This is why it is important at the very earliest stages of any idea generation activity (be it a local brainstorming session, an anticonventional thinking action, a corporate suggestion scheme or a massive on-line brainstorm using special software – such as ours, see advert below) to decide what kind of ideas you will choose to implement. With this preparation you can do three things:
Let’s look at each of these points in a little more detail:
The biggest mistake you can make in any idea generation exercise is to select ideas based on votes for the “best idea”. As we have seen in the past, research has shown that voting in on-line suggestion schemes, ideas campaigns or any similar system is counter-productive. Voting merely identifies the first popular ideas submitted to the system and often hides the most creative and original ideas.
The second biggest mistake you can make is simply to decide to select the best idea. “Best” is a vague word. In any social group, whether it be a team, a company or a government institution, “best” would typically connotate an idea that most conforms to the group’s norms. For instance, if your office is furnished with Ikea furniture, the best office chair will be a nice Ikea chair or at least one that looks like an Ikea chair and fits the Ikea style of your office.
Compare that with the most comfortable chair, the most durable chair or the most original chair. If any of these were your criteria for chair selection, your choice would be different to your “best” choice and, ironically, would prove to be a better choice than the best choice in terms of meeting your criteria!
Another consideration to make is that ideas that at first seem outlandish may well prove to be potentially the most innovative. Nevertheless, their initial outlandishness makes them likely to be rejected by someone simply choosing the best ideas. By comparing ideas to a good criteria set, seemingly outlandish ideas may reveal themselves to be rich in potential value and hence likely innovations.
As an example of this, I like to imagine a team, in the pre-bottled water era, who are brainstorming ideas for a new soft drink. People suggest ideas like drinks with a hint of lemon, drinks tasting of exotic fruit and so on. But one person suggests: “how about if we put tap water in a bottle and sell it at the same price as we sell our existing soft drinks?” Most people would reject such an idea as silly. “Who would pay for tap water?” However, if you were to compare the idea to criteria, such as profit potential, ease of manufacture, fit with existing products and low risk, bottled water would immediately be revealed to be an excellent idea.
So, the key lesson here is that if you want to innovate, avoid the term “best” like the plague!
Whether you are running a small brainstorm session in a room or a massive on-line brainstorm involving everyone in your company, communicating the kind of ideas you want will help them focus on relevant ideas. Some people will argue that this is not a good strategy because it may restrict the brainstormers’ thinking. I would argue that it focuses thinking. Moreover, there are many things you can tell brainstormers. It may not be necessary to give detailed engineering specifications when you are looking at redesigning an electronic product. But you can communicate that you are specifically looking for ways to reduce the size of the product so it can fit easily into a pocket.
This kind of information may result in fewer ideas, but it should result in a greater number of relevant ideas. And remember, the aim of any idea generating and development exercise is not get as many ideas as possible. Rather it is to generate ideas you need to solve a specific problem.
In my anti-conventional thinking approach: if you are looking for creative ideas, tell brainstormers that you specifically want creative ideas; or you can use terms like “outrageous”, “outlandish”, “unusual”, “unique”, “crazy” and so on. Words like these encourage brainstormers to reject conventional ideas and push for unconventional ideas. Again,this results in fewer ideas, but a much higher level of creativity.
Being able to push ideas from conception to implementation quickly ensures people maintain enthusiasm.
A classic problem with many brainstorming activities, especially those that generate truly novel ideas, is that those novel ideas are often not implemented. This is because a lot of effort goes into encouraging creativity as well as managing software and brainstormers, but little thought goes into what will happen after the ideas are generated.
If you hope and anticipate that a brainstorm will result in very creative ideas which you hope will go on to become breakthrough innovations, you probably need to think about how those ideas will be implemented. In particular, what bottlenecks can you anticipate? Is your company plagued by review committees that are adverse to risk like cats are to water? Is your company the kind where people talk about ideas in an endless stream of meetings but no one is willing to take responsibility for approving an idea? Does your company have strict purchasing rules that might make unusual ideas difficult to put forward?
Thinking in advance about these potential bottlenecks and preparing mechanisms that will facilitate the implementation of ideas can save you and the brainstormers a lot of headaches later. Sure, you can wait until the ideas are generated before trying to work out the bottlenecks and pushing the ideas through. But this takes time and during that time, those responsible for ideas may well lose interest. Being able to push ideas from conception to implementation quickly ensures people maintain enthusiasm.
Moreover, by identifying bottlenecks and developing methods to deal with them, you will gain knowledge that can be used in the evaluation and development of ideas. For instance, learning that purchasing services is easier for invoices of under €10,000 allows you to design implementation plans that aim to keep invoices at that level. Knowing that ideas need to be reviewed by a committee that is having a meeting at a particular time allows you to plan the timing of your own activities.
Of course you cannot know in advance exactly what ideas will come out of a brainstorm, but you can have a reasonably clear image of the kind of ideas that will result. If this is not possible, I would suggest that your brainstorm challenge (or anticonventional thinking provocation) is too broad.
By knowing the kind of ideas you expect to get, you can easily plan evaluation criteria, communicate key information to brainstormers and prepare implementation procedures. This can only result in a smooth running brainstorming action in which you generate the kind of ideas you need and see them through to implementation.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
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