There are two popular schools of thoughts that offer quite distinctive approaches to ideations. One encourages free flow and unstructured creativity while the other offers structured solutions to get the ideas flowing.
Creative practices that encourage free flow focus on a person’s natural ability to generate ideas. The main sources of creative thinking come from inspiration and leveraging prior knowledge. A popular way to exercise this creative approach is through brainstorms that focus on quantity over quality. The advantage of this approach is an unrestricted flow of ideas that are likely bolder and more unconventional because of the way they are developed. However, this process can be very exclusive as not everyone feels like they have the most creative ideas. Consequently, some people might be reluctant to share and contribute. It can also be a very time-consuming approach, which sometimes results in ill-defined and chaotic ideas that need more work.
Structured ideation practices evolve around existing techniques (e.g. Questioning Assumptions, The Worst Idea, etc.) that approach creativity as something “reproducible and learnable” that everyone is capable of. These practices make idea generation more inclusive and welcoming of different personality types and thinkers. These techniques usually consist of different steps aimed at leading the team or an individual towards a more defined idea. Unlike free flow approach, structured thinking relies on sets of rules and restrictions to enhance creativity. While this approach tends to have a clearer way of coming up with ideas, it is frequently criticised for lack of spontaneity and its repetitive nature.
People are likely to take sides on what suits them better, which makes it harder to get everyone on the same page in the creative process. Since creative ideas and solutions are a big part of our day-to-day agency life, we need to find a way to make sure we deliver them on time to a high standard, the same way we deliver any other more tangible aspects of our work.
A way to ensure that ideation sessions are a welcoming space for a wide range of thinkers that encourages all team members to contribute, is a combination of both free flow and structured approaches.
An integrated approach to ideation sessions
In order to get the most out of your team in ideation session, the golden rule for the person or team organising it is to come prepared. One way to do this is by writing down an ideation flow that will break the session in a few manageable parts. Introducing a clear agenda ensures that the space reserved for creative thinking is as open and as inclusive as it can be.
The first step in this process is to find or create a bank of creative techniques that are your go-to. Then, pick three techniques that you think are the most suitable for your creative task. For example, if you have an hour-long ideation session, your ideation flow can consist of the following:
Stage 1: Introducing the client defining the creative task
If you are organising an ideation session with a group of people, it is your responsibility to brief them and be clear on what the main task of the session is. A straight-forward brief of the client’s goals, budget, deliverables and success metrics will ensure that everyone is trying to achieve the same goal, which will be reflected in the quality of ideas. There is no point in developing ideas that are great but do not respond to a client’s needs. Also, you should come prepared in terms of materials you are planning to use because no one likes to waste their time on finding pens, markers, post-its etc. This section of the ideation aims to set the scene, making sure that everyone understands what the creative challenge is, its constraints and how you as a team are planning to tackle it.
Stage 2: Free-flow techniques to get the ideas started
Introductory techniques should be the ones that encourage a free flow approach and the expansion of ideas, which focus on quality over quantity. Introduce the creative challenge and pick a brainstorm-like technique that will get the creative juices going – the more, the merrier.
At Builtvisible, one of the techniques we use to kick off the ideation with is Keywords. The technique consists of introducing keywords relevant to the creative task and asking the team to come up with as many associations as possible. For instance, if you are trying to generate ideas around city breaks some of the associations could be – travelling on a low budget, bank holidays, millennials etc. Naturally, there will be some overlap, so by the end of this section you will be able to identify the recurring themes that you can take further into the next part of the ideation.
Stage 3: Structured techniques to keep discussion on track
This part of ideation session is reserved for a technique that will encourage discussion. Ideally, you would use some of the recurring themes generated with the intro techniques to inform this part of the ideation. It is better if the mid-way technique follows a structured approach to ensure that the discussion is kept to what’s relevant for the creative challenge you are trying to solve.
A great example of this is the previously mentioned technique – Questioning assumptions. This usually requires a bigger group to be split into pairs and the aim of the task is to come up with up to twenty true or false assumptions regarding the topic under discussion.
Following the creative challenge from the previous section, the common assumptions should address travelling and/or city breaks – e.g. travelling is expensive or travelling is time-consuming. Once everyone shares theirs, you can group them into recurring themes and decide which of them have a potential for innovative insights and angles to explore. It is useful to think about the assumption as a problem and your idea as a solution. To illustrate, if there is a common assumption that travel is expensive, it could be useful to explore travelling on a budget ideas because it is likely that there is a demand for content talking about cost-effective ways to travel.
The mid-way technique should help you take a more in-depth approach to interesting topics and questions that arise, and further narrow down your ideas.
