How to ideate for innovation

Image to help demonstrate ideation.

Throughout history, humans have gone through the process of ideation. The first records of the process of ideation are from the 1800s, but the verb “ideate” was recorded a couple of centuries earlier, back in the 1600’s. In 1869, Napoleon III utilised ideation in the synthesis of margarine, when he offered a prize to anyone able to discover a process for making a butter substitute. And while the ways in which we ideate today, and what we ideate for, may have changed, its importance as a tool for solving complex problems, finding solutions and developing ideas is as valuable as ever.

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What actually is ideation?

Put simple, ideation is a process that encompasses different frameworks used to of generate, cultivate and communicate new ideas, strategies and solutions to a specific problem or challenge. Whereas brainstorming is characterised by starting from a blank canvas, ideation provides a springboard for teams to work from — avoiding that moment where everyone thinks “where do we start”?

But the process of ideation fits into a wider context — innovation. Ideation is the starting point of innovation — after all, we can’t innovate without first thinking of an idea! In short, being good at ideation doesn’t just mean being able to generate ideas. Getting it right can be invaluable. Some of today’s greatest technological innovations were at first just the whisper of an idea. Without that ideation process, we may be missing out on a whole diverse range of ideas!

But even if we don’t come up with the perfect solution straight away — even going through the process holds value.

The benefits of ideation include:

  1. Strengthening and developing new team dynamics.
  2. Encouraging teams to think outside the box, challenging their established ways of thinking.
  3. Giving teams a chance to bond — yes, ideation can be fun!
  4. Practice — ideation gives team members an opportunity to build their creativity muscles.
  5. Opening up new ideas and exposing solutions or topics for discussion that were not directly related to the initial focus.

Ideation challenges

“Ideas won’t work unless you do.”

Like every new process, ideation can pose some challenges. But by recognising these challenges, we can easily put solutions in place to limit their impact and allow everyone to benefit from the ideation process.

  1. Confidence — “but I’m not a creative person”. Often, organisational environments can be focused on statistical outcomes or numerical results. With ideation, generating off-the-wall solutions, or sometimes even downright silly answers, can be out of people’s comfort zone.
  2. Psychological safety — if participants in your ideation session feel unable to contribute, this can instantly extinguish creativity.  Ensuring the session is a safe space, where team mates feel able to contribute without judgment, is essential
  3. Time pressures — perhaps there is a deadline, or it’s hard to find a space in everyone’s busy diaries. But cutting your ideation session short can result in settling for ideas that are just “good enough” stopping the process  once you have a few results.  Dedicating enough time for the sessions can lead to much more innovative outcomes, after all, that extra five minutes you spent could just be the perfect solution!
  4. I’ll just say what everyone else does humans tend to want to fit in, or not rock the boat. In this way we end up unwilling to express ideas that are different to the rest of the group. However, this doesn’t promote diversity. Encourage your team members to think of unique solutions, reminding them that it is okay to stand out or disagree. Take it from Einstein — “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Ideation tools

“Jumping straight into the ideation process without a tool is like panning for gold without a pan.”

So, now we know the challenges. But still, coming up with that revolutionary idea or solution is often easier said than done!

Even those of us who work in creative roles can find ourselves stumped in the middle of a brainstorming session, with our imagination juices running low and problem-solving reserves empty. This is where an ideation tool comes in. Whereas brainstorming typically starts from a “blank canvas”, ideation techniques use a set structure. These often include stimuli that help trigger the brain to make creative connections.

One of the keys for success with ideation is choosing the right technique. There are plenty out there to choose from — but which one is right for your situation? Think of these as tools that helps you to achieve your end goal. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, and equally picking the correct ideation process is crucial to the success of ideation. Some might work best when there is a pre-existing product to innovate, while others may be best when working from scratch. You might find that some tools are best suited to particular audiences, too, or are most helpful when your need a vast quantity of ideas in a short time frame.

Some of the great ideation tools out there include:

  • Role storming — what would (a well-known person or colleague) do? When we put ourselves in the mind of someone else, it can encourage us to change our ways of thinking and develop more creative outcomes.
  • Brainwriting — everyone is encouraged to write as many ideas as possible down, and then pass their paper to the next person who builds on each of their suggestions. This is great for encouraging everyone, even the quieter members of the group, to contribute.
  • Worst possible idea — This is a tool we’ve found is great to implement in to ideation sessions and whilst the name might not have won you over, is actually a great way to turn ideation on its head and transform the most ridiculous ideas into practical, innovative ones! When we get to the heart of what a terrible idea so, well, terrible, we can gain insights that can help us to define and set up the truly great ones. If you’d like a step by step guide on how to use this, tool, we have a handy resource here.

Now you’ve learnt the importance of ideation, it’s important to build up your toolbox of ideation techniques!  After all, the more tools you have in your box, the greater scope your ideation sessions have! If you’d like to learn more techniques, be able to confidently lead ideation sessions, and promote innovation, check out our workshop on ideation!

Free ideation tool

Follow our step by step guide and start generating great ideas now.

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