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PHOTO: Giorgio Grani | unsplash

Innovation is an ingredient that gives an organization its competitive edge. And in 2021, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on the importance of successful innovative development. Tough market conditions are forcing companies to develop new products and services which will spark commercial opportunities as well as inspire their organizations to work in more efficient and imaginative ways.

The need to pivot to online channels continues to force a rethink on digital, offering new delivery channels and online processes. There is also a shift in mindset: coming out of the pandemic, there is a sense of an impending reset, when we will work in different, more sustainable and satisfying ways.

In short, it’s a great time to think about innovation.

Making Innovation Work By Generating Ideas

Innovation is important for anyone working in customer experience or employee experience, where there's always room for new thinking and approaches. At Cylogy, the digital agency I co-founded, we regard innovation as the key to carving out compelling new offerings and working in better ways, but also in providing novel ideas for our clients.

A lot has been written about innovation. It’s a well-advanced branch of management literature and there is a treasure trove of books, articles and blogs to wade through. Yet despite the maturity of the topic and the fact that many organizations have declared a commitment to driving innovation in recent years, it’s surprising how few have been able to pull it off. I think one of the reasons for this is because the practicalities around managing innovation are not always fully understood or are incorrectly applied.

Often, innovation starts with the process of creating ideas. Teams might declare that they are going to find inspiration and innovate from there, but then find no good ideas flow or the ones that do are underwhelming, and the effort peters out.

Part of the reason for this is that organizations and teams fail to create the right conditions for generating ideas in the first place. It might feel like you’re unable to automatically generate a good idea, but this isn’t a reason to panic. There are various tried-and-tested techniques and strategies that dramatically increase the chance of getting a good idea to help drive innovation.

Here are seven tips and tactics that can really help.

1. Generate a Lot of Ideas, However Off-the-Wall They Are

Up front, it’s worth your team committing to generating lots of ideas and capturing them. However bizarre, off-the-wall or wildly unrealistic they are, try and capture as many as you can. There might just be a gem of an idea in something and the higher the volume of ideas you capture, the greater your chances of finding something that has real value.

Of course, you still need some kind of focus, such as if you have a particular topic or an issue to solve, but it’s sensible to try and fill your funnel with ideas.

2. Embrace Diversity and Combine Different Perspectives

We all know the importance of diversity and inclusion and the value they bring to organizations and organizational processes; it’s absolutely key in innovation and helps to generate better ideas. When you bring a group of people with different perspectives, experiences, backgrounds and frames of reference together into the realm of idea generation, people challenge each other, minds are sharpened and focused, and ideas are knocked around and added to in different and surprising ways. “I hadn’t thought of it that way!” is a common response when truly diverse groups discuss and generate ideas.

Of course, diversity can come in different forms: gender, race, religion, age, socio-economic background, profession and so on. Combining different perspectives from these areas has real power and lifts idea generation to a new level. This is also true for other forms of collaboration.

Related Article: What Agile Software Development Can Teach Us About Diversity and Inclusion

3. Take a Different Perspective, Look Through Unique Frames

Sometimes, you need to deliberately look at a topic or issue through a different lens. By setting a unique frame of reference as a challenge for teams, you can unlock new ideas.

For example, consider the issue of how to get younger children to eat their vegetables, a problem familiar to many parents. If you think about it from the perspective of places that are already fun for children, how would they make eating vegetables fun? How would a zoo or a circus or Sesame Street approach that issue? I’m not suggesting that parents dress up as Big Bird at meal time, but it can help to look at an issue from a different angle and let those ideas bubble up.

4. Seek Unexpected Sources of Information

Our minds can work in analogies — taking something from one context and mapping it to another, inferring links through topics, actions, lessons learnt, meanings and so on. In terms of idea generation, this means we have the potential to take inspiration and information from another industry or something more left field and apply it to our own situation, generating a new idea.

We see examples of efficiency and success in business, in our experience as customers and in our interactions with others. By thinking about what works well and resonates with us in one context, we can try and apply that to the issue we are looking at to stimulate fresh thinking. Why does one brand have such a strong impact on us? Why was it special when we visited that place? Seeking these unexpected sources of information can result in those “a-ha” moments.

A great example of this in practice comes from a technology company who unlocked supply chain issues by sharing information across the industry in what was quite a revolutionary move at the time. What’s interesting here is that the team took inspiration from florists and hotels, where open information across the sector is more standard.

Related Article: How to Design an Effective Digital Innovation Campaign

5. Deliberately Take a Divergent Mindset (aka Free Your Mind)

Sometimes, preconceptions confine and limit our imagination. In practice, this can impact the flow of ideas. When it comes to idea generation, there are no limits. Even if an idea starts off as preposterous, there may be a spark in there that can become something special.

With this in mind, it’s important to get into a headspace where you’re not embarrassed to make a mistake or say something you worry may sound silly in front of others.

Here, flaring with ideas that are bold and ambitious can be the way to go. Setting no limits is important as contributors of ideas must not feel hesitant in airing an idea because it may seem over-the-top or doomed to failure. When you set conditions that an idea should be so ambitious that it is doomed to fail, it can actually stimulate some great suggestions that can spark further ideas. It’s also great fun and a good way to break the ice for teams trying to innovate.

6. Get Distracted to Get Ideas

We’ve all experienced a situation when focusing too much on solving a single problem just seems to get us nowhere, only to have a great idea pop into our head when we’re in the shower.

Sometimes, we can strategically embrace distraction in order to generate ideas. Although implementing structure to ensure distraction sounds a little counter-intuitive, it can work well. For example, brainstorming the opposite of a problem — how not to achieve something — can result in great ideas to solve the original issue. Sometimes, this is just about ensuring there is some unplanned time in your day, time free from deadlines and spent away from your desk, giving you room to think.

Related Article: Innovation Can Be Taught. And Measured

7. Bring Order to Your Idea Funnel by Applying Distinctive Selection Criteria

So, you’ve got your funnel of ideas, and hopefully you have quite a few. At some stage, you’re going to need to sort through these, filter out the ones that make no sense, and perhaps stumble upon those that are worth fleshing out to bring you real value.

Working out your selection criteria for evaluating and filtering your ideas is important. Making these distinctive and focused on specific aspects of the potential for an idea, rather than its objective feasibility, is key. This helps give everyone a common framework for evaluation, but also lifts preconceptions like “this will never work” which can stop a great idea from developing. For example, you could use criteria such as the potential to delight a customer or disrupt your industry, and then see where they get you.

Ideas, Ideas, Ideas!

Generating and evaluating ideas is core for innovation. Teams may be great at execution and making things happen, but are often so busy that ideation remains a struggle. I hope some of these tips have given you inspiration to start generating some ideas. Good luck!