5 Items for a Good Ideation Session


Out-Of-The-Box ideation still needs a well-boxed upfront planning, an expert facilitator, and a disciplined approach to post processing.

Planning an Ideation Session involves these steps.

Ideation Session


While you need out-of-the-box thinking during the ideation session, you need a fairly well-defined box when it comes to defining the challenge problem or the objective of the session. These objectives can be at any level – purpose, strategic, tactical, operational, project subject matter, etc. The objectives are typically focused on how and/or what; and occasionally on discovering the purpose (why). Some examples include …

  • How can we save corals and marine life from chemical waste (purpose)?
  • How do we use Industry 4.0 for the development of a special child (purpose)?
  • How to go through digital transformation in the next 3 years (strategic)?
  • What will be the impact of industry 4.0 on our business (strategic)?
  • How to grow the business by 5X in 5Years (strategic)?
  • How to expand the market in the Asia Pacific region (tactical)?
  • How can we design a compact high temp storage box (technical)?
  • How to reduce the component weight by 22% (technical)?
  • How to recover from schedule variance (operational)?
  • What can we do to help the customer accelerate production (tactical)?
  • What set of technologies can we develop for a smart home market (technical/strategic)?

If the objective is too large or broad, then I suggest a series of sessions, structured hierarchically. A theme (from a cluster of ideas) at the strategic level becomes an objective at the tactical level. For example, the executive team gets together for an ideation session with the objective ‘How to grow the business by 5X over the next 5 years?’ The outcome is a set of 6 idea themes, and 4 of them become follow-up ideation objectives.

  • Objective: How to grow the business by 5X in 5Years (strategic)?
    • Sub-objective 1: Adapt Industry 4.0?
      • Launch an Artificial Intelligence enabled service.
      • Offer augmented reality-based training.
    • Sub-objective 2: Expand the business into the Asia Pacific region.
      • Set up a partnership with a university in Singapore.
      • Acquire and turnaround a struggling small business in India.
    • Sub-objective 3: Scout & acquire training company on ISO9001.
    • Sub-objective 4: How will Amazon/Google impact our business.
    • Sub-objective 5/6: Not worth pursuing.

Every objective statement should have a unique topic-owner. The facilitator and the topic owner should be empowered to modify the problem statement within a narrow boundary.

Given that we are in the middle of the 4th industrial revolution, every company today should run ideation sessions with these types of objectives.

  • What are the opportunities or threats from industry 4.0 technologies?
  • What company values will drive our socio-economic development?
  • What ideas or industry 4.0 technologies can help us create value for the society; or perhaps help in progress towards UN’s SDGs?
  • What new skills do we need to thrive through this transformation?
  • What new business models may bring us additional value or stability?

Companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, are on a roll to change the world. Their moves can suddenly disrupt your business, and ideation around those is important, just like you plan your house for storms, well in advance.

As we emerge out of the Coronavirus pandemic, some plausible ideation objectives could be …

  • How will consumer behavior change in the next 3 to 5 years?
  • What is the impact of unemployment surge to long-term demand for your products and services?
  • Which markets will disappear for you and which ones will expand rapidly?

Ideation objectives have a strong linkage with the innovation profile.

Agile Followers define ideation objectives based on VOC or RFP.
Smart Forecasters defined their objectives based on anticipated needs.
Visionary Trendsetters pick up a social or professional white space and often take a moon shot.

Identification of funding sources can be a part of the ideation exercise. Care should be taken not to use that as an excuse to pre-screen some good ideas.

I normally prefer to keep funding conversation as a follow-on topic.


The most important member in an ideation session is the facilitator. A good facilitator has some knowledge of the subject matter without bias in favor of any outcome, is a good communicator, is assertive in managing the group dynamics, is respectful of group diversity, can scribe inputs and engage with individuals at the same time, and has a sense of humor. Most importantly a competent facilitator understands multiple ideation techniques and tricks to continuously trigger fresh ideas.

Innovation coaches often make good ideation facilitators, unlike innovation management consultants. A consultant solves the problem, whereas a coach helps build your competency to solve the problem.  An ideation session facilitated by a coach provides the team with techniques to generate and refine ideas, which are useful after the session is over.


Sometimes, you may feel that you can generate ideas faster when you work alone. However, if you want creativity, resist that temptation. Do it as a group, preferably a diverse group. Diversity of skills and roles is a key design element. There is no ‘right size’ for the group, but in my experience 5-15 people is the sweet spot. There is no perfect composition of the group. I typically start with a core group of product/service developers and business development personnel who will have to later execute. I always suggest bringing in an IT person (it is the digital age after all) and a student/intern (who can have wild thoughts). Sometimes, I add a finance person to put some reality into the solutions. Diversity in thinking is required, and often comes with diverse demographics and past experiences.

