A guide to idea generation: tools and techniques for ideation
by Solverboard, on 23 Aug 2021 8 min read
Find out what idea generation really means, as well as an extensive resource of idea generation techniques and tools that can truly help to get those creative juices flowing.
All great innovations begin with great ideas. But what’s the best way to approach idea generation so that innovation can happen? Read on for more on what idea generation really means, as well as an extensive resource of idea generation techniques and tools that can truly help to get those creative juices flowing.
What is idea generation?
Also known as ideation, idea generation is simply the creative process or processes that an organisation uses to create and develop new ideas as part of the innovation process.
Looking to improve your innovation management process? Read our full innovation management guide.
Sometimes, a good idea can come completely out of the blue. However, relying on these once in a blue moon ideas doesn’t guarantee that your team will be generating all of the high-quality creative ideas that you need.
Instead, many organisations opt for a clearly defined and structured idea management process to help them to generate and collect ideas and solutions from all angles.
Generating ideas in the right way can encourage divergent thinking, can encourage everyone to feel like they can get involved in innovation, and – by letting your team know that the sharing of ideas is positively encouraged – you can empower your workplace community, too.
What are the major blockers to business innovation? Learn more in our 2021 Innovation Blockers Report.
To make this happen, you’ll need to ensure that your workplace is centred around divergent – rather than convergent – thinking. This essentially means that ideas can be formed and vocalised without any judgement – often referred to as a brainstorming session, blue-sky thinking or spit-balling. Convergent thinking, meanwhile, involves the assessment or critiquing of ideas – something that should not be undertaken until ideas have been generated and collated.
Tools and techniques for idea generation
There are various tools and techniques that can be used with a group of people to stimulate idea generation – including these.
The “Yes, And” technique is a classic improvisation technique, and one that can stop convergent thinking in its tracks before it has a chance to get going. Working in pairs or small groups, one participant begins by vocalising an idea or thought. The next person replies “yes, and…” to build on the idea, and so it continues.
This technique can often lead to hilarious results and can be a good icebreaker in idea generation sessions. While it can sometimes generate some useful thoughts, it is also a handy tool to show that all ideas – no matter how crazy they may seem – are welcome.
Another handy icebreaker and warm-up exercise. With a specific problem in mind, start by putting a word associated with the problem up on a flip chart or screen. Through free association, encourage your team to generate more words or ideas associated with this word, continuing for two minutes before moving on to another word or image.
A useful way to get to the very core of a problem, the Five Whys technique can help you to refine your problem statement, as well as generating ideas. Using a screen or a flip chart, display the problem that you are looking to solve. Ask the group why this problem exists, and use the results of the discussion to form a new problem statement. Repeat this four more times, then set to work on establishing how this new problem statement can be resolved.
What? Where? Why? When? Whom?
Originating from Techniques of Structured Problem Solving (Van Gundy, 1988), this exercise aims to encourage participants to look at a problem from every angle. Divide a group up into teams, with one tackling each question, or simply go through the questions in order, in a larger group. Use each of the five words to ask different questions about the problem, and document the results on a mind map – one spoke for each question – to get a clearer view of the bigger picture.
In this activity, ideation is divided into three stages, with the name referring to how much time in minutes is given to each stage. Here, speed is a vital part of the process: often, brainstorming sessions can get bogged down or side-tracked without a pressing deadline.
After defining a topic, which should be communicated in just two words, the three stages used to brainstorm ideas on that topic are as follows:
- 3 minutes to generate a pool of aspects. Encourage participants to think about the characteristics of the topic, writing each one down on a separate index card. There should be no filtering applied to this stage.
- 12 minutes to develop concepts. Divide your participants into pairs. Each pair should pick three index cards from stage 1 at random, using these cards as thought starters to define and develop a concept to present back to the wider group. The aim here is to prepare a three-minute presentation for stage 3, which could incorporate prototypes, sketches or any other form of media.
- 3 minutes to make presentations. Each pair takes it in turns to present their concept to the wider group, revealing the three cards they originally chose and explaining how these cards influenced their thinking. After every pair has presented, the wider group can discuss what the exercise uncovered.
