Samuel

It may be a new trend: “Could you help us conduct an ideation session?” What used to be called “brainstorming” now seems to be coined “ideation.” We think there’s more to the trend than selling old wine in a new bottle. Over the past several years, we have responded by experimenting with what has become one of our standard offerings: a “Facilitated Ideation Session.” This article lays out the principles and foundations in order to share them with other problem solving practitioners. We also add practical hints for how to conduct such sessions successfully.

Semantic Definition of the Ideation Process

A Google search for “ideation” reveals almost 6 million hits—an unlikely sign of worldwide agreement on the term. Wikipedia still keeps a low profile: “Ideation is the process of creating new ideas.” In approaching the term semantically, we see that words ending in “-ation” typically describe a process, and the root of “ideation” is “idea.” That term goes back to the Greek philosopher Plato. In the “Allegory of the Cave” he describes the “idea” of, say, a dog as what all worldly dogs have in common. Any “real” dog is merely an imperfect “shadow” of the “idea of a dog.”

Transferring that understanding to problem solving, an “ideal” solution to a problem is not the “best possible” one, as today’s everyday speech has it, but rather the minimum set of all elements that must be part of any given solution to a problem. As Medieval scholastic thinking has it, such a minimum set of elements form the “essence.” Quite logically, the essence of a solution must be based on the essence of the underlying problem.
Add today’s understanding of an “idea” to this line of thought: “I have an idea on how to solve that problem” means “I have a concept” of one specific solution. Let’s describe in these terms the process of ideation as shown in Figure 1. From a specific problem we extract the essence of the problem, which guides us toward the essence of all possible solutions from where we derive solution concepts to select those we like best.

 Figure 1 - The Ideation Process
Figure 1: The Ideation Process

The purpose of this paper is to highlight the “essence” (in its very scholastic sense) of ideation sessions. We believe that clear definition of the problem(s) to be solved, divergence and convergence, exploration inside and outside the paradigm, adaptive and innovative problem solving styles and an efficient facilitation process must all be elements of successful ideation.

1. Define the Opportunity Clearly

A common mistake with many innovation approaches is starting the innovation process with an idea (in today’s understanding of the term). Our clients often complain that the ideas their employees have submitted through their idea portals have gone nowhere. We agree with them and, in fact, unfortunately, most ideas are indeed found worthless. We believe that one of the main reasons most ideas are never brought to life successfully is the insufficient understanding and validation of the opportunity at hand. An insight attributed to Albert Einstein puts the emphasis on this “front end” of the ideation session: “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend the first 50 minutes understanding the problem.” Opportunity is the flipside of the problem. Understanding the problem, what it is and what it’s not, from all different perspectives is the key to success.

In our experience, what is most practical for defining the opportunity is the “Job” people try to get done when solving a problem and the associated “Outcome Expectations” they have while doing so. These two concepts combined, form the solution-neutral needs of the customer (internal or external). Customers simply “hire” a solution to get a job done. We are all familiar with the quote from Professor Ted Levitt of Harvard Business School, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” The job customers are trying to get done is to make quarter-inch holes in order to install a shelf for their family. The current solution they are hiring is a quarter-inch drill. Focusing on the job helps companies look beyond the current solution. Understanding the job and the criteria a customer uses to hire the solution, the Outcome Expectations, should be the driver for any ideation session.

2. Allow for Separate Phases of Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Ideation requires both divergent and convergent thinking. In the context of ideation, divergent thinking involves generating multiple ideas to address the problem statement formulated and, therefore, increasing options based on the problem definition. Ideas at this phase can come from anywhere relative to the current technical domain or paradigm. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, involves narrowing down the number of potential solutions to pursue and thus reducing the solution space to “a few” potential viable options. Once again, the chosen ideas can fall anywhere relative to the current technical domain or paradigm.

The success of divergent thinking is limited by three barriers: idea killers, psychological inertia and overflow. The need for convergent thinking tends to be under-addressed in the facilitation of ideation sessions. Even if teams say “all ideas are welcome,” to make that a sincere statement, rules and policies must be in place. We like to have the “top 10 idea killers” as a poster on the wall and equip the ideation workshop participants with bells they can ring whenever they think an idea is killed.

