New rules for ideation

Louise Schenk
4 min readFeb 25, 2021

At work this week, we’re ideating. So, online this week, I’m sharing some things I’ve learned about how to do it well.

We’ve all heard the d.School version of how to have a good brainstorm. Having hosted a million and a half, there’s some extra learnings I’m taking with into my sessions this week.

Get it out of your head that important ideas are big.

Our instinct is to shoot for novelty, but your biggest idea isn’t necessarily unique. Could be a tiny tweak that has a huge impact. Could be the most do-able thing on the board. Could be the one that no-one else has been brave enough to talk about. When ideating, don’t forget to have the boring ideas. Write them down, vote them up, and make sure even the homeliest concepts get the respect they deserve.

Do it: In our sessions, I made sure to mention a few homely ideas that were kicking around the team and specifically asked the team to write them down, if only for documentation’s sake. Then I proceeded to have some of the worst ideas first, out loud.

Document. Then debate.

Ideas in your head can shift and change at will. The little shapeshifters can dodge any critique, but never fully take form. When they’re documented in words or drawings they’re easier to critique, edit, add onto, and collaborate around. Chances are, once you are documenting you’ll notice all the frankensteiny bits you had mashed together, and you’ll have the space to add flesh and detail to all of them.

Do it: My habit here is to work onto the wall. There’s a trope that design thinking is just huddling around a wall of post-its. For good reason. People can’t critique ideas straight out of your mouth without critiquing you. But when written on bits of paper, we can have a critical conversation, build our work together, and truly collaborate.

Bonus, putting stuff on the wall shortens the conversation, meaning everyone has time and space to get a word in.

Make thick air.

Ideas don’t come out of thin air, they come from thinking. So give people something to think about when they’re ideating. It helps focus the conversation and inform new directions they couldn’t have simply conjured.

Do it: I have used industry trends, best practices, customer research, and even our customer’s lifecycle map as a kick-off. Next, I really want to ideate off of behavioural economics principles. Pick anything that sparks curiosity.

Variate. Mix. Mash.

We’re quick to toss out fledgling ideas that have a grain of truth but haven’t quite gotten it right. Wait. Build on them instead. Plan in a round of variations, where everyone is tasked with turning the volume up one notch and down one notch on the ideas that your team has created. Sometimes the results are off the wall, often they’re stuffed with double the insight.

Do it: After the first round of ideation, assign each teammate a pool of ideas (not their own) to variate one. Prompts I like to give are: make it more low- or high-tech, make it more economical or extravagant, do the AI, blockchain, fancy version or the paper, pen and service personnel version. Plenty of fodder for new ways of thinking.

Ideate quietly.

Too many amazing ideas have fizzled away in the minds of less-outgoing people that were waiting to get a word in. Counter this. Work quietly to have and document ideas, then share them back to the room one-by-one so every concept sees the light of day.

Do it: Assign everyone the task of generating ideas and describing them in full sentences on post-it notes, then stop talking and let them get to it. Share all ideas back to the group afterward. Open discussion and feedback only after everything has been shared.

Religiously separate critique from genesis.

Well, this one’s an IDEO rule, so I’ll underline it. It’s important. Don’t critique ideas while you are having them. Verbal criticism lead to quiet self-criticism. And the longer you try not to have an idea that you think someone might shoot down, the more stuck it will get in your head. Better to let the thinking flow and worry about critique and elimination afterward.

Do it: To be honest, when we ideate, I rarely ever critique things at all. We just start iterating and adding fidelity. People naturally add fidelity to the ideas that resonate most, and as they add fidelity, the ideas get better. On that note…

Work up to fidelity.

Start with small ideas, then build them together to make idea monsters. Small ideas are less intimidating. Big idea monsters let everyone mix, match and riff off of all the little idea fragments. Result, better more fleshed out ideas than anyone could have done on their own.

Do it: My ideation sessions use two out of three levels of fidelity. Fill a post-it with a short title, and something between 10- and 20-word description for low fidelity but comprehensible ideas. Try five-panel storyboarding a la Mauro for more fleshed out concepts (see slide 26 of We just do loose text-based version of this, which puts us in a good position for critiques, prioritisation, and kicking off bigger exploration work of the ideas you love.

Facilitate the process.

Good ideas rarely just appear from meetings. People need a little bit of structure to feel comfortable thinking up new things and sharing them. You’re as good as person as any to lead the process. So if you land in a meeting where someone is trying to gather ideas without giving people the space to have them, step up.