Once upon a time in a previous work life, I was tasked by the business to put together a creative development process. They wanted a one pager, complete with boxes and arrows, a linear, step by step guide marked out in days and weeks, to help them demand great advertising out of their creative agencies. It was a near impossible task.
The thing about ideas is that the process of finding them is not linear. Not in the slightest. It is iterative, quite often random and more often messy.
However, when you read books on idea generation techniques, it can feel like a simple, straightforward process. In his book ThinkerToys (which I highly recommend), Michael Michalko talks through the principles of a technique called SCAMPER, using the example of McDonalds. These are great techniques, but at first read, it seems that for every problem McDonalds had, a quick and simple solution was found using the SCAMPER techniques.
It might lull you into thinking that problem solving is simple, that idea generation is linear. It is not. It is easy to apply a retrospective view on the final winning idea, linking it back to how a technique (which may or may not have been used) would have got you there, but the process of getting to that winning idea would have required a lot more work, thinking and wild goose chases along the way.
So what can you do to give you the best chance of having a great idea? Here are five key steps to keep in mind.
1) Understanding the problem
This is an absolutely essential first step. This is not about the objective of your project (for example, we see an untapped market in providing a breakfast cereal to reach teenage girls), it is about the problem you want your ideas to solve (eg: teenage girls don’t eat cereal before school, they are operating on empty all day and then filling up on junk at lunch).
Remember, idea generation is all about problem solving. The clearer you are about the problem you want this idea to solve, the better shot you have at ensuring the ideas you develop are on on target. What is the problem you are having as a business that requires solving, and more importantly, why does that problem exist in the first place?
2) Defining the problem
Once you understand the problem, it is key to define it in such a way that it is both inspiring and directive. You don’t want to restrict your definition of the problem with too many solutions. You want to open it up, but at the same time, be very clear about the playing field you are operating in. You want your problem statement to inspire ideas right from the get go, but it also needs to set boundaries. Often, the first part of an idea generation process is an entire session just dedicated to defining the problem – it is that important to the outcome!
So, “How do we get teenage girls to eat breakfast cereal” is one way to do it, but a better way might be “How do we get teenage girls to fuel up for the day ahead.” Note, we’ve taken the word cereal, with all its preconceived assumptions out of the question. We’ve also removed breakfast here. This is a quick example, but in a problem definition session, you could come up with all manner of statements that might suit the task better.
Incidentally, the more mandatories you include in the definition, the less likely you are to come up with breakthrough ideas to solve the problem in the first place. It has to be a cereal, it has to look like this, it has to be available under this brand. Forget about those at this stage. You can apply them at the end, using creative technques to fit it all back together.
3) Get stimulated
Ideas don’t happen in a vacuum. Get out there andimmerse yourself in your target market, look at what your competitors (and perhaps even better, non-competitors) are doing in the space, talk to experts in related fields, explore trends that impact on your target market.
Even if you are just doing a one day workshop, ensuring you have stimulus related to the problem to springboard idea generation off is far more efficient than plain blue sky thinking.
In his book The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley has a chapter called “Innovation starts with an eye”. I often adapt this - because Ideas start with an Eye too, as does Insight.
4) Have lots of ideas
The more ideas you have, the more likely you are to have a good one. Getting great ideas is a matter ofquantity (at this stage) over quality. It is like gold panning. You’ve got to sift through lots of sand, pebbles and rocks before you find ideas that might just shine. Use a range of creative techniques to generate lots of ideas, before you get into culling stage.
5) Build in time (or culture!) to develop and test ideas
When you feel like you have an idea that has merit, it is time to move onto the next stage. The first round of idea generation merely gives us the thought starters. Building in time to really work through key ideas, to stretch them, build them and grow them into new thoughts and ideas that are stronger and more developed is where gems lie. When we find an idea in step 4 that we like, we have to then take the time to ask what could this look like? How could we apply this to our problem? Often the outputs of this are concepts, precepts or idea blue prints.
Often workshops end here, but in fact, it takes a lot of time to really work through and develop good ideas. When you leave the workshop with your concept boards or idea blue prints, that really is the start of the process to come up with winning solutions to your problem.
Giving team members space and time and a forum to think through the possible ways in which this idea can manifest itself as a solution to your problem is as important as having the idea generation in the first place. This is where iteration comes in. When new problems present themselves (because they do), they have to be solved (by going through the steps again). It takes time, and investment and commitment.
Which is why companies that have an ideas culture (or at least a team dedicated to solving the problem on an ongoing basis) tend to win over those with a one page process they need to adhere to.