More subtle than idea killers and harder to identify and overcome is psychological inertia. A word in the problem description, a biased team, experience or plain group think can guide teams into a direction Genrikh Altshuller calls “vector of inertia” [1]. This psychological inertia can be overcome with lateral thinking or many idea generation techniques such as Random Stimulus.

Altshuller also warns teams not to overshoot their striving for divergence. Techniques like Random Stimulus can yield an overflow of worthless lines of thought. The valuable ones can then all too easily be overlooked. According to Darrell Mann [2], “Ideation teams do not need a random word out of an entire dictionary. They need those essential few words that spark a successful search in the most promising areas.”

Figure 2 - Psychological Inertia and the Vector of Inertia
Figure 2: Psychological Inertia and the Vector of Inertia (adapted from Altshuller 1973)

Advocates of diversity and divergent thinking can easily overlook an equally important aspect: Even though all lines of thought are welcome, not all are good. Therefore, after a phase of divergent thinking, there must be another phase of convergent thinking, when irrelevant ideas are indeed killed. As Alex F. Osborn pointed out in 1953 [3], the time to create new ideas needs to be carefully separated from the time to evaluate those ideas and sort out the bad ones. Ideally, this separation takes place in space and time, as well as with different team members. At the very least, let the team have a break.

3. Stimulate Thinking Inside and Outside the Box

Ideation requires thinking both inside and outside the current box and an understanding of what the box is. Risky but glamorous and successful innovations have created a dangerous paradigm that thinking outside the box is “better.. This paradigm leads to a lack of appreciation of ideas from within the box. (For more on this topic, read “Breakthrough Thinking from Inside the Box” [4]). Others, who see this trend as merely fashionable group-think, may be over-cautious and even develop an almost allergic counter-reaction to such thoughts.

Problem solving teams can’t know up-front where a solution will come from. Therefore, successful ideation requires a balance of thinking from both inside and outside the box. The before-mentioned article provides numerous examples of breakthrough from inside the box. Apple’s iPod and iTunes, Amazon’s “single click shopping” or the use of Carbon Monoxide as bio-marker and therapeutic agent are often cited as examples for successful breakthrough from outside the box.

Let us equally look at failure. Failure to change the paradigm is well-demonstrated by Kodak, one of the most successful companies during the 20th century. We now know Kodak considered themselves for too long a “film company.” As a consequence, they failed to catch the “digital wave” in time, in spite of the fact that the world’s first digital camera was invented by one of Kodak’s employees. Yahoo, on the other hand, dismissed for too long “search” as merely yesterday’s technology and instead focused on looking for the next big thing. Beforehand we never know which approach is right. Hence, it is important to explore full-heartedly both inside and outside the current system.

Key to a successful ideation session is also to understand what the box is. Current technology, regulations, shareholders, beliefs and values—there may be many constraints, perceived or true, to our freedom to explore the entire solution space. Naming these constraints allows us to “creatively challenge” them one by one. This can guide the creative thinking of teams toward the identification of breakthrough.

That understanding can also guide the team to a better appreciation of under-exploited elements within the system. Resource Optimization is a tool to help teams explore the riches within a given system.

Figure 3 - Thinking within perceived constraints misses the best possible solution
Figure 3: Thinking within perceived constraints misses the best possible solution

4. Include all Problem Solving Styles

Decades of psychological research based on Dr. Michael Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Theory (KAI) has shown that all humans are creative—in their own way. However, people tend to underappreciate styles different from their own and confuse that difference with the other person’s capabilities, which they tend to perceive as inferior. For example, a person who likes to produce many “wild” ideas during an ideation session might perceive as “less creative” the person who produces a few but well-thought-out ideas. Dr. Kirton’s research has shown there are three dimensions to how people are creative and solve problems. A balance among all three, both in their “adaptive” and in their “innovative” expression (as per the Adaption-Innovation Theory), is required in an ideation session.

During an ideation session, it is unknown whether, firstly, many “wild” or a few “focused” ideas will be needed; secondly, properties within the current system need to be better explored or that system should rather be replaced; and thirdly, the problem solving process should focus on keeping all participants engaged or allowing them to break free from rules and team-consensus.

