I have the privilege of attending the Stanford d.school’s Design Thinking Bootcamp, an opportunity I was turned on to by a friend in the venture capital community. In preparation for the program, attendees were asked to conduct an “Ideation” session at their place of work with other managers and decision-makers in their organization. This is an opportunity to not only get an introduction to the attitudes and tools used in design thinking, but also to begin practicing with these ideas immediately within one’s business as part of the design thinking meta is “a bias toward action.”
Here are some takeaways about thinking creatively and generating ideas in a collaborative environment that I’ve gained so far:
- Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude
- First generate, then evaluate
- Don’t just find one idea
- Think in terms of a specific problem
- Focus on emotions
- Use constraints to increase idea volume
- Use analogous thinking to go some place else
- Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas
- Think about the “headline”, not the “article”
- If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen
More details on each of these ideas, and impressions from my actual ideation sessions, follow:
Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude
When people come together to create ideas, they have a habit of seeking to find what is wrong with their collaborators thinking, rather than what is right. The goal in design thinking is to first come up with a lot of ideas, not to find the “right” idea as quickly as possible. A helpful attitude to adopt is “Yes, and…” which means, whenever your collaborators come up with an idea, reply “Yes, and…” and then build off of their idea, either with an additional flourish or iteration, or with another idea you have in mind that their idea has led you to think. Don’t try to make yourself look smart, try to make your partners look brilliant.
First generate, then evaluate
Another intuitive habit most people bring with them to creative sessions is to try to evaluate ideas as fast as they’re generated. No sooner does someone have a new idea than does that person, or a collaborator, try to figure out if the idea “fits” with the constraints of the project. Many ideas that are either excellent on their own, or could lead to an excellent and realizable idea, are tossed out in the instant evaluation before they’ve had a chance to make an impact. Get in the habit of separating the generation of ideas and the thinking through the merits of the ideas generated. Never confuse the two or allow the processes to mingle in your thoughts or practice.
Don’t just find one idea
When you’ve got a problem, you only need ONE solution. And ultimately, you can only implement one solution– time, resources, etc. are scarce. So it’s easy to think the goal is to “just come up with one idea.” But trying to find the right idea means evaluating as you generate, and it also means pre-qualifying your own thinking before you even generate ideas. Your goal in ideation is actually to generate as many ideas as you can, regardless of whether they make sense, actually solve your problem, are feasible, etc. Go for quantity, not quality, when generating ideas.
Think in terms of a specific problem
It helps to come up with ideas when your problem is specific enough to be solved by an idea you come up with. This means thinking in terms of a specific group of people and in terms of a specific change you want to bring about, either an action or a state of mind. A prompt that can help is to frame your problem with this ad lib– “What can we create for… [specific group of people] that makes them/that helps them [choose one] … [a physical action you want them to take, or a state of mind you want them to adopt]?” An example would be, “What can we create for 10 to 12 year old kids that makes them excited to eat vegetables?” The problem is specific– it is about 10 to 12 year old kids, a group of people with distinct qualities. And what the solution provides is also specific– it will generate a feeling of excitement in them in relation to their eating vegetables.
Focus on emotions
You’ve got your problem. It’s important to think of the mental state of the “user” you’re solving for. Almost inevitably, finding a solution will involve focusing on the change in the mental state that is necessary to motivate action. Sometimes, the change in the mental state by itself is the goal, for example, “What can we create for customers who are angry with us that will make them love us and tell all their friends?” Translating the problem during the ideation process into an emotional state creates a valuable constraint (discussed below) for increasing idea volume.
Use constraints to increase idea volume
It is counterintuitive, but putting constraints on your idea process actually allows you to be even more creative because it focuses the mind in specific ways. Some constraints used as examples in the ideation workshop were “Every idea must cost $1 million” or “Every idea must get you in trouble with your boss”. Imagine you actually have a budget constraint– you only have $50,000 to spend on a solution. Coming with the REAL budget as a constraint is likely to limit your thinking because you’ll immediately begin pre-qualifying and evaluating ideas as you try to generate them.
But if you invert the real constraint into an imaginary one where you must SPEND a large sum of money on your idea as a minimum, you will end up with a sense of much more freedom. Later, you can take those high dollar ideas and figure out how to reduce the cost to something that is actually affordable. The inversion process allows you to hurdle over your real constraint which would limit your creativity and therefore your ability to find a real solution.
You could think of arbitrary constraints, simply to inspire creative and offbeat thinking, or you could try inverting real constraints to trick yourself into thinking past them. The d.school profs use the metaphor of the thumb over the garden hose, which forces high pressure jets of water to spray over a larger area versus just using the innate pressure of the hose which tends to dribble out.
Use analogous thinking to go some place else
Another tool for successful ideation is to create analogous situations and imagine how those people or institutions would handle the creation of a solution for your problem. To find analogies, you translate your problem into the emotional state, mentioned earlier. Sometimes it’s easy and obvious, because you already have an emotional change as a condition of your solution. But if you don’t, this can take some creativity in and of itself to figure out what the emotion is you’re searching for. As an example, if your problem was “What can we create for our hiring department that helps them to only hire people who exceed our standards?” the emotional state might be “confidence.”
Once you have your emotional state, you must ask yourself, “What kind of person, group or place is superb at generating this kind of emotion?” Once you have a list of such entities that excel at generating this emotion, you can do an iterative process of asking yourself, “What would X create for… that helps them/that makes them…?”
