Read time: 7 minutes
Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, began documenting creativity as a process in the 1930s. Even today, we credit Osborn with key brainstorming tenets, such as deferring judgment, welcoming wild ideas, and achieving high-quality ideas by first pursuing a high quantity of ideas.
Fast forward fourscore plus a couple of years, and modern industrial design firms have been building on the fundamentals, updating them to benefit from modern tools and technologies. In the following interview, we chat with Ty Hagler, principal at Trig, to explore idea generation in the 21st century.
Q: What is Trig?
Trig is a full-service industrial design firm that serves consumer goods, healthcare, and durable goods markets. Our all-inclusive product/prototype innovation process includes insights and ideation, design, and brand asset management for start-ups, mid-sized, and Fortune 500 companies across the United States. For examples of Trig's work, please visit their detailed case studies section.
Q: When in your career did you first learn about the formal process of idea generation?
As an industrial designer, we practice idea generation each year of the 4-year undergraduate studio curriculum. I wouldn't call the idea generation process we learn as designers "formal," however. It's messy and urgent, and highly flexible to an individual's creative style. While the studio experience is social and teaches creativity at an instinctual level, it falls apart when non-designers try to be included in the process.
For example, my first design project working at Home Depot started with a question, "how might we make fertilizer spreaders more compact?" I ran an individual design process resulting in interesting options. One that comes to mind was to sell the spreader below cost and adapt the fertilizer packaging to clip into the new spreader easily. Really cool concept that uses the razor/razorblade business model to create customer loyalty. The complete re-framing of how to think about fertilizer spreaders got several executives excited about the value of design and permitted me to continue to explore new product opportunities within Home Depot.
Q: That sounds like a great success! Was it?
Sort of, unfortunately, the approach to idea generation fell apart when bringing non-designers into the process. We had a team that included retail business leaders to generate new product ideas for pneumatic tools. In retrospect, I didn't offer enough training in advance to my cross-functional colleagues.
"There are no bad ideas," for example, makes perfect sense to designers who know how to defer judgment, but the concept is met with immediate resistance for those without training. That first ideation session didn't go well as we couldn't agree on the rules of engagement. All was not lost though as it helped me appreciate the need for a formal process. During my time at Home Depot, we ran many more idea generation sessions, pulled in outside agencies to help, and facilitated our in-house sessions. I have yet to find the perfect ideation process that works in all situations, but the techniques have gotten better over time.
Q: Other than the need for a process and training, what else did you learn from those experiences?
First, configure the idea generation method to the context. For example, the value of cross-functional formal idea generation sessions help ensure that many perspectives are considered, generally resulting in more ideas during the divergent, judgment-deferring phase. However, we must spend a bit of time in process training and facilitation with participants. On the other hand, designer-only idea generation sessions will be more efficient since all participants have the training and practical experience in creating and developing ideas. Of course, these are two extremes, one with diverse client participants and the other with all designer participants. There's plenty of room in the middle, and at the end of the day, the goal is to help clients achieve the best result.
Q: Who were some thought leaders you found useful for their ideas on idea generation?
Leigh Thompson's book Creative Conspiracy is hands-down the most useful and ground-breaking work that has changed how we facilitate formal ideation sessions. She introduces the concepts of production blocking, evaluation apprehension, and free riding. These negative behaviors restrict the flow of ideas.
Q: What is "production blocking?"
Production blocking is the idea that when one person is talking, the other people in the group are listening, not generating their own ideas. It's the reason why a brainstorming group of four people is 1/4th as effective as a nominal group of people who are individually writing down ideas. A nominal group is simply two or more people who have been grouped together yet behave as individuals.
I propose we call these "Cookie Monster" groups, because Cookie doesn't share his cookies, preferring to eat as many cookies as possible by himself. Imagine nominal groups as a collection of Cookie Monsters, all saying "Om-nom-nom" chowing down on some cookies, er, generating ideas.
With Thompson's concepts, we gained insight to improve our methods. To this end, we ran a series of idea generation experiments on graduate and undergraduate students of varying size groups to test her ideas in application using emerging virtual whiteboard tools in 2017-2018. The simple changes of addressing production blocking by first using the "heads down-heads up" technique and second, emphasizing the importance of idea quantity, dramatically improved the students' creative performance.
Q: How about those other ideas from Ms. Thompson. What are "evaluation apprehension" and "free-riding?"? How do you address them for the best results?
