I just finished From Ideas to Action: Bring ideas to life through Ideation and Prototyping – my first of two courses with IDEO U for the IDEO Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate.

The final project for this online course, run over 5 weeks with hundreds of participants from all over the world, was to create a pitch for a product or process that you had worked on through the Design Thinking steps of ideation, rapid prototyping, and iteration – and to reflect on your learning.

We use elements of Design Thinking (DT) in our Bright Green Learning work regularly, from different visual brainstorming techniques (lots of cards and post-its), to prototyping ideas through approaches such as the  LEGO Serious Play method (see my blog post What’s in a Brick? Using LEGO® for Serious Stuff“) and drawing/storyboarding, so I was eager to follow the IDEO Design Thinking courses to get additional ideas and tools, and a vision of their whole DT process.

I found the course to be excellent, video- and assignment-based, with ample feedback from other participants (built into the course requirements). I did get some useful new tools and a better understanding of the elements of each step. And some of the most profound insights came by observing and reflecting on myself in my role as a facilitator in these human-centred processes.

One big aha was to step out of my own way!

What I noticed? For the most innovative ideas to be generated, I needed to pay attention to some very subtle constraints that I might be putting on the process myself!  This is not the grumbly participant who doesn’t want to draw, the person on their phone all the time, or the person who already has the best idea and is completely certain of that. No, these constraints take the form of unecessary parameters that I build into the process that are based on my own mental model of how things should roll out to get results. These very subtle decisions that I am making as a facilitator and process leader might be inhibiting those participating, limiting the number of ideas and the innovation that emerges. Whew, that’s tough to accept!

Here are 4 obervations I had about self-imposed constraints in the Ideation process (generating initial ideas):

Unecessary Limit 1: The “right” ideas

In “brainstorming” sessions in the past I have not actively encouraged wild ideas from participants, but only realistic ideas, or at least I didn’t proactively encourage people to think of things that were really out there. In my testing of different ideation techniques, including some that I already use, I saw that wild ideas can spark others to have ideas that are a stretch, and that usefully fill the gap between boring and too far out. Now I will give people permission and encourage them to try to throw out some crazy ideas. There is always a prioritisation step next that will see the idea “everyone wears panda onsies” move down on the list (maybe, or who knows, maybe not!)

Unecessary Limit 2: Stopping short of great

I saw in my ideation testing that there are cycles to ideas generation. The first cycle squeezes out all the easy ideas, a veritable flurry of things that are already on the tops of people’s minds. The second cycle gets the crazy ideas. And then if you can pause long enough, even when people seem a little bored (when I as the facilitator would notice this, get nervous, and say, “OK, done, let’s move on”), with some prompting, you can get some really great, further honed and synthesized ideas. It was my observation that in each cycle you get less ideas in number, but the quality/innovation increases.

Unecessary Limit 3: Who’s invited

The third observation was around who you ideate with. For my product (unlike my normal professional work), I worked with a mixed demographic – that is, older and younger people (even very young people) from 8 to 55 years old. Of course your group depends on your ultimate product/process users, but how can you expand this past the usual suspects? I should not have been amazed at how creative the responses of the younger people were. They were not usually the final answers, but they certainly informed them and they expanded the continuum of possibility and fun factor considerably. (If you can’t have younger people in the room, then perhaps using the “Putting yourself in other people’s shoes” ideation method could help people tap into their inner teenager!)

Unecessary Limit 4: One thing at a time

Finally, the last observation is a very small thing, but could potentially have considerable impact on what is produced during an ideation session. Normally I would ask people to stop writing and listen while others are presenting their ideas, making a clear distinction between these two steps of generating and sharing. I might have enforced this with a look or a mention (very teacherly of me!) In these tests, I did not say that; in fact, I said that if someone’s idea gave them a new idea, they should quickly note it down before it was forgotten.  I noticed that people listened differently to report-backs of their peers’ ideas, and that these ideas in turn sparked further new ideas in the listeners. Allowing people to continue to write and think during the report backs, in addition to listening, produced some additional great ideas to work with.

My take away: Make sure you, as the facilitator, are not creating rules that subtly inhibit your ideation process! Ah, even after so many years of practice, the learning never stops…

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