By Janice Francisco, CEO, Principal Innovation Consultant, Facilitator and Coach, BridgePoint Effect
Funny thing about ideas: within organizations, there seems to be a large interest in asking for ideas and little thought put into how to develop innovative ideas.
This is unfortunate, because the process of getting ideas also needs a process of evaluating, selecting and making them better.
I’ve observed this happens because generally, people don’t understand there’s an actual discipline–in fact, best practices and guidelines–to generating and developing ideas. When these guidelines aren’t followed, we end up with obvious rather than innovative ideas, found in an unproductive and often frustrating way that discourages employee engagement.
How to Develop Innovative Ideas
To answer the question “how to develop innovative ideas,” I’m going to ask you to first indulge me in some phrase deconstruction.
First – what is an idea? My colleague Gerard Puccio PhD, author of “Creative Leadership” and the “FourSight® Thinking Profile” explains it well:
“An idea is our imagination’s way of responding to a gap. A gap might be created by a question that doesn’t have an answer or a problem that doesn’t have a solution. We bridge the gap by forming a new association or connection. That’s an idea.
People often confuse ideas with solutions. In my opinion, a solution is an idea that has already undergone the process of being evaluated, refined, and developed so you’re very close to bringing it to the world. An idea, by contrast, is closer to the wellspring of imagination. In the overall process, it is closer to the initial insight – the ‘aha’ moment.”
(So, what’s an Idea? By Sarah Thurber, FourSight)
Now, what comes to mind when you hear the word innovative?
New, different, original?
And finally – what about when you hear the phrase “innovative ideas”?
What are Innovative Ideas?
Innovative ideas are new, different and original. They come from creative thinking and, if they’re truly innovative, they’re likely to make you feel a little uncomfortable because they step outside the boundaries of what we’re used to – they feel risky.
Which is why I like this cartoon so much. It speaks so well to what typically happens in many organizations when they run a brainstorming session. They put so much emphasis on getting ideas, quickly judging and dismissing the ones that are different and overlooking the importance of developing them.
We’re often asked to teach people how to develop innovative ideas, which involves teaching the proper use of brainstorming. When describing the right way to brainstorm, I like to use the analogy that ideas are raw materials: they’re like trees in a forest. If you’re in the business of building wooden furniture, having an abundance of trees available to you is great. However, those trees aren’t much good to you sitting in the forest. You need to get them through a manufacturing process to be able to use them. Similarly, raw ideas need to go through a process of developing them into something that can be useful in your business.
So, how do you develop innovative ideas?
Creative Thinking, Process and Tools
The process of developing innovative ideas starts with people engaging in creative thinking using a deliberately creative process and tools, focused on resolving a specific problem challenge or opportunity that needs new thinking, in an environment that encourages creativity.
Creative thinking is the ability to produce ideas that are original and have value. It involves a two-step process of divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking. It is this two-step process that enables the development of innovative ideas.
The word “divergent” means to develop in different directions. Divergent thinking is meant to be all over the place, unlimited, shooting off in different directions without imposed limitations. While this might seem unmanageable, divergent thinking is the first step in brainstorming a wide assortment of ideas.
Divergent thinking can be supported by:
- Deferring judgment and evaluation of ideas until later in the process
- Going for quantity, not quality
- Seeking wild options—deliberately stretching one’s thinking and searching for new opportunities
- Combining and building options by building on other ideas and making associations
- Allowing for incubation by taking a break or doing another activity.
“Convergent” means to come together, and when it follows divergent thinking, it serves to make sense of the wild assortment of ideas generated. Convergent thinking allows for narrowing in on the ideas that merit further exploration and possible development into a solution.
Convergent thinking can be supported by:
- Using affirmative judgment to identify what is good about an idea
- Being deliberate in thinking through and analyzing the alternatives
- Keeping in mind what you wanted to accomplish in the first place by brainstorming
- Improving your options by not automatically eliminating highly original options
- Allowing for incubation by taking a break or doing another activity
There are many tools that can be used in the process of generating and developing ideas. In fact, we teach over twenty of them in our Innovation Toolset course.