Evaluation apprehension means you withhold the wild ideas because you fear the judgment of your colleagues. There are a couple of ways to combat this. The anonymity of virtual brainstorming helps a lot here. My favorite is to personally offer the wildest and dumbest idea early in the session. If others see me being willing to look ridiculous, it provides psychological safety for them to propose their own wild ideas that are incredibly valuable. "At least I'm not as dumb as Ty" helps keep things fun and playful.
Free riding is when ideation participants get to ride the bus without paying the fare. People don't work as hard in a group when they know they are not individually accountable for the results. Enforcing this principle works contrary to evaluation apprehension, but I've found that keeping a scorecard per session that tracks the number of ideas per person per 10 minutes is motivating. The current record is held by biomedical engineering students at NC A&T at 12 ideas per person per 10 minutes.
Q: What do you see as the biggest error with the "traditional idea generation session."
It's based on the idea that breakthrough ideas can only happen in a formal context and at a scheduled time. Additionally, it doesn't take advantage of technological advances in virtual collaboration and digital whiteboard tools.
Today, we use Zoom and Mural to conduct a series of half-day divergent idea generation sessions. All ideas are immediately captured in the software so that there's no transcription or storing piles of scrap paper after the session. The approach we use reduces production blocking and provides a level playing field for the introverts to make significant contributions.
And even better, ideation with virtual tools helps us avoid the high expenses of the big idea generation sessions. Travel costs, disruption to schedules, etc.
Q: We used to get in a room together, but now we may generate ideas virtually. How much has been lost from not getting together?
You know, as we're emerging from the pandemic and teams aren't forced to use Zoom anymore, I think there is a big premium being placed on meeting in person again. We really do have a lot to gain from building relationships through hallway conversations and shared meals that we've been missing out on. It's an intangible that needs to be revisited — In-person idea generation sessions are really good as a team-building activity, especially with a great facilitator.
A word of caution here: hybrid idea generation with both virtual and in-person is the hardest to do well. Early on, as we experimented with the format for virtual ideation sessions, we found a big disconnect between two or more people sharing a room and everyone else who was remote. We have had a lot of success with mixing sessions where some were virtual, and some were in-person, but not virtual and in-person at the same time.
Q: What can everyone do to generate more (and better) ideas?
Start by saying "Yes, and…" to any new idea proposed. The same technique that will make you a better improvisational actor will help you generate more ideas. Improv actors are trained to respond to each situation thrown at them on stage by agreeing with the situation and then building upon it. The simple Rule of Agreement keeps the creative energy flowing during a team conversation and helps to encourage those who are not talking to contribute ideas.
In practice, the trick is to quickly sift through the 90% of far-fetched ideas and identify the 10% that have merit, then build upon that 10%. If someone proposes a lawnmower with antigravity to keep wheels from crushing the grass, you could build upon it by saying:
"Yes, antigravity is cool, and, we could try using the lawnmower blade as a helicopter rotor to achieve the same goal while we wait for the antigravity technology to mature."
"Yes, helicopters can hover above the grass, and, I wonder if we can learn anything from hovercraft as a simpler machine design."
"Yes, hovercraft use an air curtain to focus the lift pressure, and it would be interesting to experiment with a sharpened rotor to cut the grass while providing lift."
"Yes, a sharpened rotor is a simple mechanism, and it reminds me that drones get a lot of control using four rotors. Would that help us keep an even cut?"
Idea generation is a skill to be practiced, and I do believe that everyone has the capacity to do it well. To get there, it ultimately takes training along with skilled facilitation to unleash the creative genius within us all.
About the Author
William “Scott” Burleson is the author of The Statue in the Stone: Decoding Customer Motivation with the 48 Laws of Jobs-to-be-Done Philosophy.
He has a diverse professional background within manufacturing engineering, product management, voice-of-the-customer training and SaaS development. Notable career stops include product manager for John Deere’s compact tractors, innovation leader for Actuant corporation, and Director of the Strategyn Institute. At Strategyn, he worked alongside the world's best jobs-to-be-done practitioners. Strategyn, founded by pioneer Tony Ulwick, is ground zero for Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI).
Today, as Senior Vice President for The AIM Institute, Burleson leads product development for Blueprinter® software, teaches workshops on innovation using the New Product Blueprinting process, and advises corporate leaders and practitioners on growth via JTBD principles.
He has a MS in Management and a BS in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University.