How to Practice Ideation
Ideas Innovation

How to Practice Ideation

Sahil Thakkar

“Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. While there are many theories of creativity, the only tenet they all share is that creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions. The best way to maximize differences is to mix ages, cultures, and disciplines.”

― Nicholas Negroponte

You’ve heard of Albert Einstein. But what do you really know about him, other than the fact that he had a wild hairstyle and that he came up with E=mc2 which is something that’s apparently super important? Do you know how his brain worked? What made him tick? Scientists have even gone so far as to dissect his actual brain and analyze every cell, hoping to find the key to his genius; but they couldn’t get anywhere. That’s because the key doesn’t necessarily lie in his thoughts, but in his approach to his thoughts.

“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

― Albert Einstein

Einstein firmly believed that there was no work without play. He felt that doing work that was repetitive or mechanical was utterly pointless, and it was something that robots should do, not humans. In his view, he said, humans ought to aspire for something more than stacking boxes or keeping accounts books. That we should give into even our wildest imaginations and see where they take us, and that all our work should be fueled by imagination.

“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.”

― Albert Einstein

He was a proponent of something he called ‘combinatory play’. Taking things that seem unrelated to the task at hand, and combining them to come up with something new. The theory that he is most known for, E=mc2, came from this very process.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

― Albert Einstein

According to him, mistakes weren’t something to be avoided, but something to be cherished. A mistake isn’t a misstep, it’s a necessary step. And it’s a sign that you were bold enough to step into the unknown and try something new, not knowing how it’ll play out.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

― Albert Einstein

So now you know how he thought and how he put his ideas into action. But maybe there’s a deeper question there. Where did his ideas come from? Where do any ideas come from?  It’s the eternal question! Legendary author Stephen King has an interesting answer. Because there is no real, one-size-fits-all answer, whenever anyone asks him where he gets his ideas, he retorts with something along the lines of ‘Oh, I just popped by the idea store’ or ‘A little bird came and dropped them on my lap, can you believe it?!’

While these replies are hilarious, they also carry with them a hint of truth. Sometimes ideas really do seem to come out of nowhere, or almost as if someone had somehow given them to us. There are various other methods that people might use to get ideas. Some rely on a muse – which can be anything – a certain thing, place, or even a person. There’s also the whole craze about dreams, which has especially picked up in recent times. People view their dreams as a magical fountain of inspiration and wonder, and whenever they wake up, they rush to grab a diary and note down every little detail of their dream before it slips out of their memory forever. Yet others go for walks, look at art, sit on a park bench, or do a hundred other things.

All of these techniques are good, and you don’t necessarily need to drop or change them. But what they aren’t is consistent. To keep relying on the next spark of inspiration to come out of nowhere or in a fantastical dream leaves you at the mercy of things that are out of your control. This kind of thinking generally stems from the belief that because ideas are intangible and only exist in our minds, they must be mystical and complex phenomena that are out of our control or understanding. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. We may not have fully uncovered the secrets of the human mind just yet, but by 2021, we have a pretty firm grasp of ideas and all their various dimensions. Over 100 billion humans have walked the earth, each living their own unique stories and with their own ideas. By now, there have probably been many trillions of ideas generated by humans as a whole. And with so much time and progress comes a great amount of depth and evolution. We quickly started having ideas about ideas, and put the whole concept of ideas under the microscope. As scientific studies and trials abounded, we slowly began to form a picture about the reality of ideas. And that’s how we were able to unlock the mystery of where ideas come from. That process is called ideation. Ideation lets you consistently and reliably generate ideas at will rather than wait for them to come to you. Really, you might ask, it’s that simple? What’s the catch? Why do I need ideation? Will the ideas be as good? Is it sacrificing quality for quantity?

It could be that you think maybe the ideas that just pop up are better than the ideas that you willfully create or bring out. This is a common misconception that can come about because those ideas tend to feel more natural and organic whereas the ideas you get from ideation can feel a little forced, at least at the start.

The way to overcome this is not to stop ideating, but rather to keep ideating. It is very similar to a muscle. If you have used it very sparingly and then suddenly start to exercise it, then it might feel sore or painful, and you might be put off from it totally. But as you keep exercising it, you overcome the initial soreness and before you know it, it’s stronger than ever and raring to go!

