Successful Ideation: Mindset + Methods

Define what Ideation means to your organization. Many companies practice some form of brainstorming or ideation. While it can be freeing to withhold restraints such as costs, technical matters, and enter into the unchartered frontiers of What If, a lack of focus and too few creative restraints make it a fun, but fruitless experience. This is what we call idle-ing instead of ideating. Thrilling, but a waste of time and money—incapable of generating the volume and range of ideas that make a difference.

Business objective, customer-centric orientation. With a genuine ideation, there is a clear, driving objective. Also, we have a crystalline expression of the people for whom we are creating solutions, tapping the part of our human nature that wants to help other people. These two points are key: the objective roots the set of ideation exercises in the business, technical, or organizational problem, while the persona-based role playing method keeps the session focused on something useful and usable, even desirable, for actual customers. In other words, we marry the business objective (the internal view of the problem) with the point of view of real customers (who embody the external experience of the problem). The marriage of market sense and human-centered design gives birth to an inspired and value-creating innovation portfolio.

It’s all in the mindset. The fallacy of fruitless brainstorming sessions is one where the moderator assumes that if you get people into a zone where there are no restraints that magic will happen. This zone of turning off the analytical part of the brain that thinks in binary code (such as right/wrong or smart/dumb) is important; it’s the mindset needed to enter the ideation session successfully. It is only the opening five minutes of the session, though, not the end goal. Create a mindset of playfulness. The session should be more like grammar school than graduate school, and, like falling in love, it should be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right. Play music. This is not business as usual.

Successful ideation methods. The way to harvest the creativity of the group is to have a set of methods, Custom Sprints. While we use more than 200 methods at the Studio, I’ll point out a handful of the most common here. Ideal experience for customers: depict an ideal experience for a customer would be in sensory detail. Brand swap: imagine that your product or service was redesigned by a team from Amazon,, Hasbro, Nike, Lunchables, etc. Indirect benchmarks: Host sprints that tease new perspectives from your group by providing external stimuli from indirect benchmarks. For example, if you are redesigning a University District, look at other types of campuses (corporate, hospital), other themed developments (malls and amusement parks), and places with an overarching brand of service (all-in-one resorts, travel web sites, etc.). Piggy backing: after an individual creates a set of ideas, have them pass the set to someone else and have the next person build upon the concepts, then share.

Truly successful ideations, like any productive meeting, take a lot of front-end planning. While just showing up and throwing ideas out can be exciting, a formal Ideation session should be deeply engaging and widely productive.

image credit: Steve Davis

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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis.

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1 Comment

  1. Simon Banks on August 3, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    Hi Michael,

    Love the approach in your article. Getting everyone involved in a myriad of experiences and approaches. Love that you mentioned fun as well!

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