Stage 4: Closing techniques for evaluating ideas
Following the mid-way technique discussion, you should be able to narrow down to five or so interesting ideas that are worth exploring further. If so, the closing technique should allow you to think about those ideas in more detail. For example, the group could consider what data is needed, relevant design solutions, research and any other relevant points that can encourage discussion about how this idea can be executed.
For this part of the ideation session, we like to put a journalist’s hat on and use the technique we call News Headlines. This technique allows you to approach ideas from the point of view of the media and think how to make it more news worthy. You can split the group into pairs and assign different types of publication to each pair (e.g. national publications, lifestyle, beauty etc.). Ask each pair to come up with up to five headlines and think about what information they’d need to cover the story if they were journalists. Once you invite them to share their headlines and storylines, the discussion should inform further research into the ideas that stand out. This should help identify the need for a particular set of data, expert advice, or digging deeper into the existing research about a certain topic.
The closing technique should help you wrap up the discussion, leaving you with a clear plan of action on how to further research the ideas and turn them into outstanding content.
While getting a group of people in a meeting room together allows you to pick and choose the best of both worlds, the success of remote ideations relies heavily on the structure. A clearly defined structure of your ideations enables them to be conducted remotely if needed, without sacrificing the quality of ideas.
Moving ideations online has become much smoother with the help of multiple tools that your team might already be using, such as Zoom, Slack and Skype. Opting for video calls allows participants to gauge the expressions and reactions of other attendees, leading to a more engaging discussion compared to faceless voice calls. Once you decide which tool works best for you, write down your ideation flow to ensure the team involved has clear guidance and instructions.
Similar to the integrated approach discussed above, it’s important to begin with an introduction of the creative task and the client’s background to bring everyone up to speed on why the ideation is being held.
To manage the remote ideation more efficiently, you can divide it in two separate video calls – a shorter introductory call in which the ideation lead relays the creative challenge and a second call in which your team gathers to discuss and validate ideas. In between these two calls, there are several ways you can encourage team members to get their creative juices flowing, such as:
- Individual creative task – ask each member of your ideation team to research relevant topics individually and join the second call prepared with two to three top-line concepts to share.
- Ideation in pairs – pair off your team members and ask them to research and develop two to three concepts within one overarching theme relevant to the creative task, which they will present during the second call.
- Ideation techniques – you can use the already established ideation techniques such as Questioning Assumptions to navigate idea generation and ask for individual output that will be discussed further during the second call.
Once the team have completed any one of the above three options, share a set of questions you’d like all participants to respond to before the second call. This provides you with uniformed information about everyone’s concepts, including the practicalities of the concept development, data sources, creative solution, outreach angles etc. Using tools such as Google Sheets or SharePoint could help encourage collaboration as they allow multiple users to edit the documents at the same time.
Although developing the ideation flow is helpful for structuring the session and keeping everyone on track, sometimes it can be overkill. That’s why it is important to make sure to prioritise good discussion over the ‘agenda’ and use it more as a guide rather than a prescription for a successful ideation.
To make sure this doesn’t happen it is recommended to appoint an ideation session coordinator. This person should be someone experienced and familiar with the client and the task. The ideation coordinator should be able to follow the flow of the discussion and let good discussions evolve. On the other hand, the ideation coordinator should also be able to recognise when the discussion is getting off topic and lead the group back to the main discussion.
The different personalities, backgrounds and thinking styles of your team members are the biggest assets in ideation sessions. So, to achieve an award-worthy creativity standard, it is crucial to encourage creative thinking of everyone involved in the process. By varying the techniques and integrating elements of both structured and free flow ideation, you are creating an environment suitable for a diverse pool of thinkers in the office. Integrating these two approaches ensures that you don’t lose the free-spirited nature of creativity, but that you are able to deliver relevant ideas within the timeframe given.
We are keen to hear if you start using this approach to ideation sessions so let us know how you get on. For more inspiration on how to have better ideas, check out this blog post.
Thank you for this article, Kristina. I especially like that you’ve highlighted that people work differently, and might have differing levels of confidence and experience in a creative workshop. An awareness of this as a dynamic is smart; as ultimately you’re fostering an environment conducive to good ideas, so some empathy towards the group must go a long way. By the way; I strongly agree with the value of good preparation. I think that’s important – I think I’ve learned how to be creative (and subsequently how to improve as a creative) during my preparation sessions. I absolutely love the James Webb classic “A Technique for Producing Ideas” as the methodology to collect little bits of information before you start the ideation is such an important point.
Thank you Richard for taking time to read the article and share such a thoughtful comment!
I couldn’t agree more! It is important that people don’t think of creativity as something exclusive to only a few. Diversity of thinking, backgrounds and approaches is highly needed to produce creative work worth everyone’s attention.
I will definitely check out the book you recommended as I also see a great value in preparation – a clear direction and understanding about creative challenge are the necessary base for successful ideas.
Thank you for your comment! :)