When Ideating

A client asked if I’d be willing to share some tips for facilitating an effective ideation session. Here’s what I sent her:

1. Provide some pre-work for folks. For many people, they need time to reflect to do their best thinking. If you just throw them in a room and say, “give me your ideas,” it’s likely that their best ideas won’t come for a day or two (or more). If you give some pre-work out, and let folks come to the meeting with some ideas already, you will be more likely to get them at their best.


2. Find some time either before the session or at the very beginning to answer any clarification type questions. Who is this product/program/packaging/etc. for? What’s the budget? Who’s the client? Why are we doing this? What’s been done before? If you don’t make time for these questions, folks will be distracted thinking about these topics instead of focusing on coming up with ideas.

3. When ideating, it’s better to go for quantity of ideas rather than quality of ideas. This is true for a number of reasons. Research shows that the first third of ideas are usually things you’ve tried before, the second third is things you’ve thought of before but haven’t necessarily tried, and it’s not until the final third that you actually get to novel ideas. When you mix quantity with quality, you get neither. Depending on the issue, we’re usually talking about dozens or hundreds of ideas. Not 5 or 10.

4. Defer judgment on ideas. Think about a time when you were in a meeting and one of your ideas was criticized. For most people, that becomes the last idea they will share. When brainstorming, you want all the ideas. It’s easier to throw out bad ideas later on, than to try to come up with more ideas farther into the development process.

5. Build on ideas. Try to use appreciative inquiry and ask, “What do you like about this idea? How could we add to it or make it stronger?” rather than critiquing language.

6. Find someone to facilitate. It doesn’t have to be someone from outside your organization (although we do recommend that), but ideally it should be someone objective. It’s not recommended to have the problem owner (or even someone on the problem team) act as a facilitator, as it will be almost impossible for them to defer their judgment during the session. Better to get an expert facilitator who knows little about the specific project/topic than someone who is so close to the project they won’t be able to hide their reactions to ideas.

7. Mix up the ideation activities. Think about the different styles of learners and be sure to try things that appeal to different styles. We use music, games, movement, excursions, post-it notes, big flip charts, lots of colors, a variety of individual, pair, small, and large groups activities to keep people engaged and generating more ideas.

8. Try to get out of room at least once during the session. You’d be amazed at how many more ideas folks have when they have a chance to just walk around for a few minutes. Give their walking some structure, ask them to think about the problem from the perspective of a kid, or a grandparent, or a recent immigrant while they walk. Ask them how they’d solve the problem if they had an unlimited budget. Or, no budget. Have them try to think like one of their clients. Or, like one of their competitors. Or just get out of the room and ask folks to think about something entirely different. Tell them to look at flowers or paintings or people passing by. Then, come back and see what additional ideas they can generate.

9. Be sure to follow up with folks after the session and let them know what happens with their ideas. There’s few things more de-motivating than participating in an ideation session and never hearing what happened with all the ideas afterwards.

andy montgomery