Week7: On Thursday 6th March we had a seminar with David Ager who discussed IDEO (WiKi) with us and their unique approach to innovation. David holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Harvard University. His research focuses on the intergroup nature of post-acquisition integration in the context of high growth entrepreneurial firms. Dr Ager has several years experience in the areas of joint ventures and alliances, and has also assisted a number of companies address issues of organizational development such as leadership development, talent management, change management, team building and succession planning.

Silicon Valley-based IDEO has sparked some of the most innovative products of the past decade — the Apple mouse, the Polaroid I-Zone Pocket Camera, and the Palm V, among others. But IDEO staff don’t just sit around waiting for good ideas to pop into their heads. The company has institutionalized a process whereby ideas are coaxed to the surface through regular, structured brainstorming sessions. At Ideo, idea-generation exercises are “practically a religion,” says Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO Product Development. David discussed IDEO’s approach to innovation under 4 distinct headings: Process, Organisation, Culture, and Leadership. In order to do this we watched the IDEO Deep Dive that was aired on ABC’s Nightline program in 2000.

Process: Fail often in order to succeed sooner. Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the lone genius. Heterogeneous team with quirky & clashing ideas. Prototyping facilitates learning about the product. Prototype multiple ideas on a small scale to demo – build on something you can see. Market research – use anthropologists & engage end users – deadly if taken for granted; also immerse yourself in the associated product environment.
Organisation: Flat structure focused on learning. No type-casting allowed -> heterogeneity essential.
Culture: Don’t listen to the “boss”. Do the contrary! Trust in team members is core.
Leadership: Team leader only facilitates – not an expert. They solely coach the process, but not involved in ideas. This allows freedom. This process is consistent. The fact that Tom Kelley leads this approach by example only serves to increase respect and trust.

A poorly planned brainstorming session could cause more harm than good, and more frustration than anything else. That’s why Silicon Valley design firm IDEO follows strict rules for sparking good ideas: morning meetings work best; 3 – 10 participants should take part. Some guidelines are more refined. Below are 7 ways to help brainstorming from ‘The Art of Innovation’ by Tom Kelley:
1. Sharpen the focus: start with a well-honed statement of the problem at hand. Edgy is better than fuzzy. The best topic statements focus outward on a specific customer need or service enhancement rather than inward on some organizational goal.
2. Write playful rules: IDEO’s primary brainstorming rules are simple: “Defer judgment” and “One conversation at a time.” The firm believes in its rules so strongly that they’re stenciled in 8-inch letters on conference-room walls. “If I’m the facilitator and somebody starts a critique or people start talking, I can enforce the rules without making it feel personal,” Kelley says. Other rules include, “Go for quantity,” “Be visual,” and “Encourage wild ideas.”
3. Number your ideas: “This rule seems counterintuitive — the opposite of creativity,” Kelley says. “But numbered lists create goals to motivate participants. You can say, ‘Let’s try to get to 100 ideas.’ Also, lists provide a reference point if you want to jump back and forth between ideas.”
4. Build and jump: most brainstorming sessions follow a power curve: They start out slowly, build to a crescendo, and then start to plateau. The best facilitators nurture the conversation in its early stages, step out of the way as the ideas start to flow, and then jump in again when energy starts to peter out. “We go for two things in a brainstorm: fluency and flexibility,” Kelley says. “Fluency is a very rapid flow of ideas, so there’s never more than a moment of silence. Flexibility is approaching the same idea from different viewpoints.”
5. Make the space remember: good facilitators should also write ideas down on an accessible surface. IDEO used to hold its brainstorms in rooms wallpapered with whiteboards or butcher paper. Lately, however, the group has started using easel-sized Post-it notes. “When the facilitator tries to pull together all the ideas after the session,” Kelley says, “she can stack up nice, tidy rectangular things instead of spreading butcher paper all the way down the hall.”
6. Stretch your mental muscles: brainstorming, like marathon running, should begin with warm-up exercises. IDEO studied various methods of prepping for a session. For a project on the toy industry, for example, IDEO divided the group into three teams: The first team did no preparation. The second listened to a lecture on the technology involved and read background books. The third team took a field trip to a toy store. Far and away, the toy-store team produced ideas in greater quantity and quality than the other two.
7. Get physical: at IDEO, brainstorming sessions are often occasions for show-and-tell. Participants bring examples of competitors’ products, objects that relate to the problem, or elegant solutions from other fields as springboards for ideas. IDEO also keeps materials on hand — blocks, foam core, tubing –to build crude models of a concept.