The KAI theory equips us with a framework and a reliable measurement instrument to understand this highly important aspect of human creativity. Using the psychometric instrument that is the KAI Inventory allows ideation teams to work together far better by allowing the participants to appreciate their own problem solving styles, as well as those of other participants.

Let us share here insight gained from our work with ideation teams in an insurance company and a pharmaceutical company. Their continuous improvement teams struggled to integrate well with their organizations. Results of previous studies (see Dr. Kirton’s book on KAI [5]) have shown that these two industries tend to attract, on average, the more adaptive problem solvers out of the general population. However, we found the styles of these continuous improvement team members as significantly skewed toward the innovative side in both companies. Could it be that more innovative people in adaptive companies seek refuge from their environment? In their search for refuge, could innovators even welcome disciplined problem solving such as Lean Six Sigma? In the two companies we studied, Lean Six Sigma teams were systematically led by individuals who tended to make more and, in consequence, less-pondered contributions. Continuous improvement team leaders there were more likely to give up established procedures earlier than their team members from the line-organization and they also tended to be less confined by rules and consensus. Is it then a surprise these continuous improvement teams struggled to get a grip in their respective organizations?

The statement we are making here is not that innovators should mingle among innovators and adaptors among adaptors. On the contrary, the largest possible range of problem solving styles is needed when it comes to exploring a problem from all sides. The inclusion of all styles and a true appreciation of those styles need to be conscious decisions. In doing this, individuals and teams will encounter “coping,” which can then turn strains into a healthy boost, leading to even more creativity than would otherwise have been possible to achieve.

5. Ensure an Efficient Facilitation Process for Ideation Teams

There are several schools of thought on what techniques would best facilitate ideation sessions. We do not subscribe to only one of them but rather argue in favor of an “agnostic” approach. For one team at one company, the true north provided by the Ideal Final Result may be what is needed. In other cases Six Modes of Thinking, Contradictions, TILMAG or another approach may be more appropriate to help the team.

The facilitation of ideation sessions is an art we can only perfect throughout our lives. The building and maintaining of the helpful relationship between the facilitator and the team needs to be based on a balanced mutual appreciation and must overcome the natural distortion of the relationship by the asymmetry between helped and helper. In his book “Helping,” Edgar H. Schein, emeritus MIT professor, lays the foundation for “humble enquiry” as a basis for what is important in ideation sessions.

According to Schein [6], “humble inquiry” is the key process activity in building and maintaining the helping relationship. It encompasses both an attitude and a behavior of the helper, and embodies “accessing your ignorance” and becoming open to what may be learned from each other in the actual situation through observing, genuine open empathic questioning, careful listening, self-inquiry, not judging but suspending judgment, and shifting helping roles as necessary. We believe that the role of the facilitator is an important fifth aspect of successful ideation sessions.


Ideation sessions can indeed be conducted in a multitude of ways that best suit facilitator and facilitated team. Any of these ways must be based on the essence of ideation, or the team’s creative output will be below its potential. We think success resides in the five essentials covered above and their skillful application.


[1] Altschuller, G.S., (1973): Erfinden (k)ein Problem. Published in Eastern Germany by Tribüne editing house. See page 93.
[2] Mann, D., (2002): “Klondike versus Homing Solution Searches“, TRIZ Journal, February 2002.

[3] Alex F. Osborn, Applied Imagination – Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking, New York 1953

[4] Coyne, K.P., Clifford, P.G., and Dye, R., (2007), “Breakthrough Thinking from Inside the Box”, Harvard Business Review, December 2007

[5] Kirton, M.J., (2004), Adaption-Innovation in the Context of Diversity, Rutledge

[6] Schein, E. H. 2009a. Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive help. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

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Phil SamuelDr. Phil Samuel is Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) for BMGI, a management-consulting firm specializing in performance excellence and innovation. An integral part of BMGI’s management team since 2005, Phil brings more than a decade of experience to his role as CIO, helping clients in-source creativity and increase organic growth potential.

Michael OhlerDr. Michael Ohler is a Principal at BMGI. With a background in research, Michael has worked for over a decade and a half on project management, continuous improvement, innovation and strategy.

Michael Ohler




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