How to Use Ideation Sessions to Develop Your Best Ideas Yet

Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey


Albert Einstein, a master at great ideas, once said, "If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it."


Ideation sessions are critical for generating ideas and brainstorming creative and unique solutions to some of your business's biggest challenges. If done correctly, an ideation session can be a safe space for your team members to suggest some of their most absurd ideas -- which, as Einstein pointed out, just might be your most successful, as well.

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But a productive ideation session isn't easy for a leader, or participant. A good ideation session requires trust, creativity, openness, and a certain level of positive energy -- none of which is easy to foster. So how can you prepare an ideation session that enables your team members to develop their best ideas yet?

Whether you're a team member anxious about participating in an ideation session, or a leader interested in cultivating one, don't worry -- here, we'll explore the best techniques to get the most out of your next ideation session.

1. Facilitate an open, judgment-free environment.

Management professor Leigh Thompson conducted a study in which one group shared embarrassing stories about themselves, while another group shared a time they felt proud. Then, both groups were instructed to brainstorm for ten minutes.

Interestingly, the group who told embarrassing stories generated 26 percent more ideas in 15 percent more categories than the one instructed to boast about prideful moments.

Ultimately, openness and candidness among your participants could help foster a stronger, more creative brainstorm.

To set the tone, consider asking each participant to share an embarrassing or funny story about themselves in the first five minutes of a brainstorm. An ice-breaker like this could help foster openness, trust, and a sense of silliness -- which are all critical ingredients for increased creativity.

2. Go for quantity, not quality, with your list of ideas.

For an ideation session to work properly, it's critical you focus on quantity over quality with your ideas. This is the time to cast your net wide -- urge your team members, and yourself, to offer as many different ideas as possible.

At the end of the session or in the next session, you can refine and limit your list. However, for now, asking participants to brainstorm a few "quality" ideas might cause them to hold back on ideas they don't believe are worthy -- when, in fact, those ideas might be the best ones. So it's critical you refrain from limiting your list.

3. Suspend all judgment and analysis of the ideas offered.

If participants begin offering judgment or criticism when someone voices an outlandish idea, you'll quickly ruin any trust you've established during your session. Plus, those wild ideas prove your participants are thinking creatively, and out-of-the-box solutions could end up being your most successful.

Ultimately, it's impossible for participants to gain momentum on their ideas if each idea is being judged. Urge each participant to avoid offering any feedback during your ideation session -- there's plenty of time to debrief and analyze afterwards.

4. Encourage wild, crazy, insane ideas.

"No idea is a bad idea" -- we hear that a lot, but we often don't believe it. Help foster creativity and innovation in your ideation session by creating an atmosphere in which participants believe this to be true. For instance, perhaps you can begin each ideation session with an example of a crazy, insane idea that actually became successful -- like Gary Dahl's Pet Rock idea, which earned him $15,000,000.

Alternatively, you might consider changing the atmosphere in which you host an ideation session to stimulate new, fresh ideas. Consider taking your team to a nearby restaurant or coffee shop -- along with potentially stimulating original ideas, this method could help your team bond.

5. Ask productive questions to guide the conversation in the right direction.

You can't facilitate a successful ideation session if participants don't have a clear mission in mind. Begin by clarifying the problem you're trying to solve -- if possible, put it on a whiteboard as a visual reminder for your team to stay on-track.

Additionally, as participants begin offering ideas, you might ask productive questions to ensure you're guiding the conversation in the right direction. A "How can we" question can help remind participants of your ultimate goal -- for instance, during a pause, you might say, "How can we add value to our customer's current marketing strategy?" or "How can we better create content that aligns with user's goals?"

6. Set a short time limit, like 15-25 minutes.

A short time limit could prevent participants from over-thinking. Additionally, it puts pressure on them to offer ideas quickly. This type of rapid-fire brainstorming could prove most successful for your team.

Plus, in 15-25 minutes, no one expects a team member to offer the world's greatest idea -- the time-limit creates a more relaxed, casual atmosphere.

If you're planning on implementing an ice-breaker, you could make the meeting closer to 30-45 minutes, but ensure the ideation session itself doesn't stretch on too long.

7. Try these ideation methods to loosen team members up and get ideas flowing.

To spark innovation and creativity, as well as team connection, you might try implementing a fun brainstorming activity at the beginning or end of your ideation session. Here are a few to get you started:

Pass The Parcel: Identify a problem, then have each participant write down a ridiculous, bizarre idea that could solve that problem. Pass each piece of paper around, and have a participant write another crazy idea based on the first idea she receives. Then pass it again. Once a participant receives two ideas, require her to write a potential solution based on the two ideas. Finally, share all the ideas with the group.

Reverse Brainstorming: Identify a problem, and then ask each participant questions like, "How can we make the problem worse?" This forces team members to firmly understand the problem and highlight potential solutions -- for instance, let's say you tell your team, "We're losing readers to our blog. How can we lose even more?"

Your participants might say, "We could write content that doesn't align with SEO goals," "We could create a confusing navigation page," and, "We could create terrible email campaigns so no one wants to subscribe." After a few minutes, you'll see solutions come quicker than you think -- for instance, someone might say, "Well, we could start aligning our content closer to our SEO goals, and we could work on optimizing email."

SCAMPER: This method helps you come up with new, innovative solutions by using an acronym to force participants to think outside-the-box.

Here's the acronym:

  • S, which stands for Substitute, requires participants to brainstorm alternative materials, processes, or techniques to which you're currently using.
  • C, which stands for Combine, asks participants to combine processes or products that are currently separate.
  • A, which stands for Adapt, requires participants to brainstorm how to adapt to something you already have to solve your problem.
  • M, which stands for Modify, asks participants to consider what areas of your process you can modify to get closer to your ideal result.
  • P, which stands for Put to other use, requires participants to think of alternative uses for your product or service.
  • E, which stands for Eliminate, asks participants to get rid of inefficiencies in your current system or product.
  • R, which stands for Rearrange, requires participants to figure out how you might rearrange how things currently work to reach a new solution.

Ultimately, it might take some trial and error to learn which ideation session techniques work best for your team. However, it's critical you remember the importance of fostering an open and trusting environment -- a welcoming atmosphere is critical for participants to feel safe offering their craziest (and potentially best) ideas.

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Topics: Creativity

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