Coming up with a good idea isn’t easy. They don’t just appear out of thin air. Even some of the most famous innovations in history took trial and error with many different ideas. Thomas Edison famously said, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”
This is why ideation, the third step in the design thinking process, is important to approach correctly. Rarely, ever is the first idea that springs to mind the one that will solve your problem. If it was that easy, somebody probably would have already solved the problem long before you identified it.
One of the obstacles to good ideation is that people often practice it wrong, in haphazard or chaotic ways. Everyone today likes to talk about the value of brainstorming, but they often think of it as unstructured imagination that magically and randomly produces ideas. Effective ideation requires that you stop thinking in terms of these amorphous activities and instead apply a rigorous and purposeful set of rules to your efforts.
The rules of brainstorming
You probably use “brainstorming” as a blanket phrase that refers to any attempt at generating ideas. But brainstorming was actually coined as the name of a specific ideation technique invented by advertising executive Alex Osborn in the 1950s. Osborn’s technique is based on a set of prescribed rules that are still effective today for good ideation.
- Quantity instead of quality: generate as many ideas as possible.
- No judgment: refrain from evaluating or giving opinions, even nonverbal ones, of ideas during the ideation session.
- Crazy ideas are welcome: forget about the constraints of reality, business, technology, and budgets. The focus should be on helping users. Crazy ideas focused on users can be tamed down into real-world options but playing it safe only produces mundane ideas that don’t work for users.
- Build on others’ ideas: one idea can often spark another, so says the often-stated rule of brainstorming: 1+1=3. Sometimes parts of different ideas from different people can be combined to create an innovative and helpful solution that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
Leading a Brainstorming Session
While not all brainstorming must happen in a group, we often switch naturally between solitary and collaborative brainstorming modes, it can be very useful to have varying experiences and perspectives looking at the same problem at a specific time.
As described above, every idea is valid and welcome in brainstorming, but sometimes things still go awry, and great ideas can get lost when ideation happens in a group setting. A good leader or facilitator is a must for group brainstorms.
Facilitating a productive environment for ideation requires you to:
- Set a time limit: aim for a 15-60-minute session. It depends on your project’s needs and your participants, but shorter usually isn’t very generative and longer can become tiring.
- Always start with a problem statement: basing your ideation on a specific and actionable statement of your problem helps focus participants’ efforts. It’s inefficient to try to solve for everything at once.
- Offer visual options: have paper, pens, or other tools available so participants can visually share their ideas if they prefer. Sometimes visualizing an idea helps someone to communicate it more clearly to others.
- Encourage listening: ideation is as much about hearing other people’s ideas as it is about sharing your own. Don’t allow people to obsess over their own ideas.
- Idea generate alone: offer the opportunity for participants to think up ideas before the session and write them on post-it notes. Then all ideas can be put on a board equally in order to inspire discussion and more ideas during the session. Sometimes introverted or more anxious participants will get drowned out by others or be hesitant to share in person in a group. This approach makes sure good ideas are not lost. This process is closer to our natural habit of switching between solitary and collaborative ideation.
Even with all this advice, ideation can still make some people feel like they’re looking down an abyss. Telling someone to just think up an idea is more likely to cause their mind to go blank than it is to produce something useful.
That’s why you use ideation techniques to offer a firm structure to your efforts. There are an endless number of ideation techniques you can use. Some are better for individuals, some for groups, and there are even ones that require you to involve users. Many of them, though, are based on the tenets of brainstorming.
It requires that you create a “How Might We” statement about a specific problem for which you must think up solutions. When I tried the technique, I used the statement, “How might we prevent monotony in office work?”
Although I like my work, sometimes the daily grind of being at the office, doing mostly the same thing every day can wear on me. Having opportunities to break up this pattern throughout the day or week helps me feel more energized and productive.
Once you have your “How Might We” statement, you then choose 2 broad categories. They should be unrelated to each other, but at least one should relate to the subject of your “How Might We” statements.
