Everyone has thoughts.
Writing them down makes them powerful.
Idea generation is an important activity for those doing value-creation work within an organization. Whether one is a designer, marketer, product manager, engineer, or in business development, the need to explore new possibilities is ever present. Much has been written about “brainstorming” as the answer to, or fool’s gold of, concept generating activities. In fact, between starting this post, putting it aside, and now finishing it, the Wall Street Journal published the much discussed article, “Cubicle Culture: how brainstorming works best”. Written by Jared Sandberg, the piece downplays brainstorming’s effectiveness. Some in the creative blogosphere community have decried the article for its critique and its somewhat mean spirited position. While I agree that Sandberg doesn’t entirely get it, I don’t disagree with his premise that brainstorming has been oversold to the business community. Brainstorming is an exceptional method for concept generation, yet it isn’t the only way. So how should brainstorming be used? Or, more importantly, when it is good to do this and, if you shouldn’t be brainstorming what should you be doing? How can one think “inside the box” and be more effective in concept generation?
When and why to brainstorm?
Within the mode of value-creation work we can describe as “concept generation”, brainstorming should comprise no less than 10 and no greater than 25% of effort. In project terms, one could expect to do a couple of brainstorms per project and that’s about it. They are particularly good at the very beginning of projects when little to nothing is known about your solution space. A team brainstorm and mind-mapping exercise is a good vehicle for rapidly understanding the knowledge of the team, what needs to be explored more rigorously, who seems to have passion for what parts of the problem, and finally, identifying a couple of possible solutions. Another key time to brainstorm is mid-way through a project when the team has been immersed in data about the solution space. By putting together team members with an interdisciplinary group of stakeholders at this point, it is possible to make huge cognitive leaps in the solution. All told, these activities should take no more than a couple of total project hours. So what else should you be doing with your time if you’re not brainstorming?
Building the “Thinking Box”
First, a team should spend time doing research on the solution space, recognizing patterns in the data, and then framing insights around those patterns. In his writing, most notably in the Innovation Planning Toolkit, the Institute of Design’s Vijay Kumar describes these modes as “know users”, “know context”, and “frame insights”. More succinctly (and more wittily), Vijay describes this as “building the box” in which a team can meaningfully ideate. Conveniently enough for the metaphor, there are three axis of concern in research: society, business, and technology. First identified by Peter Drucker, then powerfully communicated via Doblin Group’s Larry Keeley’s “balanced breakthrough model”, these three aspects some market enables or constrains that which can happen within it.
Thus, an analysis phase considering research in these areas should have some point of view with regards to each of them. To be really effective, teams can produce one or more design principles (or criteria or) considering each axis of the “box”. These statements as well as their certainly provide the extent and variability of the solution space. It is within this box that truly effective concept generation can be done with structured methods.
Thinking inside the box: a few methods for framed concept generation
So your team has built a box in which to explore. What are a few tools you can use to force yourself to force breadth and depth within the box, i.e., to have maximum coverage of the solution space? Three of my favorites include: scenario planning, concept matrixes, and the formation of a classic value statement. Let’s first consider value statements.
As Jeffrey Moore writes in his book, Crossing the Chasm, properly understanding your market and crafting a proposition which clearly and succinctly defines the value of your offering can be a powerful tool in development. Moore and others have rigorous multipart formulas through which value statements are to be written. Rather than being so formulaic (Moore’s generally require a certain order and type of language even), the creation of a value statement to align a team’s concept generation and say, in plain language, what the thing is about can be a highly relevant activity. I pulled the following four pieces from various books and teachings at the Institute of Design as the essential parts of a value statement:
1. Who is your target customer?
2. A statement of need or opportunity, i.e., what is the unmet or underserved need in the target customer group you are addressing?
3. What are the new benefits that can be created for the customers through your new solutions?
4. And finally, why will the customer choose to buy or choose your offerings over others?
As the first and then last phase of concept generation, the formation of a value statement can align a team around a relatively compact statement of where the real unmet or underserved needs and resulting value exists in some market. Pushing it to be understandable to a 12 year old (or your mom) allows it to be even more portable and useful as a synthesis of the idea.
