Imagine you have just finished a successful brainstorming session and you’re sitting in front of a long list of great ideas. Now what? Gijs van Wulfen shares five important learnings on how to pick the right idea.

Think different. That’s the essence of creative processes in coming up with ideas for innovative products, services or business models. An awful lot brainstorms or ideation workshops take place to generate fresh new ideas. At the end of idea generation you end up with a wall of ideas. Which is great! I like to quote the American chemist and Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling who said “the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas”.

Generating ‘outside the box’ ideas is often not the problem in an ideation workshop with 10 people or more. No. It is the moment when you go from the divergence into the convergence phase, which is critical for your innovation success. Imagine you have a wall of 500+ ideas in front of you: and now what? How do you pick the right idea? That’s the question.

In my innovation practice I have experimented a lot the last 10 years to deal with this essential question. It’s not an easy one to answer. Unfortunately I have not found the ‘holy grail’. But the great advantage of continuous experimenting in converging, selecting and improving ideas is that you learn a lot. And I like to share five of my important learnings on how to pick the right idea.

  1. Take you time. One of the most frequent mistakes is spending a lot of timing generating ideas, leaving hardly any time in the ideation workshop to converge, select and improve them. You should spent at least 2/3 of your process on picking the right idea and 1/3 on getting a lot of ideas, instead of the other way around. Promising ideas at the front end of innovation are like rough diamonds, which look like other regular stones but will shine beautifully in the end. You have to take your time to be able to recognise them. And be sure to converge in several steps. Even in several workshops. Don’t expect to recognize rough diamonds among 500 other stones in one or two hours.
  2. Have a clear vision of what you want. How can you choose ideas if you don’t know what you are looking for? Especially when converging, selecting and improving ideas is a group process you should have a shared vision on where you want to go. That’s why it is essential to start an innovation project with a clear and concrete innovation assignment, involving your top managers. This forces the top management in your company, from the start, to be concrete about the market/target group for which the innovations must be developed and which criteria these new concepts must meet. Use these concrete criteria to help you to identify and choose the right ideas in your ideation workshops.
  3. Reflect from the customer’s perspective. In converging, selecting and improving ideas it is very important to criticise and challenge them from different perspectives. I learnt in my innovation practice that there are huge differences in how people from within the company perceive new ideas and how their potential customers perceive those same ideas. And that’s why I advice you to incorporate idea reflection workshops with potential target groups in your ideation process. And improve and pick the right ideas based on their feedback.
  4.  Make a mini new business case. Although mood boards and concept descriptions are a good beginning, they are often too vague for managers deciding on those ideas, thinking in potential turnover and profit. They are used to business cases: a clear, strategic, commercial, professional and financial plan for a new initiative or a new investment. So be sure you pick in the end attractive ideas for which it is possible to make a Mini New Business Case. It is a kind of ‘preview’ of the possible business case later; not so detailed yet and with more uncertainties than its ‘big brother’ later on in your stage-gate innovation process. In this way you strengthen the persuasiveness of your ideas by highlighting the attractiveness of the strategic, commercial, and professional aspects of the innovative product or service.
  5. Make a feasibility road map. Markets are changing faster than ever, shortening the product life cycles in almost every sector. In periods of economic downturn organisations on the one hand need innovative concepts more than ever and on the other hand actually cut resources for innovation, although they often claim they don’t. So companies need to work on ideas which will be attractive, innovative on the one hand and at the same time are realistic and feasible on the short term on the other hand. You should pick great ideas, which combine attractiveness with feasibility. Otherwise your innovation won’t make it to the market. A number of studies on new product innovation (Robert G. Cooper, 2011) showed that for every seven new-product ideas, about 4 enter development, 1.5 are launched and only 1 succeeds. These are poor odds. Improve them, and make a feasibility road map, which will support the feasibility of your innovative product or service idea.

I hope my learnings on how to pick the right idea will inspire you to become an even more successful innovator!

By Gijs van Wulfen

About the author:

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. The method is published in his inspiring and practical book Creating Innovative Products and Services’ (Gower, 2011).

He helps organisations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation method and advising companies on their innovation strategy, process and organisation. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organisations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method. His dream is to make FORTH the most used method for the front end of innovation around the world.

Gijs is a both presenter and chairman at several (international) innovation conferences, like the ISPIM Conferences and the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. He is also founder of the yearly Dutch Innovation Conference on creating new products: ‘Nieuwe Producten Bedenken’.