It is also important to keep a few elements out of the session. I try to keep idea-killers, naysayers, and heavyweight executives out of the session, whose presence may intimidate participants. If a particular senior staff member insists on participating, then it is an indicator to exclude them (!). A smart facilitator may compensate for such undesirable engagement, but I do not count on it.

Ideation Techniques

There are several ideation techniques, and research on the topic is producing new methods and tricks all the time. Bryan Mattimore has compiled over 20 of these in his book[1], which I would say is a must-read for all ideation facilitators. My preferred ones are ‘I Wish’, ‘Visual Triggers’, and ‘Brain Walking’.

Based on the objective and participants, the facilitator should select a primary and couple of supplementary ideation techniques for the session, and plan on training the participants on the techniques. The choice of technique depends upon group size, facilitator understanding of the technique and the objective as well.


It is best to conduct an ideation session in a new setting, preferably a stimulating ambiance, with articles that can provide visual triggers, such as unconventional furniture, lighting, toys. Keep an ample amount of wall space to display growing content. And of course, an unlimited supply of water, coffee, and fresh fruits or preferred refreshments. It is important to be relaxed and not distracted by smartphones. I have seen some superb ideas hit the happy hour table once the formal sessions are closed out. There is no reason to exclude that additional input.

Again, there is no single answer to how long should this be scheduled. I typically plan for 2-4 hours for a fairly well-defined objective, depending upon the group size. Sometimes, a full-day is warranted, anything beyond that is likely to produce diminishing results and calls for a hierarchical session set.

Going Virtual

With current social distance restrictions, some of the ideation techniques have become even more powerful with online or virtual engagements. Tools such as SessionLab, Stormboard, IdeaFlip, Sprintbase, InVision, Mural, Miro, and others have found useful applications. If you do not have any of these traditional Excel over Zoom with whiteboard also works well. Over the last year, we have also successfully worked through multiple sessions in lieu of full day offsite to avoid ‘zoom fatigue’ and use the time in between to gather meaningful data.

In Summary,

Ideation is more than brainstorming. Multiple factors need to be considered in upfront planning to extract the best out of participating brains. The leadership should define the objective and pick the facilitator and let the facilitator pick the participants, platform, and techniques.

If you like this blog post, you will like my book – “Inspiring Next Innovation Value Chain” available on Amazon.

If you wish to engage with me in a conversation, on this topic, please register for an online session on Feb 25, 2021 at 9AM ET co-hosted by Nerac.

[1] Idea Stormers – How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs; Bryan W. Mattimore; Book, 2012.

Managing Risk in an Innovation Project

Do you know how to conduct a robust gate review?

One of the reasons projects fail miserably is because, we choose to ignore warning signs in early-stage gates and keep pushing it through until it is too late and too big to handle.

Having worked at a major aerospace manufacturer, I had the good fortune of being a part of several reviews at various levels and disciplines – design, technology, component, system, product, manufacturing, process, program, and so on. That process was so mature, that I did not realize what a poor process feels like until I was assigned to develop suppliers. Now having coached over 2 dozen product innovation companies on this topic, I can confidently say that the value of review gates comes from a competent and empowered review team. The review team must be competent to make the right decisions and mentor the team. It must be empowered to judge and stop/redirect a project, despite business pressures.

Managing Risk in an Innovation Project

Significance of Review Gates

A quick story to illustrate the point. After a nasty accident at an intersection, city authorities asked “Why do we not have a STOP sign here?” Reply came back as “People were complaining about seconds lost due to “stop and go” on an intersection with virtually no traffic. Since we have not had an accident here in a long time, we took the sign off, just yesterday.” There is a reason for a 4-way stop sign. Stop and look for what is coming from the side?

For Business Leaders: Annual or quarterly strategic reviews serve this purpose, to pause and look for where the competitor might be coming from. All it takes is a little time with the Board of Directors to properly re-position for success.

For Innovation Managers: A review gate with a pre-defined success criterion is a recognized best practice. All it takes is a little time with a group of experts to mitigate risk and quality concerns and redirect for success.

Gates: Generically speaking, qualified concepts that proceed to become projects may go through these gates:

  • Proof of Concept.
  • Product/service design and development.
  • Performance verification and validation.
  • Pilot users and customers.
  • Scale-up and capture market share.

Depending upon complexity, confidence, and risk assessment, the project may have more or fewer gates. A simple study project may have an interim content review and final report and review. Complex product design may have a hierarchical gate structure such as component design gate(s) to support a system-level design gate. A very popular example of a gated process is the Technology Readiness Levels used by DoD/NASA and many other commercial organizations. A similar one called Manufacturing Readiness Levels is used by many organizations.

