Getting Started With Ideation Session Design And Facilitation


Bryan Mattimore is Cofounder and Chief Idea Guy at the Growth Engine Innovation Agency, and an innovation instructor for Caltech.

As the creation of new ideas becomes the only sustainable competitive advantage in our changing, globally competitive world, team ideation will no longer be limited to the traditional creative challenges such as inventing a new product or creating a new marketing campaign. The scope and variety of team ideation sessions will likely be expanded to address all manner of creative challenges, including generating an ever-growing number of ideas that enable the organization to do things faster, better, cheaper and with greater customer satisfaction. Here are some examples of real-world, team ideation sessions my firm has been asked to design and facilitate in recent years:

• A session for one of the world’s largest computer software firms to pioneer new approaches to curtailing software piracy

• A session championed by a large chemical company’s CEO to create a metaphor that could simply and powerfully communicate the company’s new, two-prong strategic direction

• A session, sponsored by marketing and HR executives at a major cosmetics marketer, to invent innovative ways to decrease the turnover of retail sales associates

Wherever or whenever a better idea is needed, and especially when conventional thinking approaches have been ineffective, consider team ideation as a cost-effective and powerful idea-generating alternative. One can only imagine that the “manager of the future” will need to be equally, if not more creative, in initiating ways to apply the power of group ideation.

Ideation Session Planning

When does it make sense to do an ideation session? How long should it be? Who should participate? What are the “best” ideation techniques? There is no one right answer. Different creative challenges/opportunities call for different approaches. The length of an ideation session, for instance, might vary from 20 minutes to several days. The number of participants (not to mention their backgrounds and thinking styles) might range from a few to hundreds.

The task is further complicated because the ideation session designer, having scores of creative techniques to choose from, ultimately should try to match those creative techniques with the specific genre of creative challenge that experience has shown will have the greatest chance of success. A creative cost-cutting session, for instance, should be designed differently than a new product development session; a market strategy session entirely different than a naming session; and a positioning session would use different creative techniques than say, a logistics or process improvement session.

How will institutions know which and how many participants to invite to a session, how long it should be and which technique will be most likely to succeed? Or if there should even be a session? To answer these questions, I believe the most innovative organizations of the future will turn to both trained ideation session designers—what I’m calling ideation strategists—as well as trained ideation facilitators. And while these skills may be embodied in the same person, they also may not.

The Ideation Strategist And Facilitator

To design ideation sessions with the greatest chance of success, there are a few key elements the ideation strategist will need to know.

• Learn about a wide variety of different ideation techniques. (Examples include semantic intuition, questioning assumptions, problem re-definition, directed wishing, customer-triggered brainwalking, the worst idea/silly technique, TRIZ triggers, idea hooks, picture prompts, great thinkers and more.)

• Determine which techniques have the greatest likelihood of succeeding for different kinds of business challenges.

• Understand how to choreograph/order a variety of techniques in a given session to optimize the number and quality of ideas from different participant-thinking styles, times of day and energy levels.

• Identify how to customize “generic” ideation techniques with specific linguistic or visual triggers (what I oxymoronically call “focused ideation”) to better address specific business challenges.

Trained ideation facilitators will need to focus on a different set of skills.

• Learn the basic steps and best practices of facilitating a variety of ideation techniques.

• Maintain a working knowledge of the company’s business to recognize and help facilitate a good idea (or seed of an idea) into a great one.

• Work to inspire a group—through their own energy and enthusiasm, openness and creativity—to new, creative heights.

Getting Started

The key difference between brainstorming and an ideation session can be summed up in one word: stimuli! Think about how you can introduce different kinds of stimuli—or thought starters—to trigger thinking in new ways.

If you’re trying to invent a new product, give your team examples of cutting-edge technologies inside and outside of your industry—and ask how they might adapt, modify, combine or reverse-engineer this technology to create a new product or service for your company. Or begin the session with a list of different customer types—and have your team imagine what these different customers might wish for in a new product or service.

Looking for a fashionable new business opportunity? Provide your team with a list of hot trends to get them thinking. Or if you’re really stuck, have the team first come up with a list of really stupid or silly ideas—then imagine what the opposite of that idea could be to inspire a good idea.

At the end of the day, ideation is a numbers game. Only about 10%-15% of ideas generated in a session will be worthy of further research and development. So don’t be discouraged if one technique doesn’t work particularly well. Simply move on to the next one!

Managers As Ideation Session Designers And Facilitators

As greater numbers of organizations come to understand the potential of group ideation, ideation sessions will likely evolve from a formal, few-times-a-year “event” (i.e., to fill the new product pipeline) to an everyday way of solving critical organizational challenges.

In addition to taking management training courses such as negotiation, leadership and presentation skills, I think it will be commonplace for managers of the future to also be trained in the basics of ideation session design and facilitation. My experience in leading ideation session skills training has demonstrated that in a very short time, managers at all levels can dramatically improve their ability to design and facilitate successful group ideation sessions.

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