What to Do?

“If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.” ― Linus Pauling

Regular readers of this blog, and readers of my first book, will be familiar with the concept of the innovation value chain, illustrated below, in which innovation takes place at the junction of needs and capabilities.

According to the flowchart in the innovation value chain, once customer or stakeholder needs have been identified, and capabilities are understood, the next step on the innovation journey is ideation: the generation of the idea that will allow the creation of value. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen in that order. It’s possible for an idea to be ahead of its time and to be held back, perhaps with work done in the background, until customer or stakeholder needs, or capabilities in ecosystems, catch up. For example, as described in my first book, Netflix realised that there would be a future demand for HD movie streaming, and prepared to capitalise on it, while we were all still using dial-up modems.

Where do ideas come from? For the individual, idea generation (or ideation) is a somewhat mysterious process. It generally seems to work on a subconscious level, based on problems or opportunities that you have stored in “the back of your mind” and that emerge when you least expect it. Often, as described by Robert Lee Hotz in 2009, the mind can be at its most creative when your thoughts are wandering and apparently unfocused. Often, the best ideas can emerge when you least expect them to, when your mind is focused elsewhere. It’s happened to me on car journeys, while walking on the beach, while walking my dog and while out cycling. Sometimes, though, you can’t wait for a serendipitous process to play out. Are there any ways to “force” idea generation?

Fortunately for us, there are techniques that can be used here. They’re not perfect, but they can be effective if used in the right way. The first thing to realise when trying to use them is that you’re effectively trying to replicate the process whereby your brain connects needs and capabilities to generate new ideas.

Any new idea is potentially useless by itself, because as noted above it must both meet real needs and exploit available capabilities. Both need to be fully understood, and as a result I suggest that investigation is a part of invention. The idea should generally be linked to a need, but can that need be met with current capabilities? Alternatively, can it be met in the future, using capabilities yet to be acquired?

So, the first task is not to try to generate ideas. Instead, the first task is to investigate in order to fully understand those needs and capabilities. It follows that, to encourage new ideas, investigation necessarily must precede ideation! In other words, if – and this is likely to be the case at some stage – you need to indulge in processes to force the generation of ideas, then you must do your research first. You must fully understand what needs it is you are trying to meet, what problems you are trying to solve – for yourself, for your customers or stakeholders. Sometimes needs can be well disguised, and you must look closely and really understand the market to see them.

Ideation is the first time that innovation meets design, and “design thinking” creates an interactive process to rapidly create and develop ideas by getting the whole project team to “think like a designer” – as described by the leading design consultancy IDEO. Design thinking assumes that all people can be creative, not just key team members, and it requires a diverse and eclectic team to participate. According to IDEO’s website, design thinking begins by asking three key questions about:

  • Desirability (in other words, what makes sense to people?)
  • Feasibility (what is possible now or in the near future?)
  • Viability (what will create a successful business model?).

As if by magic, it turns out that the three questions that drive design thinking map precisely onto the three key constituents of innovation described above:

  • Needs (= desirability)
  • Capabilities (= feasibility)
  • Value creation (= viability).

Of course, it isn’t magic – if any of those three constituents is absent, then innovation will not happen. Design thinking requires that you start off by thinking about customers and stakeholders, and what their needs are, and challenges practitioners to observe real world customer and stakeholder (and potential customer and stakeholder) behaviour and thereby deduce real world needs.

In his 2009 book Glimmer, Warren Berger described how leaders in design thinking such as IDEO and Stanford University incorporate feedback from many sources, including people who will arguably be most affected by the outcome – the users of the proposed product or service. And they don’t just ask people, they try to immerse themselves in their potential customer’s experience. According to Berger, when IDEO was asked to redesign a hospital, the designers spent time lying in hospital beds looking at the ceiling, in order to better understand the hospital from the perspective of the patient. Almost like method acting! This is consistent with what I’ve written in these blogs and in my first book: that it’s vitally important to get into the heads of potential customers and other stakeholders to really understand their needs. Without that understanding there’s little hope of creating something that will be useful to them. And as described by Berger, it’s a great idea to include them in the design process from the very start. Many times, I’ve visited customers with nothing more than an outline of an idea and shared it with them. By doing that, you’ll get free advice on what may or may not work for them and you should get an engaged customer who is likely to be at the front of the queue to use your new offering when it is ready. Truly understanding needs inspires idea generation and the process continues by focusing on the most promising proposals that emerge to narrow down a set of choices.

Trying to force new ideas to emerge from a process is difficult and can be frustrating, but I offer four methods that you can experiment with: brainstorming, prototyping, TRIZ, and encouraging people to temporarily adopt different roles – in addition to ways of thinking about how to develop a culture where ideas can flourish.

