Stop the Reckless Brainstorming and Focus your Creativity!

In their desperation to be innovative, companies often brainstorm themselves into idea overload, generating ideas that ultimately are failures. But what if companies could focus those brainstorming efforts and develop an efficient, targeted process for creativity? InnovationManagement asked Tony Ulwick to share his thoughts on how to leverage the creativity and get a better outcome.

In this context, creativity is the mental process by which an idea for a new product or service concept or feature is triggered and conceived. The goal is to figure out how the technologies, systems, methods, and processes that are possible or available might be used to address unmet customer needs and company objectives. But considering all the options that are possible and trying to conceive how each might contribute to a solution is daunting: there are thousands of possible permutations.

Over the years, a number of different methods, including lateral thinking, SCAMPER, and TRIZ (the theory of inventive problem solving), have been devised to help focus and trigger creativity. Companies have had varying degrees of success with these methods, but no one method has prevailed, largely because their principles are too abstract for easy use. For practical, day-to-day use, a company needs something more concrete and precise.

Although it may be counterintuitive, giving the idea generation process a structure actually enhances, rather than limits, creativity because it channels and focuses creative energy exactly where it needs to be.

By translating the creativity principles of several popular methods, including TRIZ, into a language that works within that framework, a comprehensive, an easy-to-use framework can be devised. The framework consists of three sets of concrete, focused, concept-level creativity triggers. These triggers are designed to help companies devise (1) new product and service platforms, (2) new business models, and (3) new product and service features. The framework will be an indispensible tool for those entrusted with coming up with their company’s next big idea. There are three rules to follow when tackling innovation with this framework:

  1. Conduct idea generation for only one type of idea at a time. Step one is to decide what types of ideas are desired and then to focus on just one type at a time. For example, if the goal is to generate ideas for a new product platform, then the innovation team should be instructed to generate ideas only for a new platform: now is not the time for ideas related to the business model or to features that may be included on the platform. Failure to follow this rule will result in a mix of ideas that cannot be considered or evaluated together— which is a recipe for confusion and failure.
  1. Generate ideas for platforms, then business models, then features. If your company desires radical innovation, then first generate ideas for new product or service platforms and have management approve the best of those ideas. Next, generate ideas for an effective business model and have management approve the best of those. Lastly, populate the new platform with a rich set of features that address all the customer’s unaddressed needs. If you’re not looking for radical innovation, but are simply improving existing products, then focus on generating new feature ideas only. Adhering to these rules will keep you from wasting time and effort.
  1. Focus idea generation on specific jobs and desired outcomes. When generating ideas for a new product or service platform, focus on the job or jobs the customer is trying to get done and generate platform-level ideas that will enable the customer to execute those jobs better, more cheaply, or both. When generating feature-level ideas, focus specifically on the outcomes by which the customer measures successful job completion—specifically, those outcomes that the customer is currently dissatisfied with—and devise one or more features that will dramatically improve their satisfaction with those outcomes. By focusing on these targets, you guarantee that you will come up with an idea of value.

Although it may be counterintuitive, giving the idea generation process a structure actually enhances, rather than limits, creativity because it channels and focuses creative energy exactly where it needs to be. Instead of generating hundreds of questionable ideas, this framework leads to the creation of a handful of breakthrough ideas that the organization can pursue with confidence and that customers are likely to treasure.

By Tony Ulwick

About the author

Tony Ulwick is the founder and CEO of Strategyn Inc., and the author of the best -selling book, What Customers Want. He has published numerous articles on innovation management in the Harvard Business Review and the Sloan Management Review. Founded in 1991, Strategyn has worked successfully with companies such as Microsoft, Chiquita Brands, Hallmark, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, WellPoint, Motorola and Pfizer, helping them establish effective innovation strategies and driving them through implementation.

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  • Paul Hobcraft

    Excellent advice

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  • Singer

    Ummm…exactly how does “management” determine the best of anything. Perhaps Harold Geneen and his ITT teams were able to discern the best, but that is EXTREMELY unlikely with the current crop of players!