A second tool (the most useful in my opinion) in idea generation is the concept matrix. They can take many forms and are best driven by models or frameworks derived from specific project research. The basic concept is a matrix with two axes. Each axis represents some set of insights, perhaps a customer journey, types of technology, some types of possible business models, or user segments. The object of the activity is to generate at least one (but multiple is better) concept for each module within the matrix. So, imagine a matrix with a customer journey on one side and user types on the other. One could take an initial step of “attraction” to some offering and blow out concepts for each module within the matrix (type of user). What attracts a single mother and a group of teens is starkly different yet McDonald’s, for example, may have identified both as key customers around which to ideate. These point concepts can then be mixed and matched to build systems that work together.
What is particularly good about concept matrixes is that they can work at almost any level of product ideation. At a high level, portfolio management in a consumer products company for example, strategists and stewards of a company’s overall direction can have a matrix which forces them to deal with key trends in politics, economics, society, and possible customer segments. This would force this group to ideate on some number of possibilities for each module within the matrix regardless of what preconceived notions the group may have about the solution space in the beginning of product cycle. At a far more detailed level, like working on a user interface for a web-based application, a development team could have one axis which represents the types of activities users do in the “real” world related to their area of focus and on the second access could be best of breed products across all web applications in the market today. In this way, a UI team would be forced to imagine their own product(s) as flickr, Monster, MySpace, salesforce.com, etc., without being constrained to the more regular feature to feature benchmarking comparison done at most companies today.
A third tool highly useful to concept generation is scenario planning. Scenario planning was developed first in the military and then at the Shell oil company as a method to mitigate risk. As theory around the method goes, exploring future stories of highly relevant trends related to your company gives you a window of what could happen in the world. The creation of these stories as an activity allows a company to devise responses for various dangers to the company’s business model. Thus, while the oil sector was largely unprepared for the 4x price shock of the 1970’s, Shell had considered this possible future and had planned appropriately for it. By locking in fixed pricing for a period of several years its profits soared while the rest of the industry suffered. Shell was able to dominate while others failed just because they forced themselves to think about an expanded solution space. So how exactly does scenario planning work and how can it be used to generate concepts if it was designed to mitigate risk?
Simply put, the process of imagining highly relevant possible futures forces individuals to envision new opportunities and directions for their company. Let’s walk through the process and to see how this might work. First, one must consider relevant trends in politics, economics, society, and technology often known as PEST for short. Research done in these areas by sector specific experts is gathered and then presented to an interdisciplinary offering development team. These trends are then ranked by the team; those that are most impactful to a company strategy or offering team yet most uncertain are ranked highest in relevance. One trend in the Shell example was mid-east relations with the West. Current thought at the time was that relations were stable enough and oil was cheap enough that it was better to buy on an as need basis rather than lock in long term contracts. It was the thought that oil was truly a commodity product, although this was highly uncertain when considered closely.
The team then picks the two or three most relevant trends and places them in on axis of extremes. With regards to oil, the mid-east relations trend was considered as becoming more integrated with the West (better relations) and also breaking down entirely (worse). In this way, multiple “Thinking Boxes” are built in which to ideate. Scenarios built and written of several potential futures and company and offering strategy is considered in each. What would have to be developed and what business models considered depends entirely on the scenario. In this way, the team is forced to think well outside of their preconceived notions of how the future will play out. In Shell’s case, they thought of a world in which mid-east relations got so bad that access to oil would plummet resulting in doubling or more of pricing. This possible future played out even more than they had imagined but because they had considered it as a real option, they had locked in multi-year pricing and variable sourcing. When the 1970’s oil crisis hit the industry, Shell was the only prepared firm and profited handsomely because of it.
Imagine using scenario planning in the development project you are working on. Let’s say you’re working on future mobile communications devices for Motorola. You would want to consider trends like WiMax? What would a Motorola device be like if cheap wireless internet access completely covered the US? What if it didn’t? Regardless, an interdisciplinary development team can produce some startling and game-changing concepts if forced to think in these new ways. This short summary can not possibly do justice to this key tool for strategy and concept generation but, if it has piqued your interest, I would highly suggest two books: Peter Schwartz’s The Art of the Long View and Kees Van der Heijden’s Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation.
The Value of Forcing Yourself to Think in New Ways
All this is not to say that Brainstorming is a bad idea. In fact, it is an excellent mode of thought that can produce really relevant output extremely quickly. That said, too many so-called "innovators" rely too heavily on brainstorming to generate concepts. While it is quite possible to produce good results in this way, a methods based approach forcing one to think in different modes about different aspects of the problem will more surely result in the best concept coverage and best possible solution.