Alex F. Osborn was an advertising executive who became dismayed by how little value was generated by his company’s creative process. The term “brainstorming” was introduced to the world by in his 1942 book How to Think Up and made popular by him eleven years later in Applied Imagination. The key principles are to capture as many ideas as possible and to reserve judgement on any of them until after the brainstorming (idea generation) session is concluded.

Design thinking requires that rapid prototypes are produced by the same team that is creating the ideas. These prototypes can be simple – made using whatever materials might be lying around and therefore at hand at the workshop, perhaps held together with duct tape and string – or they can capitalise on rapid prototyping technology to quickly place life-like components in the hands of the project team and in front of potential customers and stakeholders. Prototypes can allow rapid identification of the strengths and weaknesses of ideas and this in turn can lead to further new ideas as part of an iterative loop.

Like brainstorming, TRIZ dates back to the middle of the twentieth century. It was developed in Russia, led by the inventor Genrich Altshuller. The word “TRIZ” is a Russian acronym that translates as Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. Altshuller started to develop the technique in 1946, but his work was interrupted by a spell of hard labour in the Vorkuta Gulag after it appears that he was judged to have been too critical of Stalin’s government. Fortunately for Altshuller, and for budding innovators everywhere, he was freed in 1953 following the death of Stalin and was able to continue his work, which was first published in Russian in 1956. The end of the Cold War provided the opportunity for TRIZ to migrate to the West, where it began to be widely used from the 1990s. Many authors have written whole books on TRIZ, including Michael Orloff (2006), and numerous organisations teach courses on how to use it. By studying many patent applications (as many as 40,000 by the end of the 1960s), Altshuller had noticed that there are patterns to the way successful applications – and by extension, successful inventions – are constructed. He noticed that successful inventors tend to solve, or try to solve, conflicts between requirements, that there were just forty categories of invention that continually recurred, and that each category tended to be linked to one or more pairs of conflicting requirements. Since then, matrices have been created showing how various types of conflict link to one or more of the categories, which can be helpful when solving particular problems, but to be honest when faced with a challenging technical problem, a lot of value can simply be derived from reviewing many of the categories, which Altshuller called “Principles”, and using them for inspiration.

People on your team who are involved in the ideation process will all have natural biases that will inform their behaviour. Some will be optimistic, some pessimistic. Some will be intuitive; others will need hard information with which to work. In his 1985 book Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono – who also coined the phrase “lateral thinking” – described a technique that you can use to encourage your team members to temporarily adopt unfamiliar roles in the process. De Bono suggested that six different coloured hats could drive thinking in different ways. The wearer of a different coloured hat (which could be real or imaginary) would have to think in the appropriate way as follows:

  • White: objective and fact-based
  • Red: emotional and intuitive, hunch-based
  • Black: cautious, concerned about risk, “devil’s advocate”
  • Yellow: positive and optimistic
  • Green: looking for creativity and new ideas
  • Blue: organising and managing the process.

The idea is that at different times the whole team “puts on” a given coloured hat. So, for example, if everyone is directed to wear the black hat, the team members all need to look for risks and potential problems at the same time, and to share their thinking along these lines. If everyone is asked to wear the red hat, they should allow their hunches and likes/dislikes to dominate their thinking. And so on.

Using a technique like the Six Thinking Hats makes people think in ways that are initially new and unfamiliar to them. It can make them see other sides of the argument and make them look at problems and opportunities through new perspectives. As such, this technique can be a good way of pulling your team into ways of thinking that are unfamiliar to them, and thereby drawing more out of them than they would otherwise contribute to the process.

You won’t use all the tools listed above every time – brainstorming is likely to turn out to be a better process for out-of-the-box ideation and TRIZ or business model comparison for solving well-defined and bounded problems. And while there are processes that can be used, ultimately ideation can be somewhat serendipitous and a bit messy. But it is essential to innovation.


“[They] offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately, none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.” – Harold Macmillan

Want to Know More?

The second volume of my book: Strategy and Innovation for a Changing World – Part 2: Sustainability Through Velocity will be published later in 2022 and is already available for pre-order. The topics introduced in this blog will be expanded on and covered in much more detail in Chapter 4: “Ideation – What to Do?” when the book comes out. I hope this short introduction has whetted your appetite!

References and Further Reading

Berger, W. (2009). Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World. New York: Penguin.

de Bono, E. (1985). Six Thinking Hats. New York: Back Bay.

Hotz, R. (2009, June 19). A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight – Researchers Map the Anatomy of the Brain’s Breakthrough Moments and Reveal the Payoff of Daydreaming. Wall Street Journal.

IDEO. (n.d.). Design Thinking Defined.

Orloff, M. (2006). Inventive Thinking Through TRIZ – A Practical Guide. Berlin: Springer.

Osborn, A. (1942). How to Think Up. New York: McGraw Hill.

Osborn, A. (1953). Applied Imagination. New York: Scribner.


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