Innovate To Thrive (Part 8) …Idea Management

Feed the beast. Pack the pipeline. Ideation, or Idea management processes/system LTD (long-term development) is essential to the Innovation effort. This is where the future’s – wild ideas come from and it should be harnessed by a process with dedicated resources and with NPD and LTD teams working together.

Bear in mind that the funnel needs to be filled to feed NPD, but leadership – the CEO – needs to also consider separate Long Term Development efforts. LTD has its own, discrete R&D, testing and retesting, before concepts are winnowed down to viable NPD concepts that, then, make their way to the end of the funnel, as noted in the Stage Gate model shown earlier.

Ideation sessions. The very term makes some executives roll their eyes derisively – as it makes others chomp at the bit, in anticipation of the next session. The naysayers picture a room full of silliness, with flip chart paper taped over the walls and windows, and staffers playing with crayons and children’s toys. The proponents of the ideation session, frankly, see pretty much the same thing. That’s what it frequently looks like. Frequent, intelligently facilitated ideation sessions lead to successful new products. It’s all about batting averages – a small percentage of concepts make it through the process. But what a payoff!

To get started, let’s talk first in more general terms and then drill down to ideation session specifics. In addition to your team, it’s also valuable to include customers and/or sales members in your monthly or – at the very least – bi-annual ideation sessions. Customers, some claim, provide golden insights for the NPD/LTD teams. I’m of mixed mind about combining your people with your customer and their people at the same meeting (this is discussed further in Chapter 8 in Robert’s Rules of Innovation); for now suffice to say that this practice can be inhibiting for your people, but I know for a fact that there are many who disagree with me.
Salespeople also have remarkable abilities to discuss marketplace nuances and what-if scenarios. Even if some of them can’t stop talking for even a minute. (Of course, I jest, you sales folks out there.)

For ideation sessions, think about brainstorming – in addition to products and features – processes or technical changes. Be sure to include customer service, engineering, production and other departments, in addition to your brainstorming session usual suspects. Again, new perspectives are an asset to the process. It’s always a shame when certain departments are considered not very creative and are excluded from ideation sessions. After all, in the final analysis, we’re all consumers. It’s all about the interplay between the extroverts and the quieter types, in a variety of environments, with the right kind of facilitator who artfully opens the discussion and allows freedom for everyone to speak, without fear of ridicule, condemnation, or worse. And think of the negativity you’ve heard over the years at ideation sessions. Do any of these sound familiar?
That will never work! We tried that years ago; it was a disaster! There’s no way that can be built! We don’t have budget for THAT! At your ideation sessions, remember: there are no bad ideas. All concepts are written on the flip charts, white boards, etc. and filed, prioritized, validated, for future reference and/or use in combination with other ideation session results.

What of the balance between NPD and LTD efforts? Many small companies grapple with this and mix NPD and LTD teams. To be blunt, I do not advocate this, although I do believe that resources should be mixed in NPD teams. But without dedicated LTD resources, staff tends to get buried in NPD activity, in my experience, without the needed perspectives on long-term development ideas and reality checks on manufacturability.

Getting back to ideation sessions, we’ve all seen incredibly lively groups and groups that are just flat dead. There are so many variables to ideation outcomes, as you are dealing with people who have real lives, with problems, distractions and day jobs that need attention. It’s important to encourage initial creative play but to not over-plan and over-prop the session. The magic frequently comes from the facilitator’s people skills.
A diverse group at the ideation session is ideal. Diversity provides the social tension needed for a quality outcome. Also, be aware of the time of the day.

First thing on Monday morning – no way. Also not the most productive are late on Friday afternoon, or right after lunch, when energy levels drop. Make sure your team has at least some connection to the product, has either used it, or sold it, or assembled it. This is especially important for the facilitator of the session.

Here are additional tips for facilitators:
-Stack the Deck: prior to the session, ask each group member to write down a self-description in only five or six words. This gives the facilitator insight into the participants and helps him or her stack the deck a little to insure superior results;
-Break up Teams: select people who may know each other but are not that friendly with each other, in order to minimize group-think;
-Vary the Format: predictable times, formats, rooms, can deaden ideation sessions – mix it up to keep people out of their comfort zones –
try one at a customer’s office;
– It’s All Good: always accept every idea and get it written on the board; keep every scrap of paper for future reference so we can live in the
ideation moment, well after the session has ended;
-Info Alchemy: build a database of ideas, from which new combinations and solutions can be derived. One plus one plus one can equal 1,000,
-Keep it Simple: Ideation sessions can be complex, or they can be simple – both types can be effective.
The key is for Innovation Champions to regularly remind the team: Stay open to new ideas, read the relevant blogs, capture consumer insights – the showstoppers can come from anywhere.

Category: Innovation


About the Author: Robert Brands

Robert F. Brands is President and Founder of, Author of "Robert's Rules of Innovation" (Wiley, March, 2010), Innovation subject expert and speaker. Brands' hands-on experience in bringing innovation to ma…

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