As an aside, you may be familiar with the concept of brainstorming and you may be wondering if it relates to this article. Yes it does! Brainstorming is one of the time-honored ideation techniques. One of the reasons for this is of course that we all have unique skills and talents so joining forces allows us to be stronger as a whole than the sum of our parts. Our skills don’t just add up, they multiply! But another, often overlooked reason is that we all also have our own blind spots. Some of us may be great at achieving perfection on something, but absolutely terrible with deadlines because of it. Others may be great at tasks that involve a lot of planning, but might have a tough time with ones that are more fluid. When working individually, these blind spots become nearly impossible to avoid. But when working in groups, we can watch out for and make up for each other’s blind spots.

When it comes to brainstorming, it involves some of the same principles as ideation. But the main difference is that brainstorming isn’t very structured and doesn’t have a set outcome or a continual cycle. You might have meetings that are ostensibly to ‘brainstorm’ over a certain problem. But those meetings generally just end up being general talk about the problem and people throwing out some impromptu solutions.

Coming back to the main point: what about ideation? So what makes it better than brainstorming? Two critical components: Principles and Structure. Ideation has four fundamental principles, or pillars, that give it a solid and robust foundation. And upon those pillars is built a specific, structured, four-step process that is consistent and repeatable. And before we dive into both those things, let’s close out the above points with an amazing quote from a great American artist and photographer that cuts straight to the heart of this subject:

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.”

― Chuck Close

And now, let’s venture into the vast world of ideation, starting with the four pillars:

1. QUESTION ALL ASSUMPTIONS

When practicing ideation, you will almost inevitably run into issues along the way where your preconceived notions clash with some step of the process and you might feel paralyzed or confused. The key to overcoming this is to remember one of the fundamental pillars of ideation, which is to question assumptions. Every business tends to have some things that are set in stone or practices that are not to be questioned. But you need to make very clear that if you ask anyone why they’re doing things a certain way, then ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’ is never an acceptable answer. In a world that’s changing faster than ever before and where industries can be turned upside their head with some new app 6 times before breakfast, being rigid and set in your ways isn’t just inconvenient, it’s a death sentence.

2. MAINTAIN FOCUS ON THE GOAL

Another pillar of ideation is that you must never lose sight of the goal. There is a story in the Indian epic Mahabharata about Dronacharya, a great and renowned teacher, and Arjuna, his best student. During archery practice, he asked them to hit the eye of a wooden bird that was placed far away. The first student to take a shot was Yudhishtira, but he missed by quite a bit. Dronacharya asked Yudhishthira what he could see while taking the shot. Yudhishthira replied he could see the sun, the clouds, and the trees. Dronacharya nodded and called the second student, Ashwatthama. He aimed and took the shot. He came a little closer than Yudhishtira, but still missed. When asked the same question as Yudhishthira, he replied he could see the bird, the branch on which the bird was perched, the mangoes near the bird, the leaves, and the other surroundings. Finally, Arjuna was summoned to try. He shot his arrow and it flew in a perfect arc and pierced the exact center of the bird’s eye. When Dronacharya asked him what he saw, he replied that he did not see the sky, the tree, the branch, or even the bird. All he saw was the eye. This story illustrates the kind of laser-like focus and determination you need to have to keep your eye on the ball during the ideation process. With so many components and moving parts, it is easy to get sidetracked and go off in a completely different direction, so you must ensure that this does not happen.

3. WATCH THE OPPORTUNITIES

The third pillar of ideation is to have your eye on all the possible opportunities, rather than all the possible pitfalls. When teaching driving, instructors will often repeatedly tell you to keep your eyes on the road. While this seems like the most basic and obvious concept, it goes surprisingly deep. It applies if you see a potential obstruction or hazard as well. Studies have shown that one of the prominent factors in most road accidents is that the driver of the vehicle had their attention distracted from the road to the object of collision, and that unconsciously made them steer towards it rather than avoid it. As their eyes fixated on it, they lost sight of the road and veered off-course. In the same way, if you’re constantly focusing on the problems and pitfalls rather than the opportunities available, you will slowly but surely enter into an unavoidable collision course with those very same problems. This manner of thinking makes you enter a defensive mode, when what you need is an offensive mode. You must always endeavor to be proactive rather than reactive.