This is the favourite exercise of one of our founders, Phil. In Lotus Blossom, one central theme forms the framework for ideation. From this central theme, eight further conceptual themes will blossom, with each of these then becoming their own central themes to develop eight more. There are four stages to this process:
- Draw a square in the middle of a large piece of paper or flip chart, and write your central theme in the middle.
- Using this central theme as a foundation, think of eight ideas that are related and create eight new squares around the outside of your central theme, writing the new ideas inside.
- For each of these eight new themes, think of eight further related schemes, again adding these to the paper in separate squares when done.
- Continue as far as you feel is relevant.
How would Google/Nike/the government/a startup/our parents/the Victorians do it?
This simple role-playing game involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to explore the focus question. Choose a big brand like IKEA or Google and use their brand values, look at things from a United Nations-style approach, think about what your grandparents would have done – the choice is yours.
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Reversal, or the Bad Idea
Sometimes, thinking about how not to do things can help us establish how they should be done. After putting up your problem statement on a screen or flip chart, ask participants to share the worst possible ideas they can think of to solve the problem. Add these ideas to the board, then discuss.
Taken from Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity (Michalko, 1991), SCAMPER is an acronym of seven different elements you can use to examine your problem:
- Substitute: What could you use instead? User groups, techniques, materials?
- Combine: Can you combine different ideas, bring elements together, put two data sources together?
- Adapt: What else is like this? Is there anything you can learn from similar projects?
- Modify/Magnify/Minimise: How can you make this bigger or smaller? How can you add things or take things away?
- Put to other uses: Can you use the same ideas or tools, but for a different purpose?
- Eliminate: How can you strip it back – make it less cumbersome, expensive, bulky or complicated?
- Rearrange/Reverse: How would you reverse this – what would be the opposite? What would happen if you did it the other way round?
Six Thinking Hats
Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats enables your team to divide their thinking into six different roles and functions, each symbolised by a different coloured thinking hat. It’s a great tool for the development and communication of solutions to problems, allowing you and your team to redirect or focus your thoughts.
The coloured hats are as follows:
- White: A call for information that is either known or needed.
- Yellow: A symbol of optimism and brightness, where you explore the positives and seek benefit and value.
- Black: Signifies difficulties, risks and problems, allowing you to understand why things might not work, where things could go wrong, and how to overcome these problems.
- Red: Signifies intuition, hunches and feelings – a time to share loves, hates, likes and dislikes.
- Green: Signifies creativity, new ideas, possibilities and alternatives – a way to express new perceptions and new concepts.
- Blue: Used for management of the thinking process – the control mechanism that ensures that you observe the guidelines of the Six Thinking Hats process.
The Rule of Three
On The Rule of Three, Tony Stubblebine says, “One idea is a bad idea...two ideas is an argument...three ideas is a brainstorm”. He recommends a two-stage approach to idea generation: the first being ‘flaring’, which involves coming up with as many ideas as possible, and the second being ‘focusing’ – whittling down these many ideas to the ones that could work. Separating idea generation from idea evaluation, he says, “unblocks people”, facilitating creative thinking.
Great ideas don’t always need to come from your own team. One suggestion is to turn to social media to discover what people are thinking, which can be done in two different ways.
One is simply to look for conversations relating to the topic at hand, while the other is to actively engage with your followers, be it by creating polls, asking questions or requesting feedback.
First Principles Thinking
Elon Musk’s First Principles Thinking involves questioning your assumptions about a scenario or problem. Make a list of every piece of information you believe you know about your problem. For every item you list, ask yourself how and why you know it: have you experienced it for yourself, was it told to you, is there any evidence that supports it?
Once you know what is real and what is an assumption, you will then be able to create new solutions from scratch.
Whatever your reason for innovating – whether it’s product development, internal issues or anything else – having a solid process in place to generate, capture and explore ideas from across your organisation and beyond can encourage creativity to truly flourish. The choice of techniques and tools you use will undoubtedly depend on your aims, your setup and the people with whom you work, so don’t be afraid to use trial and error to establish which of the above best suits your needs.
Solverboard is the only all-in-one innovation platform that can help you find great ideas, streamline their delivery and measure their value. Find out more about The Platform here.