Optimizing Ideation

I’ve a personal mantra that you have to generate a lot of ideas to get a collection of good ones. It’s somewhat of a joke, as I like to believe I have lots of good ideas, but it’s also true. Since systematic creativity isn’t an oxymoron, there are practices we can use to increase the output of ideas, and from this springs the new innovations that will fuel an organization’s continual adaptation. What does it take, and what is Learning & Development’s role?

While it’s more like a continuum, it’s useful to think of two types of idea generation, fast and slow.  One is when we need ideas now, there’s a problem we need to solve or an imperative for a new initiative. Then there’s the background percolation of ideas, where they emerge from the environs as an outgrowth of particular factors. Both can be fostered, and we should think about how that happens.  If we want ideas to grow, we have to prepare the environment and facilitate the process.

The way to think about ideation is exploring a space of possible solutions. Constraints help keep the space from being too big. That is, unless the limitations end up constraining the solution to the empty set ;).  Then, of course, you have to figure out how to relax a constraint. The typical rubric of ‘fast, cheap, or good, pick two’ comes to mind. However, it’s easy to end up prematurely constraining the space, not from principled constraints but instead from prejudices. Cognitively we talk about functional fixedness, set effects, and other such artifacts of our mental architecture. But we have ways to work around this, to ensure we explore the broadest possible set of potentialities.

Fast Ideation

Businesses typically need ideas now (if not yesterday or last week)! When problems arise, or when there’s a need for a new product or service, time typically is of the essence. It helps, then, to review what facilitates the likelihood of generating specific solutions.

The typical response is brainstorming, yet there are approaches that work better, and not so well. The right team, and the right sized team, are two elements. The environment also matters. Some approaches will prematurely limit the possible ideas. We need to avoid those barriers to the richest exploration.

The right team is one that’s as diverse as possible, but not too.  Research suggests that the requirement is that the team share some core values, in this case about the importance of the outcome. You want complementary skills and diverse viewpoints. You also want to keep the group size appropriate to the problem. Typically, the recommendation is on the order of five people. That can increase if it’s a big problem and you need more knowledge and skill sets, but keeping the number low minimizes the social overhead. It’s about striking a balance.

To take the best advantage of this diversity, you need everyone to consider the problem and generate their ideas before hearing others. You want to allow those differences to help explore the widest possible space of solutions before one person’s ideas constrain others.

When everyone has produced their individual ideas (ideally by an allotted time), then they’re shared. At this point, you want to diverge before you converge, so people should use the other’s ideas to spark new ideas, not start evaluating them. The latter happens later, once you’ve exhausted the potential pool of ideas. Exercises that introduce some randomness in idea combination can help preclude premature convergence.

Slow Ideation

In addition to the generation of ideas ‘on demand’, organizations can (and should) foster the continual incubation of new ideas. This is harder, in a sense, because it depends on more ephemeral practices, and it requires some elements that are antithetical to the old ‘command and control’ hierarchy.  Yet the argument is that the background generation of ideas is as much a part of success as the deliberate. This is where the unexpected disruptions (read: opportunities) are more likely to emerge.

Here the trick is the unexpected connection: suddenly seeing something in a new light that makes a link between what’s happening and a new opportunity. The sparks are likely to come from social interactions, because that’s what makes for the unexpected connections of ideas that unearth new spaces of potential, and from a continual exposure to new ideas that are related to, but not directly relevant to, current work. As Stephen B. Johnson terms it, the ‘adjacent possible’ is where we get unexpected insights.

The premise of exploring solutions spaces still holds here too, and consequently so too does the idea of rich differences. Thus, diversity helps in slow ideation too. Even if it’s reading something someone else wrote or seeing a new idea, it’s a myth that it’s the individual is going off and coming back with the new idea. And different perspectives rubbing up against one another create a greater likelihood of unexpected connections.

This entails a couple of cultural elements. Companies are typically concerned with accountability, and that’s not discounted here, but it needs to be coupled with ‘psychological safety’. The goal is to have an environment where sharing a new and different idea is valued, and reciprocal sharing is expected. If you have a Miranda Organization, where ‘anything you say can and will be held against you’, you’re unlikely to have new ideas shared.  

In addition, you need to provide time for this idea percolation to happen. People need to have time to allow those ideas to incubate and emerge. Another artifact of our brain is that being exposed to ideas don’t necessarily lead to immediate connections. Instead, it typically occurs as an unconscious processing task, emerging at unexpected times later. Creating an environment where creative friction, people engaging in idea sharing without an expectation of immediate return, is a critical element. Whether with people or ideas, increasing the likelihood of connection and recognition is important, and that takes time.

General Tips

This also implies that experimentation is a key part of success. You want the ability to take a subset of ideas and prototype and test them. Innovation isn’t just ideas, but good ideas that lead to improvements. You can’t ensure that they’re better without testing and documenting the change. Having an expectation of experimentation, and a comfort level with a degree of failure, is important. Sharing the lesson learned, regardless of outcome, is as important as the actual experiment.

Ideas generally come from idea ‘collision’, and seeing ideas in new light. One of the sources of ideas is what others have done or are doing. You need to be careful, however; while the industry talks about ‘best practices’; I suggest this is a potential trap. Just trying to replicate what worked elsewhere is unlikely to be successful. While you can experiment, debug why it’s not working, and remedy it, I suggest there’s a faster path. Recognizing the underlying principles about why that initiative worked, and re-contextualizing before experimentation, I suggest, will shorten the time to a meaningful evaluation of the idea. Thus, I prefer to talk about ‘best principles’ rather than ‘best practices’.

Ultimately, ideation is probabilistic game. You want to maximize the likelihood that you’ll get a suitable idea. In the fast situation, that means optimizing the team and process to explore the solutions space as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The role here for L&D is to educate on and facilitate those processes. In the slow situation, your goal is to optimize both the process of generating percolation/incubation/fermentation (pick your preferred metaphor) and the conditions under which it happens. This means L&D making facilitating the process organization wide within an appropriate culture.

Ideation is increasingly necessary for organizations to thrive. Processes and policies can foster, or inhibit ideation. L&D has the opportunity to facilitate and optimize these processes. To the extent that role is taken up, there’s the chance to become central to organizational success. And that, I’ll suggest, is a valuable move. Get the idea?