Brainstorming, Brainwriting, Ideation, and the Structured Process of Idea Generation
7 Steps to a Successful Ideation Session
Before we get too philosophical (and scientific), this blog post is about the ideation and brainstorming process. It’s about harnessing data-driven techniques to increase the likelihood of successful ideation sessions. It’s about giving you a framework so that you can implement a workshop with your team or your client.
But I know what you’re thinking. Well, I’m making a broad assumption that I know what you’re thinking. Yet another one of those “ideation” blog posts. Yet another one of those buzzword-y articles about something that should just be called what it truly is—talking about things in order to come up with ideas. So #AgencyLife, right?
Ideation is kind of that. It’s a buzzword, for sure. It’s a thing. But it’s a thing that has had a really good agent. It’s a product-innovation spinoff of the traditional brainstorm.
It’s brainstorming 2.0, yet it needs to be defined in order for us to see the similarities and the dissimilarities to what it grew out of.
It is slightly funny, and ironic, that we have to classify the process of vocalizing a larger-than-usual number of ideas as something other than a large amount of ideas. But I am casting so many stones because we name everything here at Britton Marketing & Design Group, and I love everything about the process of naming something. It tangilizes (a new word I just invented; I have the best words) it. It gives it a personality. It gives it a soul.
So back to the brainstorming (we’ll cover the basis for naming things in a different blog post—we just have to come up with a good name for it first) origin story. The process harks back to the 1940s, and the term was coined by Alex Osborn. It was based on “the principles of withholding judgment, and quantity over quality when it came to idea sessions.”
All these are qualifiable things. All good things, we agree. But we also know that idea sessions existed before the mighty brainstorm came along, and we know that without a process and structure, brainstorming sessions usually just devolve into one or a few people dominating 60–75 percent of the conversation, according to Creative Conspiracy author and academic Leigh Thompson. So adding more structure and technique to brainstorming was necessary to eliminate the influence of a minority of participants, foster collaboration, and directly address the groupthink psychology.
Brainstorming was in need of structure, boundaries, and swim lanes in order to perform successfully. Much like my children.
In came ideation. Organized. Structured. Technical. And it was part of a more consistent and inclusive creative process—a process with a goal of using exercises and techniques to foster idea generation.
In came the smartphone, and the brainstorming flip-feature phone watched with teary eyes. In walked ideation and made the past 70 years look like no more than a free ride on cruise control for brainstorming.
So what exactly is ideation? Well, its end goal is the exact same as brainstorming: (original) idea generation. It just takes a more robust and structured approach to get there.
Ideation has been defined in these ways:
D) All of the above (true story).
Ideation is more than just a buzzword, because (by default) a buzzword implies that it has a lack of substance. And for ideation, that’s just not true. Ideation is a substantive and structured approach to idea generation.
But What Does Research Tell Us?
We all know that we have a brain. Most of us use it to generate ideas—different types and kinds of ideas. Creative, functional, fun, sad, ingenious, and genius ideas. At any point in this process, you’re either accessing your left-brain hemisphere or your right. Your right brain is the source of your artistic, musical, emotional, intuitive, and problem-solving ideas. Your left brain is responsible for more traditional linear thinking, like logic, science, analysis, and mathematical functions.
There’s no end in sight for think pieces and write-ups on the “brainstorming is not as great as ideation” phenomenon (and this is certainly one of them). But what we do know about the effectiveness of the idea-generation process is summarized (eloquently and scientifically) below:
- The bigger the group, the worse the results.
- You need to break out of your comfort zone before you break out the champagne.
- If no desired outcome is communicated, there will be no desired outcome.
- Open minds are a must.
- Break the ice to break the idea.
- Judgment-free zones equate to more diverse ideas.
- Clearly communicated processes are a must.
- Structure is the blueprint to consistent success.
- Involve the right people.
7 Tips for Having a Consistent and Successful Ideation Process
1. Involve the Right People
Make sure that you invite only the stakeholders that have something to add to the process. These should be people who are vested in the project, who have some background information, and who will ultimately guide the project forward.