4. HAVE A REAL PLAN

And the final pillar of ideation is to have a plan, and not a wish list. This applies to many areas, but it is especially important in ideation. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, what you’ll see a little bit further down in the article – that’s a plan. With key steps, examples, and do’s and don’ts. You can take it as a solid blueprint, adapt it to your needs, and build upon it as you like. On the other hand, you may have heard of or seen or conceived of certain other types of ‘plans’ that are nothing more than a wish list with no specific steps or details, just vague goals. Get ideas! (Great, how?) Make them great! (Sure, but how?), Execute them rapidly! (Yes, but how?!) This is the type of ‘plan’ that you need to avoid at all costs. Extreme precision must be your guiding principle when it comes to anything to do with the plan. The key always lies in the details.

Now that we have covered the basics and the pillars of ideation, let’s dive into the exact process. Ideation can take many forms, but it has four fundamental steps:

1. DEFINE THE PROBLEM

Define what the exact problem is, including the main aspects of it as well as every single little detail. You can only aim your kick once you know where the goal is! For example, if you’re working in an ice-cream company, your challenge might be something like: ‘Work on new flavors to boost customer satisfaction. Specifically, flavors associated with chocolate which received the highest scores in surveys.

DO’s:

-    DO clearly lay out the exact problem/s and sub-problem/s if any.

-    DO have detailed discussions and meetings on this issue.

-    DO determine the source/s of the problem.

-    DO determine the 5W’s and 1H of the problem. Namely, Who, Where, When, What, Why, and How.

DON’T’s:

-    DO NOT try to engage in a blame game about the problem and try to pin it or bounce it around various departments and fields. Focus on responsibility, not fault.

-    DO NOT get sidetracked when discussing the problem or branch off into discussing other various problems as well. Stay focused on the problem at hand.

-    DO NOT be vague or talk in generalizations when talking about the problem. Be systematic and meticulous and endeavor to be as precise as possible.

“When a new idea comes our way, we must put it on our mental scales and weigh it carefully before deciding its value.”

― Jim Rohn

2. SELECT THE RIGHT TEAM

Select the right people for the job. This is a very crucial step because in the end everything depends on these people and how they execute everything. Make sure you do not pick all team members of one field or specialization, but rather diversify so that you can get the best results. Go for people with diverse skillsets and methods. For the ice-cream example, you’d want to then pick a flavor specialist, a packaging specialist, and a marketing specialist.

DO’s:

-    DO conduct a thorough and extensive search for the right people. This is the key to making sure you stay on track and get results.

-    DO let your team know exactly what their roles and responsibilities will be beforehand so that they will know what to expect and will be prepared accordingly.

-    DO lay out ground rules for your team right off the bat. Let them know that they must avoid conflict, engage in healthy and productive discussions, work together and value each other’s voices, stay on the same page and communicate effectively and rapidly, and so on.

-    DO keep touching base and following up with your team all the way through. Ask them what ideas they’ve had, ask them if everything’s going smoothly on their end, ask them if there’s anything they need or anything they’d rather change, ask them for their thoughts and feedback, and so on. Be an active participant and try to have an open-door policy so you can be there with your team every step of the way.

DON’T’s:

-    DO NOT be nearsighted. Don’t limit yourself to just your department or division. Comb through every single person who could be a right fit for solving the problem at hand so that you can put together the best possible team.

-    DO NOT look for members who are only looking to please you and  will just blindly agree with you at every turn. This is no different from just being alone — if anything, it's worse. The core point of gathering a team is so that they will challenge you and bring to you new perspectives and ideas that you would otherwise not have received.

-    DO NOT give show preference to the ideas of any specific members in the team while engaging in discussions. Make sure to be fair and balanced and give every voice and opportunity to be fully heard. Only then will your team be operating at its fullest potential.

“Ideation is not a synonym for innovation, conformity is not its simple antonym, and innovation is not the automatic consequence of ‘creative thinking.’.”

― Theodore Levitt

3. TRY DIFFERENT STRATEGIES

Try out various different methods across every step of the process. Different ways of looking at the problem, different ways of planning the solution, and different ways of executing it. For example, you could try testing new flavors in a limited test, or designating a special branch where exclusive test flavors will be available, making them available only on request for those who know about them, and so on.