The phase-gate process is to minimize cost and risk of innovation project through synergy and alignment of expectations. The process …

  • Defines the review team and lays out the GO/NO-GO criteria upfront.
  • Provides a forum and timing to discuss and approve any scope changes.
  • Clarifies and adapts the roles & responsibilities during execution.
  • Facilitates informed decision making for the continuation of the project based on the availability of resources, business case, and risk analysis.

The outcome of each review gate could be categorized under various classes:

  • GO with comments or recommendations for the next phase.
  • Conditional GO with specific actions by a date for it to be a GO.
  • NO-GO – RE-DO with required actions and return for review.
  • NO-GO – HOLD with specific unmet criteria, or changed context, and a temporary hold of the project, for a specific period.

A project should only move forward to the next review gate, when both the product/service development and business development feel that the concept still qualifies; and all the previous gated criteria have been successfully met. Any exception to the review gate or waiver of criteria/ expectations should require a review team approval. The higher the uncertainty, the lower the first pass yield.

With some of my clients, I notice a management metric around increasing the first pass yield of gated reviews. That is not a good practice. It drives many wrong behaviors: (a) a tendency to pick low-risk ideas/projects, (b) to keep working to perfection, and (c) the review team’s bias towards a GO’ outcome. That is all counter to innovation and the purpose of a gated review. We want to fail fast and learn fast. It is OK to track, but do not set a goal for yield.

Review Gate Team

The suggested participation for the project review team under phase-gate process includes these …

  • Funding sponsors, who are accountable for profit & loss.
  • Product/service line heads, who will eventually own this innovation.
  • New Business Development, which must generate revenue from this.
  • The project team, to defend the progress and learn from gate experience.
  • Chiefs or subject experts, who are responsible for technical excellence.
  • Optional invitees, such as retirees, Consultants, or Customers, for wisdom.

The team needs to maintain a healthy level of conflict and collaboration at the same time amongst various roles/disciplines. For example:

  • The marketing and development folks should collaborate throughout to work toward the same innovation and timeline.
  • Talent development manager and innovation chief should collaborate for proper talent acquisition and development.
  • Program manager and Subject Matter Experts could have a conflict all the time for product excellence and project cost/schedule performance.
  • Market domain experts and Subject Matter Experts have a conflict or collaborative depending upon customer push and pull for innovation.

Having seen so many reviews with passionate debates, leading to some exciting outcomes, I say “conflict at the review gate is a good thing.” How we choose to resolve that conflict during the review or afterward as an action item, defines the review gate experience and employee engagement with innovation. The team ought to go into the gate review with an open mind, focused on the purpose, objectives, ethics, and educating each other. In the end, both the project and the review teams are all on the same side, fighting uncertainty.

False Calls at the Review Gate

The purpose of a review gate is to reduce the risk, by ensuring continuation if the concept still qualifies. The review team is susceptible to human errors, misjudgment, and decision making with limited information, cost and schedule constraints, or sometimes external pressures.

A true positive (GO when it should have been a GO) ensures progress, confidence, and team buy in.

A true negative (RE-DO when it should have been a RE-DO) improves learning, saves failure later reducing losses, builds stronger teams, and drives humility.

A false negative (RE-DO when it should have been a GO) leads to some unnecessary rework, schedule delays, and a demoralized team when they are confident. The positive that comes out is improved communication.

A false positive (GO when it should have been a RE-DO or a NO-GO) will continue to accumulate losses and even an escape of a poor design to the market leading to liabilities. They usually make good learning stories, which drive process improvements, policies, and even regulations. Both Space Shuttle disasters were calls made under schedule pressure. The case of Boeing 737 Max software shortfall is a review process failure, which is supposed to look at every aspect of “continued operation”.

In Summary,

Create an environment of healthy conflict at the Gate reviews, deliberately. If needed split the review teams into and play it like a mock court with defense and prosecutor to bring out hidden nuggets.

If you like this blog post, you will like my book – “Inspiring Next Innovation Value Chain” available on Amazon.

If you wish to engage with me in a conversation, on this topic, please register for an online session on Feb 25, 2021 at 9AM ET co-hosted by Nerac.

Focus your Innovation on customer success, not just satisfaction


The single most important differentiating factor in the success of an innovation initiative is the user/customer insight, not opinions. Strive to make the customer successful, because what they are asking today may not be enough for them to be successful.