Now you are in someone else’s shoes, thinking about the world the way they do and you have unlocked an entirely different form of creativity from your own.
Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas
Okay, you’ve got a ton of ideas at this point. Now it’s (finally) time to evaluate them. But you’re not just going to start deciding which are possible and which are insane. Instead, you’re going to use more creativity to evaluate your ideas. You’re going to think about which ideas are Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful.
Quick ideas may not be full or perfect solutions, but they could be reasonably implemented right away and this incremental progress would have an immediate impact– things would get better as far as your problem is concerned. This is an important way of thinking about selecting solutions because often no solution is found in search of a holistic or perfect one, which either doesn’t exist or can’t be accessed in a linear way of thinking. By selecting a Quick solution, you can take steps toward what might be a final, perfect solution and get a win in the meantime.
Breakthrough ideas might not work, but if they did, they’d be a game changer. They’d be an all new way of solving the problem, or they’d give the group who employs them a distinct competitive advantage, or greatly leverage their efforts. Breakthrough ideas help us think about how to shift paradigms and find solutions that don’t just work, but work insanely well.
Delightful ideas are just that– if we implement them, people feel GREAT. And feeling great is an important part of solving problems and making progress in our work or business. When we find Delightful ideas, we find ways to inspire, motivate and energize people that can lead to other creativity or effectiveness that we can’t imagine or anticipate in simply solving the problem.
Think about the “headline”, not the “article”
When generating and sharing ideas, it’s important to think and communicate in terms of the big impact, high level concept of the idea and not get bogged down in the nitty gritty details– that way lies the habit of criticizing, condemning and evaluating before a good idea can take root, or inspire another. The instructors refer to this as thinking about the “headline” and not the “article.” An example would be, “Hire an expert interviewer” versus “Find a person with X years of experience interviewing people, pay them $Y per year, assign them duties of A, B and C, they will report to Z and will be measured in their performance by E, F and G.” You can find any number of things in the article version that might be unrealistic or impractical, if you can even come up with all the necessary details. It is putting the cart before the horse. You first have to come up with the big idea and see how it could lead to a Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful improvement for your problem, and then you can go about fleshing it out and figuring out how to make it practically work.
If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen
This idea is a good practice for any meeting or information-sharing activity of any kind but it seems to be especially relevant to the process of ideation– if you aren’t writing ideas down as you’re coming up with them, they may as well not exist. By the end of a 1hr long ideation session, you might have come up with fifty or sixty different ideas and concepts as a team. Who can remember what those were by the end of it? So it is important to write them down as you go. The instructors recommend using sticky notes and slapping them on the wall as you go, which not only serves to keep things written down and makes it easy to move ideas around as you review and ideate, but the small amount of space necessarily forces one to think in “headline” terms.
Another thing that should be written down, repeatedly, is the prompt of the problem you are trying to solve (“What can we create for…?”) as well as the specific constraints, analogies, etc., that you are bringing to bear on them as you focus your ideation in different ways.
Our experience with ideation as a team
My ideation workshop involved 5 other people in our organization in addition to myself, all group managers or individuals with lead authority at the operating unit level. We split up into 2 teams of three to work through our ideation process.
One takeaway is that collaborative idea generation is FUN. We genuinely had a good time working together to come up with solutions to our organization’s problems. There was a lot of laughter, spirited talking and debate and enthusiasm. Often times a team would race ahead with a prompt or keep working after designated time was up because they were so caught up in their thinking and idea generation.
Another takeaway is that anyone can be creative. Most of the operating managers were selected because they tend to experiment and try new things in their operations, but what really makes them excellent in their roles is that they relentlessly stick to a proven system of processes and procedures. There may have been some fear that people who are really good enforcing a set of orders might not be able to come up with creative new ideas. This just wasn’t the case. They all had a ton of ideas and I think one thing that was clear by the end of the session was that everyone would’ve liked to have selected their individual problem they brought to the group for ideation work when we could only pick one at a time.
A third takeaway is that the trail one follows to arrive at workable solutions often starts in an unpredictable and highly abstract place. It highlighted for us the value of every idea generated, and the importance of separating generation from evaluation. Where you start is rarely where you will end and if you can embrace the idea of accepting all ideas as valuable and disregarding their merit or feasibility at the outset, you can let those ideas unlock all kinds of interesting solutions you otherwise may not have accessed.
Finally, we realized that even when we came up with an idea that we thought was Breakthrough or Delightful, but lacked obvious practical application, we could begin “trimming” and paring down the idea from there to find something we COULD do with it that still tapped into the essence or principle of the original idea. For example, one group came up with the idea of hiring a professional athlete to be a motivational coach to our organization’s managers. We don’t have the budget for that, nor is that athlete necessarily available for hire, but we can think about what kind of qualities we believe he would bring to such a role and look for a person we could hire that can bring those qualities, or the way we could change processes or definitions of roles within the organization to incorporate those values we now realize are essential to helping us solve a known problem. I think of this as “analogizing from the analogy”.
I can see how the ideation process, which we are just being introduced to through this practice work, can add value for all people at all levels of responsibility within our organization. It is inspiring and motivating, it creates the “bias towards action” in the person doing it and it yields real results which can actually make things better for us, our customers and our team. I am sold!