I chose as my categories “elements of working in an office” and “types of childhood play” because work and play are often depicted as being at different ends of the spectrum in terms of an enjoyable experience. Childhood is also the last time many of us remember being free and lost in the moment rather than concerned with being productive with our time, as work encourages.
You then look at each category separately and write down as many elements of the experience as you can think of in a predetermined amount of time. The mash-up element of the technique comes next when you combine items from each category to generate ideas for answering your “How Might We” statement.
Combining relatively unrelated things can help to spark innovative ideas. For example, I combined “coffee breaks” with “dancing” to come up with my idea for a “dance break room.” When I think of taking a break, I think of dance breaks. We often reach for caffeine and sugar boosts in the middle of the day to increase our energy and offer a brief break.
However, these breaks usually don’t give us a real break from our work. We just get up, make a cup, maybe talk about a project with a coworker, and go back to our desks to drink our coffee. This caffeine jolt also leads to a sudden crash later on.
Having a designated, sound-proof space to listen to music and dance for 10 minutes could both reenergize workers naturally and get their focus off work and the office environment for a few minutes. It’s hard to talk about that spreadsheet or email if you’re jumping up and down, singing to your favorite one-hit-wonder.
Workers would also be able to see each other more often in a fun, human moment, rather than slumped over their keyboards, and remember that balance is important for true productivity.
I also combined “manager/power structure” and “water/snowball fights” because the power structure of office means we often fear or get into disagreements with each other. However, as kids, we get in snowball fights and although we take the us vs. them structure of them very seriously, it eventually devolves into us laying the ground laughing together in exhaustion.
I know they make fake snowballs. So, I thought starting a snowball fight in the office when tensions or disagreements are high could be a way to release some of the tension and remind everyone that they are, at the end of the day, on the same team. This became “indoor snowball fights.”
Another one of my wildest ideas came from combining “emails/constant communication” with “making arts & crafts.” Working in an office, I never seem to get to the bottom of my inbox or feel out of contact with work. This can become a frustrating burden to deal with constantly.
I remembered how, as a kid, getting messages used to be a fun, anticipated occurrence. Sneaking notes or paper airplanes behind the teacher’s back was a satisfying accomplishment. What if you could capture this atmosphere in the office?
This made me come up with “paper airplane messages.” For those less sensitive or complicated messages, employees are free to make their own custom paper airplanes as a vehicle for delivering the messages.
Not only can this reframe communication in a fun way, but the hand-on, arts and crafts aspect of the practice can be a mini-break from workers who make them. Workers who receive them can have a small moment of surprise and enjoyment in the middle of their regular workday.
Mash Up Reflections
I didn’t come to the mash-up exercise with any pre-conceived ideas. It made me a little nervous not knowing where I was going, but I told myself to trust in the process. I think that’s the biggest thing you have to do to be successful with ideation.
It reminds me of doing improv. In improv, you have no idea where your performance is going when you step up on the stage, but you trust in your scene partners and the process to help you along. The number one rule in improv, no matter what happens or how crazy it gets, is to always frame your responses to a scene partner’s actions with “yes, and.” You never say “no” because that kills the energy and the scene ends, instead of evolving.
Ideation is also all about always saying “yes.” If you’re not open to following the crazy ideas, or willing to consider ridiculous mash-ups, without any guaranteed outcome, then you can miss out on some of the most innovative and creative ideas.
Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2019, July). Introduction to the essential ideation techniques which are the heart of design thinking. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/introduction-to-the-essential-ideation-techniques-which-are-the-heart-of-design-thinking
Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2020, January). Learn how to use the best ideation methods: brainstorming, braindumping, brainwriting, and brainwalking. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/learn-how-to-use-the-best-ideation-methods-brainstorming-braindumping-brainwriting-and-brainwalking
Harley, A. (2017, January 15). Ideation for everyday design challenges. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ux-ideation/
Ideation Method: Mash-Up. Ideo. Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com/pages/ideation-method-mash-up
Markman, A. (2017, May 18). Your team is brainstorming all wrong. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/05/your-team-is-brainstorming-all-wrong