In their desperation to be innovative, companies often brainstorm themselves into idea overload, generating ideas that ultimately are failures. But what if companies could focus those brainstorming efforts and develop an efficient, targeted process for creativity? InnovationManagement asked Tony Ulwick to share his thoughts on how to leverage the creativity and get a better outcome.

In this context, creativity is the mental process by which an idea for a new product or service concept or feature is triggered and conceived. The goal is to figure out how the technologies, systems, methods, and processes that are possible or available might be used to address unmet customer needs and company objectives. But considering all the options that are possible and trying to conceive how each might contribute to a solution is daunting: there are thousands of possible permutations.

Over the years, a number of different methods, including lateral thinking, SCAMPER, and TRIZ (the theory of inventive problem solving), have been devised to help focus and trigger creativity. Companies have had varying degrees of success with these methods, but no one method has prevailed, largely because their principles are too abstract for easy use. For practical, day-to-day use, a company needs something more concrete and precise.

Although it may be counterintuitive, giving the idea generation process a structure actually enhances, rather than limits, creativity because it channels and focuses creative energy exactly where it needs to be.

By translating the creativity principles of several popular methods, including TRIZ, into a language that works within that framework, a comprehensive, an easy-to-use framework can be devised. The framework consists of three sets of concrete, focused, concept-level creativity triggers. These triggers are designed to help companies devise (1) new product and service platforms, (2) new business models, and (3) new product and service features. The framework will be an indispensible tool for those entrusted with coming up with their company’s next big idea. There are three rules to follow when tackling innovation with this framework:

  1. Conduct idea generation for only one type of idea at a time. Step one is to decide what types of ideas are desired and then to focus on just one type at a time. For example, if the goal is to generate ideas for a new product platform, then the innovation team should be instructed to generate ideas only for a new platform: now is not the time for ideas related to the business model or to features that may be included on the platform. Failure to follow this rule will result in a mix of ideas that cannot be considered or evaluated together— which is a recipe for confusion and failure.
  1. Generate ideas for platforms, then business models, then features. If your company desires radical innovation, then first generate ideas for new product or service platforms and have management approve the best of those ideas. Next, generate ideas for an effective business model and have management approve the best of those. Lastly, populate the new platform with a rich set of features that address all the customer’s unaddressed needs. If you’re not looking for radical innovation, but are simply improving existing products, then focus on generating new feature ideas only. Adhering to these rules will keep you from wasting time and effort.
  1. Focus idea generation on specific jobs and desired outcomes. When generating ideas for a new product or service platform, focus on the job or jobs the customer is trying to get done and generate platform-level ideas that will enable the customer to execute those jobs better, more cheaply, or both. When generating feature-level ideas, focus specifically on the outcomes by which the customer measures successful job completion—specifically, those outcomes that the customer is currently dissatisfied with—and devise one or more features that will dramatically improve their satisfaction with those outcomes. By focusing on these targets, you guarantee that you will come up with an idea of value.

Although it may be counterintuitive, giving the idea generation process a structure actually enhances, rather than limits, creativity because it channels and focuses creative energy exactly where it needs to be. Instead of generating hundreds of questionable ideas, this framework leads to the creation of a handful of breakthrough ideas that the organization can pursue with confidence and that customers are likely to treasure.

By Tony Ulwick

About the author

Tony Ulwick is the founder and CEO of Strategyn Inc., and the author of the best -selling book, What Customers Want. He has published numerous articles on innovation management in the Harvard Business Review and the Sloan Management Review. Founded in 1991, Strategyn has worked successfully with companies such as Microsoft, Chiquita Brands, Hallmark, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, WellPoint, Motorola and Pfizer, helping them establish effective innovation strategies and driving them through implementation.