Regardless of which tools you use, the most important part of the process for developing innovative ideas are the Guidelines for Creative Thinking. These guidelines are rules that describe how to engage in the two-step process of creative thinking in a productive manner and actually drive towards innovative, rather than plain, old, obvious, status quo ideas. I described these rules above in our explanation of divergent and convergent thinking.
If you’d like your own copy of this most important process tool, click here to download our Creative Thinking Guidelines.
Resolve a Specific Problem, Challenge or Opportunity
I cringe when I hear of cross-organization ideation programs that have no specific focus other than to ask people for their ideas on a specific topic, or a brainstorming meeting that does the same.
To develop innovative ideas you need a focal point: a challenge, phrased as an open-ended question that allows people to focus on possibilities. And, you need to give people:
- some context around why it’s important for you to resolve the problem
- background information on the “who, what, where, when, and how” detail associated with the problem, and
- an inkling of what you’d consider an ideal outcome and success criteria.
An Environment that Encourages Creativity
An environment that encourages creativity makes it safe for people to contribute their ideas without fear of negative consequences and provides process and tools to enhance and encourage individual creativity.
A research study conducted by Göran Ekvall, a Swedish organizational psychologist, provides great insight into the conditions necessary to foster creative behaviour and performance in an organization. While he identified ten specific conditions, four are particularly relevant to answering the question, “How to develop innovative ideas?”
Trust and Openness
It takes courage to share ideas. And only when we feel there is psychological safety in doing so are we willing to take the risk. When people know and deliberately engage in productive norms for behaviour, like the Creative Thinking Guidelines outlined above, building emotional safety in relationships and trust in each other becomes possible.
In this environment, people know that all ideas are welcome and there is transparency and openness around how ideas are evaluated and used. Communication is open and straightforward, and everyone learns to focus on what’s possible in building ideas, rather than tearing them down.
Idea time is the amount of time people can, and do, use for elaborating new ideas. This means that as ideas are brought forward, possibilities exist to discuss and test impulses as well as new suggestions that are not planned or included in the original task.
Idea time can be achieved by setting aside specific times to generate and develop ideas, and using periods of incubation to let ideas bubble up. This means you can give yourself a break between the time you spend generating ideas and the time you take to develop them.
In an environment that encourages creativity, ideas and suggestions are received in an attentive and kind way. People engage in active listening and encourage ideas by focusing on what’s possible. Connections are made to ideas within the broader context of the organization and concerns are addressed as questions that encourage new and expanded thinking. The atmosphere is constructive and positive.
Creativity thrives on a diversity of thinking. In a creative environment, debate is welcomed by making room for differing viewpoints and experiences, ideas and knowledge. When it comes to developing innovative ideas, it’s the convergent thinking phase where debates become really important. It’s what makes it possible to think through and analyze alternatives as we work to improve options.
This isn’t a debate club type of debate, where you argue for your point of view and do everything possible to discredit someone else’s. It’s a “yes, and…” process of accepting, appreciating, acknowledging and working with someone else’s contribution so that you and the others involved can rise to a new level of understanding.
Avoid Common Mistakes in Brainstorming
To wrap up, a deliberate process and tools to support creative thinking aren’t a “nice to have”; they’re essential when it comes to developing innovative ideas. Here’s what you can do to develop innovative ideas and avoid the common mistakes people make in brainstorming:
- Use a deliberate process and tools to support your creative thinking
- Make it safe for everyone to contribute and respect diversity in thinking
- Use Creative Thinking Guidelines and remember to separate the thinking necessary to generate, then evaluate and develop ideas
- Establish an open-ended challenge question to focus everyone’s attention
- Give background information and context on the challenge so people know why you need their ideas and what you’ll do with them
- Use a variety of thinking tools to generate many ideas
- Give ideas time and allow for incubation
- Evaluate and develop ideas by looking for what’s good in them
About BridgePoint Effect
BridgePoint Effect is an innovation strategy and organizational development firm.
We power people to make innovation happen. We work with leaders and their teams who want to:
Change – thrive in a changing work environment
Learn – become better innovators
Innovate – engage in outcome-driven innovation with measurable results
Book a complimentary 30-minute consultation with Janice Francisco to discuss how to develop innovative ideas in your organization.
Get your free download of our Creative Thinking Guidelines.