How ideas evolve in innovation

The typology of ideas, or how ideas are made

An idea is an idea, isn’t it? Well, ideas have more nuances than meet the eye at first glance. When businesspeople aim at producing new ideas for a challenge they face in their business, say developing a new product, they often talk about ideas in an undifferentiated fashion. In reality, ideas come in many different facades and vary in their degree of maturity and elaboration, meaning and feasibility, among other factors.

What different types of ideas can we distinguish? And how does the nature of an idea change and evolve as you move through an innovation project? Let’s understand the typology and evolution of ideas with the help of  Thinkergy’s systematic innovation method X-IDEA.

Create a real idea, not a simple thought or association

Before we can talk about the typology of Ideas, let’s first clarify what an idea is — and what it is not. An idea can be defined as “a thought or suggestion about a possible course of action.” In other words, an idea needs to have an action element. Linguistically speaking, when you jot down an idea, the verb in the idea sentence represents the action element (“Do something”). Strong action verbs that you can safely use in most idea sentences include: create, make, design, use, produce, build, develop, shape, form, devise, among many others.

Unfortunately, in a typical, non-professionally facilitated brainstorming or ideation session, many people don’t write down a full-fledged idea sentence because they are unaware of how to do so correctly, inexperienced or just lazy. As a result, they end up with one-to-two word utterances such as “Banana”, “Skin” or “Ice Cream” that are just simple thoughts or associations and cannot be used later on. Take the time to formulate out a real idea to be able to work with it later, such as: ”Shape and package Ice Cream like a Banana so that users can peel of the packaging like a banana Skin”.

X-IDEA: The Typology and Evolution of Ideas

Xploration: Start with initial ideas

Ideas are transient — they vanish from our mind when we don’t jot them down immediately. When you start exploring the challenge that you want to pursue at the beginning of your innovation project, it is inevitable that you will already get ideas about what you could do to resolve the case. Don’t forget to write down these initial ideas — they may or may not become relevant at later stages of your project. Here remember the comment of the Spanish artist Pablo: “I begin with an idea, and then it becomes something else.”

Ideation: Add many, many, many raw ideas
When you move into the Ideation stage, your objective is to produce as many ideas as possible in the given amount of time with the help of creativity tools. You don’t yet worry about the quality of your ideas and just shoot for a high quantity of outputs. As these ideas don’t need to be perfect or fully evolved yet, we call them raw ideas (similar to getting yourself a ground stock of raw materials that you then further process in subsequent production steps).

However, while you focus on idea quantity and not quality during Ideation, you still need to ensure that the raw ideas that you jot down comply with the characteristics of an idea (i.e., a full sentence with a verb as action element as we discussed above). So while using creativity tools and enjoying the fast and furious style of an ideation or brainstorming session, take your time to formulate your raw ideas. Follow this simple rule of thumb: The more words a raw idea has (or the more elaborated it is), the more intriguing it often is.

Raw ideas in an X-IDEA Innovation Project

Development: First discover intriguing ideas…

What happens next to all the raw ideas that come out the Ideation stage? Well, separate the wheat from the chaff. According to what we call the “Creative Law of the Vital Few”, 80% of the value of an ideation session is in only 20% of the raw ideas that you produced. Hence, discover those vital few intriguing ideas within the pool of raw ideas that carry within the seed of a truly great idea concept. Intriguing ideas clearly stand out from normal raw ideas because they are either interesting or wild in nature:

  • Interesting ideas propose a compelling core value that goes beyond vanilla raw ideas and makes you think: “That’s something different!”, “Interesting!”, “Hmmm”, or “Why not?”
  • In contrast, a wild idea is an idea that most people —when viewed in connection to your challenge— would consider crazy, absurd, very funny, weird, bizarre, off-the-wall, zany and over the top. Wild ideas may also be proposed courses of action that are illegal, impractical, shocking, or in violation of fundamental universal laws or your organization’s values or strategic orientation. When an idea makes you smile, laugh or feel slightly uncomfortable, you’ve come across a wild idea.

Interesting ideas and wild ideas in an X-IDEA Innovation Project

… then design and develop full-fledged idea concepts

In the Development stage, you take time to transform your intriguing ideas into full-fledged idea concepts. You do this by either improving on an interesting idea, taming a wild idea, or combining several intriguing ideas into a bigger concept. A well-designed idea concept describes in greater detail what exactly you want to do, who you target with this value proposition, and why the idea makes meaning to these target users. Last but not least, you sketch out the idea as a visual complement to your words, true to the adage: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Once your concept is designed as such, take a step back and ask: “How may we add even more value to this idea?” Add any further value components and improvements to arrive at the central output of the Development-stage: a realistic, meaningful developed idea concept.

Designed idea concepts in an X-IDEA Innovation Project

Evaluation: Find your top idea concepts

In the Evaluation stage, you need to evaluate each of your developed idea concepts to understand their pros, cons and interesting aspects. When you look through your portfolio of evaluated idea concepts, you will notice that even the most meaningful concept has some minuses — i.e., some disadvantages to address, obstacles to overcome, risks to hedge or reduce, among others. Once you’ve started working on fixing these “bugs” (e.g., by doing rapid prototyping), you will notice that in most cases, you find ways to mitigate or even completely eliminate those cons. You have “enhanced” your evaluated idea concept and gained a better understanding of its value potential and practical feasibility. Now it’s time to elect your top idea concepts that you want to pitch for funding and real-life activation.

Action: Transform your top idea concepts into a tangible innovation

In the final Action stage, you first pitch each of your top idea concepts to critical supporters (typically a senior management committee if you work in a corporation, or an angel investor or venture capital firm if you’re an entrepreneur) that approve the critical resources (funds, people, etc.) that you need to activate the idea. For each approved and funded top idea concept, you start an activation project and then start working on transforming the concept into a tangible, meaningful innovation deliverable: a new product that is shipped, a new service that is provided, or a new customer experience that is staged, or a new campaign that is launched, among others.

Do you have an innovation project where you want to experience the idea typology of X-IDEA? Just contact us to tell us more about your project background, and we’ll be happy to propose you alternative workshop formats to achieve your objectives.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article was originally published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 5 March 2015.