DO’S:

-    DO explore areas that might have been previously neglected. You never know where you might find that spark you’ve been looking for.

-    DO take a step back and conduct additional research on how to know what to try in the first place. There are various tools to assist you in breaking down a problem, shifting your perspective and generating new ideas, and so on.

-    DO maintain a proper balance of how many things you’re trying. Don’t limit yourself by putting all your eggs in one basket, but don’t spread yourself and your team too thin by putting all your eggs in one basket either. This aspect is critical and you need to conduct extensive meetings and discussions as well as thorough analysis to ensure you have this figured out.

-    DO monitor every endeavor closely and acquire continuous feedback as often as possible. When you try something, there will be indicators of how it is performing and also trends and patterns you will start to notice that will give you early insights into what its future might be. But you will only receive these if you have your ear to the ground and are listening closely.

-    DO keep continuously discussing and deliberating about which ventures need to be nipped in the bud, which ones need more time to play out, which ones need a boost in terms of capital, and so on. Manage your resources and add, subtract, or redirect them across ventures as required. Think of it as managing a garden.

-    DO have strong, varied backup plans ready to go and plan for as many contingencies as is necessary. That way, if some things get derailed, as is inevitable, then you won’t be left high and dry. Put all the pieces into place so that when something goes wrong, rather than being lost and confused about what to do next, you transition seamlessly into Plan B.

DON’T’s:

-    DO NOT be afraid to try out things that might seem sketchy at first sight or might receive some backlash. Many great ideas started out that way too. You won’t get anywhere if you let doubt or uncertainty restrict your work!

-    DO NOT give up just because early attempts didn’t work as expected. As Muhammad Ali said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Obstacles and difficulties are bound to occur, but you must recover fast and move past them rapidly to move onto new things. In fact, you shouldn’t even give up on the early attempts that failed. Perhaps the concept or idea was solid but the execution was lacking. You should analyze what worked about them and what didn’t and whether you should give them another shot.

-    DO NOT engage in unnecessary risk. It is good to be bold and certain ‘leaps of faith’ may be warranted in some cases, but only after extensive risk analysis has been carried out. Always work to minimize the potential risk of any endeavor as much as possible.

-    DO NOT fall prey to the misconception of ‘the bigger the better’. As they say, ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’. Ideas that are big will also bring with them huge costs and massive potential risks. It is better to scale even the big ideas down at first and test them out on a smaller scale and see how they play out before thinking of big moves.

“People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them. The way you’ll get big ideas in, say, health care is by starting out with small ideas. If you try to do some big thing, you don’t just need it to be big; you need it to be good. And it’s really hard to do big and good simultaneously. So, what that means is you can either do something small and good and then gradually make it bigger, or do something big and bad and gradually make it better. And you know what? Empirically, starting big just does not work. That’s the way the government does things. They do something really big that’s really bad, and they think, Well, we’ll make it better, and then it never gets better”.

― Paul Graham

4. EVALUATE THE RESULTS

This is without the doubt the most important and powerful step. You need to analyze the results thoroughly across all the aspects and areas of the work and see what succeeded and what didn’t. Only through this lens can you keep iterating and evolving your work and know exactly what to prioritize. For example, if three out of six new tested flavors performed best, don’t just put them in stores and throw out the other three. Instead, analyze the results deeper to see exactly why the ones that worked were successful and vice versa.

DO’S:

-    DO evaluate every aspect holistically. Rather than analyzing individual components of the results, make sure you have a comprehensive, big-picture view of it all.

-    DO be prepared to change any further actions at the drop of a hat depending on what the evaluation recommends. You may have a great plan all laid out and you may have already set up everything to work according to that, but if it’s not the way to go then it needs to be jettisoned. Fluidity, adaptability, and agility are crucial. As Bruce Lee said, “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

-    DO factor in the future when evaluating anything and everything. The farther you plan into the future, the better. Time will always bring with it unexpected twists and turns. Expect them.

DON’T’S:

-    DO NOT fall for the ‘sunk cost fallacy’. If evaluation shows that an idea or attempt has not delivered the require results, do not continue to sink resources or money into it because ‘you’ve already spent this much’ or ‘you’ve already come this far’. This is like if you’re driving somewhere and you come across a map that shows you’ve been going down the wrong route for the past three hours. Will you turn back or will you continue on because you’ve already spent three hours on it so you might as well finish it up? The answer is obvious!

