This summer I participated in the Austin-based Design Thinking conference co-sponsored by Designit and Wipro Digital. About 250 people attended — I was fortunate to have the opportunity to lead a hands-on crash course on ideation for a mix of C-level executives, HR directors, and business developers with varying degrees of experience integrating the design thinking mindset and practice into their respective organizations. Here are five tips from this workshop that will help your team get further faster with great ideas.
Identify a design target.
It’s easy to come up with ideas for ourselves (I want a tree house for grown ups!). It’s a lot harder to brainstorm things other people would love (Oh wait, you’re afraid of heights.). That’s why a deep understanding of the goals, motivations, behaviors, and pain points of your target audience is critical in ideation. To keep yourself and your team from being self-referential, use a tool like personas—archetypes of people who will use these solutions—whenever you brainstorm.
Silence the inner critic.
In our day-to-day work, we typically practice linear thinking. Picture a logical, sequential, highly efficient but, let’s face it, boring straight line. In contrast, ideation calls for a very different kind of mental work which is called lateral thinking. In this mode, we push the brain in different, seemingly unrelated directions to help it make unusual connections between thoughts. If we were to map these thoughts, they’d look like zig zags and loops. There are lots of ideation techniques like “What if?” prompts, provocative questions that trigger new ways of thinking. For instance, ask yourself, what if the solution was analog? What if everything was automated? What if the problem was solved in less than a minute?
Because lateral thinking is not our default mode or most practiced mindset, it’s critical that we make it as easy as possible to access. This means creating a psychological safe space where people feel like they can share misshapen, half-formed, seemingly “ugly” ideas in their raw state. This is where silencing our inner critics becomes imperative. (Thanks for your input but not interested!) I’m a big fan of conducting a simple, silly ceremony at the beginning of ideation to toss those little buggers out of the room so we can get right to brainstorming.
Separate ideation from evaluation.
You’ve done the hard work of creating a safe space for ideas to emerge. Minds are open, and ideas are flowing. Now don’t screw that up by evaluating prematurely! Give people the chance to share their ideas, discuss their intentions, blend concepts, and riff. Then, when you’re absolutely sure all the ideas are out, you can get critical. But be sure to clearly shift into that mindset together—either in a different place and time, or by just calling it out and saying, “Now, we’re going to switch gears to evaluation.”
Quantity over quality.
This one gets easier as you quiet your inner critic. Your goal is to get as many ideas out as fast as you possibly can. Imagine yourself sprinting; you should be out of breath. Believe it or not, the best way to generate a bunch of ideas is to give yourself limited time. Why? You don’t have time to belabor, overthink, and perfect. The more ideas you generate, the more likely you are to get into a state of flow…which will ultimately benefit you and your colleagues. Often when we hear other peoples’ ideas, it triggers more of your own. So, be generative and generous with your ideas.
Here’s the good news: when we were kids, this whole ideation thing was no problemo. Imagination was like breathing. I’m a firm believer that we all have this muscle deep inside, it just might be a bit dormant in our logical, rational, adult worlds. Good ideation sessions help us reconnect with that innate ability. And, like any form of exercise, the muscle grows with use. If you’re facilitating brainstorming sessions, remind yourself to believe in the inner child of every participant. Those little munchkins just need some love and safety.
Moral of the story? Channel your inner Tom Hanks in Big, and all your ideating problems will magically float away. Okay, not quite. But there’s a lot to be said for getting in touch with your inner kid when it comes to ideating. So get messy, stop judging, and let the ideas flow.
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