- Invite people just for the sake of inviting people
- Invite people who won’t be able to add any value to the session
- Play favorites
- Introduce the person leading the session; this is the facilitator (and pacesetter) and the person who will guide the process forward
- Have the session in a comfortable setting, preferably a fairly private location
- Split your team into smaller teams before getting started
2. Break the Ice
Breaking the ice properly is probably the most important part of successfully conducting an ideation session. If you’re not able to alleviate—and, ideally, eliminate—anxiety, break down internal communication barriers, and loosen people up, the success rate of this collaborative session will decrease immensely.
Icebreakers should be fun and should get participants to open up and feel comfortable contributing. There are tons of different icebreaker exercises out there, but here are some of our favorites.
Icebreaker 1: The Classic
Go around the table and ask each person, “If you were stranded on a deserted island, which three people would you want with you (dead, alive, or famous)?”
Icebreaker 2: One Word
Divide the group into two or a few small groups. Tell the newly formed groups that their assignment is to think for a minute and then to share with their group the one word that describes x. It could be a company, a brand, a person, or anything else that would spur conversation.
Icebreaker 3: No Smiling
Announce at the beginning of the meeting that no one is allowed to smile whatsoever. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and you’ll see reverse psychology start to take place.
3. Set the Table—Clearly Communicate Deliverables and Expectations
There’s never a moment lost in ideation when a successful and desired outcome is clearly defined and communicated. The importance here lies in defining what deliverables or tangible assets you would like to get by performing this workshop. Literally spell it out. You want 20 headlines for a blog? You need five comps for a catalog cover? You want 30 content-marketing topics? You want 10 tweets?
Be as specific, literal, and direct as possible when explaining the purpose of the session. The more clarity you add, the more likely you are to have a successful project.
After that’s done, you’ll want to also make sure that you spell out the ideation process, its different parts, how it works, and what will happen after the session is complete. Clearly set an agenda with times allocated for all parts of the session: introductions, icebreakers, ideation techniques, and wrap-up.
4. Establish (Eventual) Boundaries
The desired outcome of an ideation session is only attainable when everyone knows the expectations, what their role is, and what the soft boundaries are that will guide the session.
The person most suited to communicate these boundaries and ensure that the session is moving along according to the agenda should be in the lead. This should be someone who is a good communicator and facilitator. It should be someone with diplomacy skills and a project-management background. Maybe it will be an account coordinator or executive. Or perhaps it will be a project manager. Someone who is used to herding cats.
5. Begin Ideation
Now you’re ready to kick off the session. You’re ready to get down to brass tacks and generate the best ideas. But instead of just blurting out things that come to mind, let’s consider a few different structured techniques that we can harness to guide the process to a more consistent and desired outcome.
While there are tons of great ideation techniques out there, the key is to find techniques that fit your team’s skills, abilities, and philosophies. We’re a brand-centered creative agency, and we were founded on creating purposeful and engaging content. So for us techniques that unlock our intuition and our creative side are beneficial. Here are two techniques that fit in with ideation for creative agencies.
Technique 1—(Collaborative) Sketching
Sketching, doodling, and creating are part of our core, so this particular technique really is in line with our core values, passions, skill sets, and expertise.
This technique focuses on group sketching and consists of the following quick steps:
- Step 1—Break your group into smaller groups of three to four people.
- Step 2—Distribute pieces of paper, then have a member of each group sketch a central image related to your concept.
- Step 3—Have that person give the sketch to another member of the team. Then that member will sketch another related visual element.
- Step 4—Teams should repeat the above steps until each person has added a component to the drawing. You can repeat this multiple times.
- Step 5—After the sketching is over, teams should look at the complete image they created. While it may not be the final concept you want to use for your visual content, it may reveal linked visual elements that each person might not have been able to come up with on their own.
The goal is to align and harness visual cues as a means of conceptualizing ideas. It’s also a lot of fun.
Technique 2—Harnessing the Other Senses
In order to use our other senses and not always rely on vision and hearing, it can be really beneficial to exercise and use our less-used senses. This can be especially helpful if we’re conceptualizing a visual deliverable (like a logo or something similar).
Here are four simple steps to implementing a sensory ideation technique:
- Step 1—Make a list of nonvisual (aural, textural, olfactory, etc.) sensory elements related to the subject around which you’re creating content. For example, if you’re creating content for a fashion company, you may list elements like the sound of a sewing machine, the smell of a certain retail store, and the feel of the fabric.