-    DO NOT frame your evaluations in a negative way. Thomas Edison tried for a long time to make a working light bulb, only succeeding after many failures. When a reporter asked him how it felt to fail ten thousand times, he said “I have not failed ten thousand times, I have just found ten thousand ways that don’t work”. Always ensure that the evaluations are framed in a positive and optimistic way. Highlight the successes and positive impacts of the undertakings, and even when discussing the failures, focus mainly on what steps will be taken to prevent them.

-    DO NOT let your emotions or preconceived notions cloud your judgment in any way. Evaluate the results in a purely impartial and analytical manner.

“Even worthwhile endeavors need evaluation in order to determine if they have become distractions from the best goals.”

― Quentin L. Cook


And that’s the process! Don’t worry if any of this sounds confusing at first. This is a great way to ideate and it’s the most used way, but it certainly isn’t the only way out there. If you’ve been using a different method, then all of this might seem a little disorienting inititally, but that’s perfectly normal. You don’t even need to change your whole process if you feel it already suits you or your work best. You can pick and choose what to incorporate from this and it’ll still work well.

You also don’t necessarily need to devote exactly equal time to every single step of the process. This is just a general framework; in practice things can be very situation dependent. There may also be factors or forces out of your control that will necessitate certain unavoidable changes to the process. For example, if you’re in a situation where the problem is very simple and straightforward and has already been clearly defined, then you can skip or spend less time on step one and more on the other three. Or if you’re working in a fast-paced and agile manner, then you’ll probably want to spend less time on evaluating and deliberating over the results so you can quickly circle back to step one and start all over again with something else.

Although as a quick note, you should try not to skip any steps outright unless absolutely necessary. Even a quick run at any step that might have seemed insignificant at first can help make the process more methodical and consistent, which is very important in the long run.

There’s just one more thing. Something that you might call the secret ingredient to all the steps we’ve listed above. It’s not like they won’t work without it, but adding it takes them to a whole new level. It’s called lateral thinking, or thinking out of the box. You may have heard it in the context of puzzles or riddles, but it’s much more than that. It’s an integral part of most great endeavors. It is especially useful when it comes to problem-solving, because it enables you get completely fresh perspectives on problems, which in turn helps you solve them in new and innovative ways. We’ve written about it before – this is a good place to start learning about it.

To illustrate the importance of lateral thinking with an example, one need look no further than the life and work of Steve Jobs. He was one of the greatest leaders and visionaries of our time, but he was also an extraordinary lateral thinker. He looked at things and didn’t see them for what they were, but for what they could be.

“When a good idea comes, you know, part of my job is to move it around, just see what different people think, get people talking about it, argue with people about it, get ideas moving among that group of 100 people, get different people together to explore different aspects of it quietly, and, you know – just explore things.”

― Steve Jobs

He saw computers of the time and saw that they were unwieldy and hard to navigate, but also that there was potential there for them to become machines that we would love to use, or even machines that we didn’t see as machines anymore, but extensions of ourselves. He saw that other computers had displeasing, clunky designs and wanted to make ones that were aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful. Not just outside. but even inside, saying he wanted the screws inside to be arranged symmetrically. He looked at the unintuitive styluses included with phones and wondered why they were even necessary when we had ten perfectly good styluses right on our hands.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify and vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as crazy, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

― Steve Jobs

Jobs’s incredible successes and innovations at Apple put into sharp relief the importance of lateral thinking in getting great ideas and executing them effectively. And this gem of a quote from him sums up his philosophy on ideas as well as life:

“You’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you’re passionate about, otherwise you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that’s half the battle right there.”

― Steve Jobs

That concludes today’s lesson on ideation! Can you recall the four steps without looking? Remember, Define, Select, Try, Evaluate! You can even shorten it down to DTSP and use a mnemonic. How about…Dentists Strengthen Tooth Enamel? It's not exactly elegant, but perhaps one of your first uses of the principles above could be to come up with a better one! We hope the article gave you some insights on ideation and we’ll see you in the next one!

“What good is an idea if it remains an idea? Try. Experiment. Iterate. Fail. Try again. Change the world.”

― Simon Sinek