Monday, August 07, 2006

What's wrong with idea generation

I wasn't sure whether to title this post as a question or a statement. There's clearly a lot of effort going into idea generation in many businesses, and it seems quite a lot of that work is wasted or not put to good use. I think there are several reasons why we fail fairly consistently at idea generation:

- Brainstorms are often run with poor framing or context
- Facilitation of a brainstorm requires different skills than managing other meetings
- Too few people are involved in ideation
- The teams don't believe the ideas will we acted on
- There's poor communication throughout

I had the opportunity recently to sit in on a new IBM initiative around brainstorming. Over a three day people people from all over the world sat in on a virtual ideation session over the web. I don't know what IBM will do with the ideas or how they'll be used, but it seemed to me a great use of technology but a poor focus on the outcome. IBM asked contributors to submit ideas in four rather large and vague topic areas. Viewing the ideas and the commentary around the ideas, many were interesting but vague or difficult to implement. "Cut greenhouse gas emissions" for example. That's a great idea. But, how exactly? Where? In automobiles or in lawnmowers? Too often our idea generation is simply too poorly focused and too vague to be put to good use. Ideation sessions should be free form and flowing, and should encourage wild ideas, but they should be shaped and focused around specific topics or outcomes. The question should have been asked: How can we cut greenhouse gasses by 30% in the next five years from lawn equipment? That would have generated some very specific ideas that could be put into effect quickly.

This points out a problem of facilitation. Most meetings are run by executives who have a couple of goals in mind: run to the agenda, get a few decisions made, end on time. Many people who facilitate ideation sessions and brainstorms do a poor job of managing brainstorms because they have little training in the differences between a traditional meeting and a brainstorm. In a brainstorm the facilitator needs to help people open up, explore ideas, and encourage discussion and idea generation, not follow a specific agenda. The more communication and discussion, the more idea generation, the better, as long as it is serving the ultimate goals. So, setting a good topic or goal and then facilitating to that expectation is important, and often lacking.

Next, most firms involve far too few people in ideation. We go back to the same people, the same teams over and over again, instead of inviting others who may have different ideas and perspectives. Does your team involve a wide range of ever-changing faces in its brainstorming and idea generation? Do you incorporate people from your business partners, your vendors and your customers? How many times do you hear "We've examined that idea before"? If you hear that a lot, you don't have a broad enough team.

Let's assume your team ran a successful brainstorm - the team was a cross-section from a number of different business functions that had a good, specific goal in mind when brainstorming and was led by a competent facilitator. A number of great ideas were generated. What's the next step? How do those ideas move from concepts on a sheet of paper into actual action? Is the completion of the brainstorm a simple checkbox on someone's to do list, or does this begin a new process of idea evaluation? Too often, nothing happens once the brainstorm is complete. People become jaded about the outcomes and don't want to waste valuable time attending brainstorms where the results aren't taken seriously. There must be a logical progression once the ideas have been generated as to what the important next steps are, and who will take them.

Finally, there's really very poor communication about the entire process. Think about the last brainstorm where you were a participant. More than likely you were invited to a brainstorm which had a fuzzy definition and unclear outcomes. You were led by a person who had a specific set of goals and shut down some lines of thought. At the end of the brainstorm, the ideas were collected and you never knew what happened or how they were evaluated. What's your likely response to the next brainstorm? Instead, the teams need to clearly define the goals, manage the brainstorm effectively, and let people know after the fact how ideas are considered and evaluated, what decisions were made and why, so they know their contributions were taken seriously.

It seems to me that far too often, many businesses consider the serious work of ideation and brainstorming as a mini-vacation from actual "work" and don't take seriously the process or the outcomes. Then they wonder why innovation is so "hard" and where the next great ideas are going to come from.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:49 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's wrong with idea generation? Plenty.

Traditional methods for ideation and creative problem-solving often suffer from a lack of clarity around the problem definition, a paralyzing psychological inertia that prevents ‘fresh’ thinking, an historical tendency to continue to accept limiting tradeoffs and constraints and an overload of technical information but yet a lack of relevant knowledge.

Ideation is typically pursued through brainstorming sessions with subject matter experts. To be sure, lateral thinking techniques, mind-mapping and group facilitations can be valuable. However, such psychological strategies are hit-or-miss at best and provide management with no confidence of a successful return on the investment. Putting bright people into a room and then hoping for a flash of divine inspiration is not a strategy – it’s a prayer.

The difficulty of creative ideation and thinking out-of-the-box is further compounded by the fact that initiatives are often rushed to solution without a thorough understanding of the problem or task at hand. All too often the ‘quick-fix’ is inadequate and subsequent rework cycles will be needed.

To increase the challenge further, project teams rarely have access to the information they need. Organizational experience is buried in project folders and departmental silos, or lost due to workforce turnover and contraction. And relevant information from other scientific disciplines is invariably beyond reach. Yet without the benefit of knowing what has already been done, project teams continue to reinvent the wheel.

Although current processes and methods are often ineffective, managers are reluctant to change. They lack awareness of viable alternatives, and they are paralyzed by the misconception that innovation cannot be a structured, repeatable and taught process. Fear of failure feeds the inertia. Yet proven solutions (check out Goldfire Innovator) do exist and are being used effectively in many hundreds of companies worldwide.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guys, guys...Ed Sickafus has nailed it on the head with Unified Structured Inventive Thinking (USIT) (see TRIZ Journal). All of yours and the commentators concerns are thoroughly addressed. Esp. lack of problem definition.

I tried to start a group on this, snagged 50 or so members, but it was hard to get them. Nobody cares. Cancelled group don't have time for no reward forum.

An early version of USIT was taught for years at Ford Motor Company.

7:41 PM  
Anonymous Brett said...

I enjoyed your post. From my experience I keep coming back to one word...Expectations.

Someone in a position of authority gives you the charge of getting a group of people together to generate cutting edge ideas to "re-position" a product, corporate identity, or re-fill the bucket of ideas that the B.O.D. will blindly grab from to sound "new" and "fresh".

No plan...just fishing without a hook.

It's no wonder teams lose the desire to be creative or be innovative thinkers.

Would you if you knew that the next step was in fact the Bermuda Triangle of all your team's efforts?

Not a chance.

Again...great thoughts you had.

Check out my blog if you get a chance. I am having a great time taking tales from my 4 year old and challenging the way we look at our common, everyday world.


It's healthy to have a foundation of them.

All the best,


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