- Step 2—If possible, create these sensory experiences for yourself. Listen to a sewing machine, smell some clothes that are brand new, touch fabric with your hands.
- Step 3—Take a pen and paper and try to draw a visual representation of how these sensory experiences felt to you.
- Step 4—Use these individual sensory sketches to get at a commonly understood, but rarely visualized, element of your main topic.
The goal of this is to generate ideas and look at an otherwise mundane item in a different way—outside the box, if you will. Make sure that you stay on schedule. Make sure that you take regular breaks in between techniques to reset the brain. Make sure that you have fun.
6. Compile and Refine Ideas
The results are in, and you have a bunch of scattered and great ideas. What now? Now it’s time to curate, organize, and rank your findings. You can do this offline or as part of a final step in the ideation process. The first step would be to vet the ideas for feasibility. Oftentimes, when we’re in ideation sessions we come up with awesome moonshot ideas that might not always be in scope or attainable. Make sure these are ranked in a separate category.
For the ideas that seem actionable, rank them in order of your own choosing. You can use something as simple as Post-it notes on a whiteboard, ranking them by whatever scale you think fits. Something as simple as “good, better, best” can really work wonders in defining the ideas that should be weeded out and the ones that are keepers. You could also do this offline if you think participation will be better. You can use a more anonymous voting system to rank your ideas. Or do both to see if there are any anomalies.
By this time you should have a number of valid ideas that could be implemented. This is exciting. Before we end the session and let everyone go about their business, we have one more step to take care of.
7. Recap, Reframe, and Rethink
Thank everyone for participating. This is a given, but oftentimes we forget how busy everyone is. Making sure that all participants are thanked properly for their participation is not only good manners, but it’s also the proper setup for creating a good impression of the session.
Before letting them all go, you’ll also want to give participants an optional task: to continue thinking about the project with a goal of seeing what other, inadvertent ideas might come after the workshop. Shower thoughts, drive-time thinking, etc., can facilitate other ideas. These offline ideas are often valid and should be considered, because not all of us are on-the-spot thinkers. Some of us need some extra time to digest the parameters of a project in order to properly formulate really good responses. Give participants a 24-hour window. After 24 hours the brain should have moved on.
Finally, this is the time to communicate the next steps for the project. What is the next step, and when does it occur? Who’s involved?
To recap, here’s the above process paraphrased and synopsized (a word I just made up; wait, no, this is actually a word—we have the best words).
I know, I took some liberties in paraphrasing the importance of these techniques and processes, but I just couldn’t help myself. Levity is needed in life. But I digress.
The main takeaway after each successful session is to regroup and see where there are opportunities for improvement. Reviewing the results is one thing, but it’s almost equally important to review the process, the techniques used, the participants, and the facilitator to deduce possible areas of improvement.
Brainwriting, Resources, and the Future of Ideation
There’s an extension to the old brainstorm process that is capturing additional attention: brainwriting. This process focuses on capturing ideas through a more quiet process, separating discussion from the equation. Brainwriting has been found to “generate 20 percent more ideas and 42 percent more original ideas compared to traditional brainstorming groups,” Leigh Thompson wrote in Creative Conspiracy.
With all these newfangled words and processes, what is in store for the future? How do we harness all this information into actionable things? How do we capture all these wonderfully ideated ideas physically?
Well, we live in a place where everything seems to be either powered by AI, some sort of bot, or a virtual assistant, so the traditional use of the whiteboard is going by the wayside. In comes whiteboard 2.0, the new Google Jamboard, which is taking the concept from traditional to futuristic Minority Report status. This is the future—as long as you have $6,000 to put down on a whiteboard (I’d love to be a fly on the wall when you propose that to your CFO, btw).
Or you could just get on the F train (F for future), and use an app like Storme to take your process from brainstorming to media-rich presentation in no time. This is also the future.
Better yet, heed the words of the Onion’s lead video writer and foster a collaborative and safe creative space. This is not the future or the present. This is just following good practices.
Graphics/embeds: BMDG, Instagram