By Ty Hagler
Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to go back to school—no, not like Rodney Dangerfield in the 80s, but back at the invitation of one of my favorite professors, N.C. State’s Dr. Jon Bohlmann, as he brings a fresh perspective to the Creativity in Management course by anchoring it in the principles of Design Thinking.
Dr. Bohlmann, whom I consider one of the most engaging and influential teachers I’ve had, invited me to guide his masters-level students through real ideation sessions centered on both products and services. Rather than simply talk about ideation, I wanted the class to practice it. But first we needed to cover some core concepts.
Thus, for the first portion of the class, we covered insights from giants like Sir Isaac Newton, Malcolm Gladwell, and Tom Kelley. In particular, we spent time to understand how Gladwell’s research into successful improvisation and the “Rule of Agreement” applies to the central tenets of design thinking as articulated by IDEO’s Kelley in The Ten Faces of Innovation. It’s striking to me how the same principles that make for great improv actors, also make teams more creative.
We set up the context of ideation within innovation, to promote greater understanding and results from the coming ideation sessions. We used the Innovation Network’s definition of innovation—“teams of people, creating value through the implementation of new ideas”—as our launching point from that front. And then we took our company’s definition of ideation—“the creative synthesis of a team’s collective insight into new ideas”—to leap headlong into ideation sessions around products and services.
For our ideation sessions, we built upon this foundation of positive, creative, collaborative thinking and discussed the difference between divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thought seeks ever more expansive opportunities, deferring judgment on each idea. Convergent thought seeks to synthesize and analyze each idea to bring it to reality. The trick is to delay convergent thinking until you are satisfied with the full exploration of divergent thinking. We usually provide Nerf guns for defense against those who critique too early in the process!
We are constantly experimenting with new ideation techniques, and this class was a great opportunity to build on the good improvisation analogy with an exercise called Act-It-Out. The activity was originally one of our Ideation Divergence Cards that had been rolled out earlier this year. Act-It-Out was so effective at drawing out observational insights from our client ideation session as a mini-activity, that it made sense to create a full ideation exercise.
The students were given a service challenge to act out in groups of four – with each student acting out a role from the service experience. After identifying problems and prototyping a solution, the class came back together with an impressive, detailed understanding of the customer’s service experience and an equally impressive range of ideas for improvement. In wrapping up the class, I wanted to know if the exercise had limitations, posing a theory that it would only work if the team members had direct experience with the problem area. To the contrary, I was surprised when one of the students remarked that the Act-it-Out exercise was even better when some team members are experts in the problem areas and other team members have no experience at all. That exchange of expressing expert assumptions and being challenged by novices perfectly captures the value of an ideation session to pull brilliant new ideas from teams of people to drive market success.