Six surefire ways to KILL a brainstorm. Coming up with good ideas, even in an ideal environment, is hard work. But the 6 tactics/strategies below are absolute no-no’s below and will guarantee failure:
1. Let the boss speak first: nothing kills a brainstorming session like a dominating CEO or the brownnosers who rush to agree with his every statement. IDEO recommends that bosses lock themselves out of idea-generation sessions all together. Send him out for doughnuts, and you’ll get better results.
2. Give everybody a turn: Kelley remembers packing 16 people into a room for one particular meeting. Each person had two minutes to speak. It was democratic. It was painful. It was pointless. It was a performance, not a brainstorm. “In a real brainstorm, the focus should never be on just one person,” Kelley says.
3. Ask the experts only: when it comes to generating truly innovative ideas, deep expertise in a field can actually be a drawback. “In a brainstorm, we’re looking for breadth,” Kelley says. Cross-pollination from seemingly unrelated fields can lead to authentic breakthroughs.
4. Go off-site: by conducting off-site brainstorming sessions, you only reinforce the concept that great ideas only come on the beach or at high altitudes – not in the proximity of your daily work.
5. No silly stuff: Kelley remembers one brainstorming session doomed by the boss’s opening remarks: All ideas had to result in something the firm could patent and manufacture. The silence that followed was deafening. Silly is important. Wild ideas are welcome. Brainstorming should be fun.
6. Write down everything: obsessive note taking is toxic to brainstorming. It shifts the focus to the wrong side of the brain. It makes the session feel like History 101. Doodles and sketches are fine. A short note that preserves a thought is acceptable. But detailed writing destroys momentum, dissipates energy, and distracts from the main purpose of the exercise: unfettered thinking. Each session should have an assigned scribe who records suggestions. And that person should not be the group facilitator.

We had our farewell lunch today with our Harvard hosts- Hugo Van Vuuren (Lebone startup, Kirkland startup) and Paul Bottino. Special guest was Noam Wasserman who queried our new understandings of the ‘Founders as CEOs’ issue. following our various company visits around the States.

Later in the day we visited IDEO‘s Boston office near Harvard. This was an extremely interesting trip as we got to throw all sorts of questions at the IDEO management present, including one from me comparing them to DEKA and Continuum, which seemed to leave them without a definitive answer! We also had a nice tour of their premises to see various aspects of what a famous innovative work environment such as theirs actually looks like. To be honest I expected more disorganisation and messiness from the non-stop innovation and brainstorming! It was actually quite organised and formal looking which I didn’t associate with a idea generating atmosphere. However this is their new office so perhaps the maverick knock-on effect hasn’t kicked in on the place yet. There was a very distinct difference to the work setup at DEKA and IDEO. DEKA had a huge dedicated workshop with machines manned prototyping various products/components. Whereas at IDEO there was one unused rapid prototyping machine, which seemed almost out of bounds.


2 comments so far

  1. Generating Fresh Ideas To Do & Buy | on

    […] Eureka!Quantity Breeds CreativityGenius IQ in How To Generate New IdeasThe Power of Brainstorming [?] Share This Popularity: 11% [?] SHARETHIS.addEntry( { title: “Generating Fresh Ideas To Do & Buy”, url: “” } ); […]

  2. […] Want to learn about related brainstorming strategies from IDEO? Check out this blog post with 7 ways to help brainstorming and Six surefire ways to KILL a brainstorm. […]

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