  • Till Christopher Lech

    This appears to be an article reflecting management strategy of the early 90ies. I have to fundamental problems with the concept of “channelling creativity”. 

    1) The assertion that failure is a really bad thing. It’s not. Indeed, (survivable) failure is a largely necessary thing in order to foster innovation and success. If you do not allow failure, sustainable success will be modest and slow, as will your learning curve as an organisation. I recommend Tim Harford’s book on that matter.

    2) The idea that management knows best where to channel creativity. History is full of examples where management decisions has proven to be catastrophic, either because of limited information, the appearance of “black swans” or sheer incompetence. On the other hand side, history is full of examples of (grass root) projects, which – although initially unlikely to succeed – have become game changers.

  • Abel

    I’m not sure Tony directs his views towards avoiding failure  but rather increasing chances of success.

    Failure is certainly necesary in idea creation and should be tolerated but not indefinetly. Assuming that every idea being a failure should be accepted is the same as accepting that we have no clue about what we are doing or that we move by random impulses  

    Brainstorm, as understood by most, is the equivalent of trying to identify a gold mine by randomly digging  just anywhere.

    I can’t remember where, but once I read that “brainstorming does not create ideas, it simply taps on knowledge we forgot we had”.

    This is what I believe Tony refers to when refering to “Focusing creativity”: within the realm of brainstorming, creativity needs to be focused on the goal at hand not just on brainstorming for the sake of randomly spitting out thoughts.

    Regarding your comments on managment (also thsose of Singer).

    Managment determines exaclty the best out of brainstorming by Focusing creativity to corporate’s strategy. A car company most likely would have a different corporate focus than Music device manufacturers. Although can be that  have a relation to the other somehow, if the car company does not see media applications as a strategical area of growth for their business brainstorming in this direction is perhap fun, but most likely won’t bring any added value to them.

    The fact that poor managers have proven in the past to be unable to appropriately fulfill this task doesn’t imply that  every manager will always do so. You might want also to refer to the multitude of brilliant managers who took very profitable decisions for the sake of fairness.

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  • Chris

    This is good advice as far as it goes, but it omits a critical aspect of the framework: a set of screening and ranking criteria by which the ideas generated should be evaluated.

    Ideation gurus emphasize that wild ideas should be encouraged during brainstorming in order not to put dampers on the creative process. But once the brainstormed ideas are captured, there needs to be a formal process by which they are judged. Agreeing the screening and ranking criteria ahead of the brainstorming session will make the development of a new platform, service model, or feature-set more achievable. This - TC Lech’s comments notwithstanding – is the role of management.

  • Uday Pasricha

    It is now clear to most that constraints create the ideal environment to that yields the most innovative ideas. The result focused constraint is to allow ourselves to think only within “existing resources”. This only those ideas are acceptable that can be implemented and with no new resource required. This also reduces what is called failure and the only unknown is the extent of success till implemented. Almost always the cost of innovation is thus always borne by innovation allowing for sustainability of risk/reward. Brain storming is no longer economical when we are in this new era where the erosion of knowledge is faster than before. Now we need to innovate on demand due to rapid change in markets and hence constraints are the key. The guys who seem to have highly use able tools are SIT Systematic Inventive Thinking These tools get good results in short time when implementation with existing resources is the need.

  • Anonymous

    My favorite takeaway from this is to focus on one type of problem – so often brainstormings get sidetracked.  In addition to this, I see any activity that gets the people in the room out of their normal thinking patterns is indispensable.  That could be scribbling on paper, to jumping up and down wearing masks. 

  • Uday Pasricha

    Cognitive tools help to think counter intuitively. triz pioneered this for engineers and the earlier mentioned SIT provide the tools that help the mind think in unique ways Not normally easy. The focus within existing resources insures that ideas are implementable. For quick results this is a process. Others need to be tried because whatever gets you result that is measure able is the one for you.