Focus your Innovation on customer success

Selfie from 2016

I was brought in to accelerate new product development in a Business to Business (B2B) scenario. The client created advanced materials for ICT sector. They had some rare talent and know-how but were struggling to compete on speed to market. Their material development cycle was typically 18-36 months, which was too long for their customer developing ICT hardware, which goes obsolete in 24-36 months. A simple discovery session into their sales process revealed the root cause. The Account Managers would wait for the Requests for Proposal (RFP) from the customer’s purchasing department. By then, it was typically too late to address the development cycle time. This client needed the ability to forecast their customer requirements at least a year ahead of the formal RFP in addition to accelerating the R&D activity.

Now, if you come to think of it, your customer just does not wake up one morning and issue an RFP. We all know, they work on it for a while! It is upon us to think like our customers or connect with them at their development roadmap level. So, we put an important new connection in place where the client’s R&D head would connect with the R&D head of the B2B customer to forecast their requirement, while the sales team tracked the RFP. Our client got the ability to deliver quality materials and gave them a competitive edge over their direct competitors, playing the speed to market game. On some specific items, they got exclusive development partnership programs to even offset part of the investment because of their unique engineering talent. Since then, we have successfully implemented this technique with a few other companies to build their innovation profile. It works.

Customer Insight

As Theodore Levitt said, People do not want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”  Strategyn’s ‘Jobs to be Done’ Framework (Theory to Practice; Anthony W. Ulwick; Book; 2016) centers around the concept that instead of thinking about what features or benefits a customer would want to buy, an innovation should instead try to find out what job/activity/outcome a customer is trying to accomplish, and then develop something which helps them achieve that outcome.

Simply asking people what jobs they have is unlikely to result in any insightful answers, as people themselves often do not realize or cannot verbalize what they are trying to accomplish. What you need are insights, not opinions. You need a profound and unique knowledge about customer’s pain points and desirable gains. We should also consider the fact that often customers know what they do not want, even though they may fail to articulate what they want. For example, customers did not know they wanted Netflix, … they knew they did not want late fees and limited movies! Cry of the customer is a for of VOC.

Steps to Capture Customer Insight

Hopefully, you concur that you must aspire to understand what makes customers successful, not just satisfied. On many occasions, customers show requirements that are a level lower than what the problem they are trying to solve. Best practices include building a team of marketing and domain experts, reaching deep into the marketplace including customer’s customer, and gathering customer roadmap/intent, wherever practical. The steps below show various levels, providing progressively better insight.

  1. Conduct data research and analysis, using tools such as Google, Government databases, 3rd party research databases.
  2. Conduct discovery Interviews with standard questions, with a focus on listening rather than selling, getting to facts and not opinions, asking why?
  3. Shadow and observe customer actions, reactions, emotions, feelings.
  4. Immerse yourself in customer’s daily life, and make a note of your actions, reactions, emotions, feelings.
  5. Create a prototype or simulation and test your hypothesis or run the ‘What if’ conversation with customers.

More on Customer Insight

Customer insight is more than what product features or service performance the customers will receive during the transaction. It also involves delivery (how and where they receive it), consumption, and payment (how and when) aspects. Today, data is becoming a valuable commodity, and most of us do not keep it with us either. Online retailers are monetizing millennial’s desire to not go to the shop, whatever the product.

Customer insight is more than a process in the marketing department to get customer input. It is intertwined with ongoing company engagement cultural improvements, and the most vital part of any innovation culture.

As an example, look at the difference between the success of Sony’s Action Cam and GoPro action cameras. While Sony may deliver better quality videos, GoPro has been far more successful because it was designed to address customers’ desire to film themselves in action. By giving users ways to mount the camera on helmets, bikes, even on their dogs, and to rapidly edit and share footage, GoPro solved a real problem. It fulfilled a conspicuous customer desire and subsequently won massive customer market share (48 percent to Sony’s 8 percent in 2015, according to investment research and analytics company Market Realist. Robertson notes, Sony had every advantage in the marketplace, But GoPro started with what the customer wanted, and that’s how they came out ahead.

In Summary,

Customer insight means much more than what the customer is asking for. It means interpreting what they would be willing to pay for. It helps understand the consumer, so your innovation has a better chance of market acceptance.

If you like this blog post, you will like my book – “Inspiring Next Innovation Value Chain” available on Amazon.

If you wish to engage with me in a conversation, on this topic, please register for an online session on Feb 25, 2021 at 9AM ET co-hosted by Nerac.

Future of Automotive Interiors Conference0

John J Combest, chair of the Global Human Body Models Consortium, and project manager advanced safety technology at Nissan Technical Center North America, will give a presentation titled Human body modeling – a better tool, an essential need at The Future of Automotive Interiors Conference in Novi, Michigan.

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