3 Easy Tips to Let 1000 Ideas Bloom

By Anne Orban, M.Ed., NPDP

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 10.54.46 AMMany well-reasoned front end processes fail to deliver breakthrough (i.e., new to the company, or new to the world) ideas, when new product development processes bypass the creativity component. When this happens, the result is a default preference for the familiar. Often the idea has a low threshold of acceptability; it is a low-hanging-fruit idea. Without creativity, what will stretch developers to push the initial threshold acceptability at any stage of new product development where problems have to be solved? If it doesn’t happen in the idea generating stage, then it certainly won’t happen in subsequent stages. As one of our clients said, “Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between low hanging fruit and fruit that has been lying on the ground for a while.”

“If an idea isn’t at first absurd, there is no hope for it” commented Albert Einstein. Creativity can deliver the absurd idea that may have a wonderful nugget of genius within it. In the framework of Innovation Focus, this is the idea that sits in the top right-hand box of a matrix where the x axis is current, emerging and new technology and the y axis is current, emerging and new need. Appropriate use of creative problem solving tools and techniques can help populate the top right box with an idea for a future that is a big stretch, breakthrough or radical.

Process rigor and discipline is not antithetical to creativity; it is essential. Without it brainstorming is most likely to yield only close-in ideas and the problem can be compounded by premature enactment — settling too soon on an idea to take forward that result in insufficiently differentiated new products or services.  So, to enhance your existing processes for developing new products and services, bring (back!) the rigor, discipline and playfulness of creativity.

Easy process tip 1: Bring outsiders into your creative problem solving.

It’s always a good idea to plan to have some consumers and prosumers in your brainstorming activity. The type of consumer depends on your task. But at very least you can find a couple of folks in you company from outside your task area that qualify as consumers. Prosumers are non-competing new product development professionals who can connect with the task, who are experienced ideators and who can act as impartial challengers to the task team’s norms and biases. Prosumers can be found in your company, in professional networks and anywhere along your value chain.

Easy process tip 2: Play with creative excursions to stimulate fresh thinking.

A creative excursion is a device to get you away from the task and generate seemingly irrelevant material, and then force a creative connection back to the task. What if the task is to find the next theme for a Cirque de Soleil event? Lots of top-of-mind ideas have been offered and the flow is slowing. So, generate irrelevant material such as by asking participants to think about a favorite book when they were children. What did they like about that book? Then turn those memories into more ideas for the task.

Easy process tip 3: Begin ideas with ‘I wish’ and follow with the nugget of the idea.

Starting an idea with ‘I wish’ effectively evens the participant playing field and also gives all participants permission to speak the absurd. It stops any experts beginning an idea with “I think we should ….” And, it diverts leaders from beginning with “In my opinion…”- both sure-fire ways to shut down the creative flow of ideas.

For those who want to be reminded of the genesis of creative problem solving as a discipline, you will remember that it started to emerge in the 1940’s when Alex Osborne (BBDO) and Professor Merle Crawford (founder of the Product Development and Management Association/PDMA) recognized the need to optimize creativity for new idea generation. Sidney Parnes, founder of the Creative Education Foundation at SUNY Buffalo and of the Creative Problem Solving Institute, helped formalize creative problem solving as a process with tools and techniques. Many practitioners have enhanced the rigor, discipline and fun of creative problem solving and have trained and encouraged corporate America to include creative problem solving as a best practice, not only at the fuzzy front end, but wherever there is any problem worth solving.

Stay tuned and get the facts. In just a few months the Creative Problem Solving Institute will publish the results of an extensive study (Keller and Burnett, 2015) involving 90 problem solving teams. An advance peak shows us that it solidly refutes the oft-cited 1958 Yale study (and more recent critiques of brainstorming in the popular press) suggesting that brainstorming as a tool is not good, or as good as working alone.

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