Nothing, absolutely nothing in my line of work is as much fun as a great ideation session. You're in the moment, sparks are flying, your brain's going a mile a minute. The friendly competition from a diverse range of bright, talented colleagues stimulates original ideas that you never thought you could have.
I've participated in and facilitated countless ideations over the course of my career. The quality of the participants, the personality and energy of the facilitator, and the range of creative exercises all factor into the success of the session.
But I have found that heeding the following five fundamental guidelines will exponentially boost the odds of having a productive session.
1. Jump in
Everyone gathers, gets caffeinated, eats bagels, and socializes. Today won't be a typical day at work, and everyone knows it. People are happy to be away from their desks, and they look forward to having some fun as they solve the problems of the world.
The last thing you want to do is kill that buzz, but all too often that's just what happens. The innovation firm you've brought in to facilitate spends the first half hour explaining its process and why it's so wonderful. Like a Mike Tyson blow to the solar plexus, that tedious infomercial sucks the energy out of the room.
That is either preceded or followed by a brand manager or researcher grounding everyone in the fundamentals of the category and brand. Boring! By now it's 10:00 or 11:00 AM, and you've done nothing but douse the creative flame.
Ideation is supposed to be a right-brain process that requires participants to rely on creative instincts rather than logic, and that's exactly what it should be.
Say hello, state the target problem in one sentence, and then start with a crazy creative exercise. You'll be amazed how quickly the participants will get to the heart of the matter when right from the start they rely on the right side of the brain and their gut feelings from the start.
2. Bring in a few ringers
A well-run ideation session will bring out the creative best of your internal team and agencies. People also reveal aspects of their personalities you never knew existed, enhancing the creative mood.
Still, it doesn't hurt to bring in a few outsiders you can count on to be prolific whether the energy in the room is waxing or waning. I like to find creative types who have nothing to do with marketing—actors, musicians, writers, artists, and others. They might not know "the business," but they do understand, intuitively, how to communicate and connect with people. They'll give you ideas you'd otherwise not think of.
3. Give concepts the benefit of the doubt
There will come a time in the day when you will need to identify the ideation's "greatest hits." Which ideas will we pursue, and which will we kill?
When the facilitator was going through the mind-numbing process explanation I discussed earlier, he or she surely talked about how "quantity is quality" in ideation, that "today we don't judge," and that "we don't want to kill ideas prematurely."
That is all thrown out the window at the end of the session, by necessity. Decisions have to be made. But ideas have a way of evolving in your mind. They can grow on you; or, as in the case of a morning after the liberal imbibing of alcohol, some "great" ideas seem to get stupid by the light of day.
So if there's even just an inkling of something you like about an idea, keep it around for a while. As you consider those ideas further internally and start to broach them with target consumers—all with an open mind, of course—the cream will inevitably rise to the top.
4. Get to research quickly
Momentum is key in the innovation process. Stay on a roll by not letting a lot of time elapse between the ideation session and the first day of qualitative research. And, yes, those ideas must be explored qualitatively to gain a deep understanding of why they'd work (or not) with target consumers. During the research stage, insights are far more valuable than a test score.
I like to leave just enough time to write concepts. Maybe a couple of days, at most. I also conduct research the same evening as the ideation, which provides the advantage of having all or most of the ideation participants react and rewrite on the spot.
5. Write concepts and design research in a way that stimulates respondent imaginations
Though this subject deserves far more attention, the basic idea is to keep concepts short and simple. Concepts should be emotionally driven, but they should in no way resemble ads. A headline and a sentence or two of copy works best.
Give respondents a wide range of such building blocks. Rather than having your moderator go through them one by one for "strengths and weaknesses," hand them over and let respondents discuss them on their own.
I usually ask them to select two concepts that would motivate them most to buy the product, and then I give them a series of short creative assignments to bring those ideas to life. Assignments might include identifying a spokesperson (personification), writing an ad, designing a logo, designing a package, or creating a promotional event based on the selected concept.
Doing so not only removes the "respondent as marketing critic" factor from the research but also demonstrates before your very eyes how respondents think and feel about your brand and category. And in that process, the best ideas always rise to the top.