As the two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling observed, the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. Many executives are rightly skeptical of unconstrained creativity or brainstorming sessions. In our experience as well, this type of blue-sky, “every idea is a good idea” exercise rarely leads to anything useful. Nonetheless, we are big believers in “ideation” done right. This requires investing significant time in preparation, as well as in developing a thoughtful selection process to sort through the ideas that emerge. On the basis of our work with numerous companies throughout multiple industries, we have developed the following suggestions for running an ideation process effectively:
Challenge existing ideas. Don’t start by looking for new ideas; first, identify the lenses you currently look through or the “boxes” you are frequently told to think outside of. Ask yourself, Who do we define as customers and competitors? What are the assumptions inherent in the way we do things around here? Then think about how some of these “truths” might be challenged. How might you redefine what your company actually does?
Create new boxes. The reason that thinking out of the box often doesn’t work is that to focus, our brains need boxes—frameworks or mental models. The key to fostering practical creativity is to shape the idea generation effort by creating new boxes that your team can explore. Twenty-five years ago, for example, Philips Electronics undertook a new-box exercise and realized that another world was possible for the company, one that used its existing capabilities to go down an entirely different road of products and profit. Today, some 40 percent of Philips’ business involves health care devices such as blood pressure and heart monitors. A successful brainstorm isn’t necessarily a meeting at which a new concept suddenly arises. It can be a meeting at which an existing concept suddenly makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.