Ideas Aren't Cheap: Promoting the Serious Business of Play

IDEO, based in Silicon Valley, is one of the leading design and innovation firms in the world. We begin a new series from IDEO on innovation, creativity, design and technology.

In my time working as a kid-centric design and innovation consultant, I've noticed a relationship that doesn't make sense. Companies with a lot of good ideas in the works tend to ignore newer — and potentially better — ones. This is not the mark of a well-oiled machine! Despite the laurels of a full innovation pipeline, this kind of stagnant system is the equivalent of going too long without an oil change in today's quickly shifting world.

My firm deals in new ideas, so we've learned a few things about how to generate them. If you work for a similar firm, I hope you'll find useful information here. If you're in a different business, I hope you'll find these thoughts interesting, maybe even enlightening.

Let's dive in with a quote: Linus Pauling said, "To get good ideas, you need lots of ideas!" That innovation math is indeed simple, but the trick is to keep them coming at a steady pace.

Trends, emotions of your customers, zeitgeist, technology, prices, economics — these forces all change very quickly. Think lean and mean, like a VP of product development trying to keep pace with the market. How are you going to organize your teams to harness these dynamics?

Consider your pipeline. Are you ready to start working on any one idea tomorrow? Are you and your team so passionate about a new idea that you can shuffle its priority in the queue? I urge you to design a system where this kind of flexibility is celebrated. Recognize that you and your team have invaluable experience and intuition that will help you size up the amazing ideas and spread them as if with a spirit of evangelism.

Design a pipeline system where the best ideas rise quickly to the top and form the burnt sugar crust your team is going to crack through. You want to taste the sweet stuff underneath. So be ruthless! Let all of the other ideas—even the decent ones—fall away. Be flexible and take comfort: what might seem as wasted energy goes right back into your system as learned experience and improves the new ideas piping in.

And remember, if ideas themselves aren't cheap, the good news is that the processes to build them certainly are. Creating a grand slam—even just one—is immensely valuable. Here are ways to increase your flow and get to the good ideas.

Conduct better idea generating sessions.

Many firms now refer to idea generation sessions not as meetings, but as brainstorms. Whether you're hosting such a session in your business or in your own kitchen at home, it's important to remember a few things. One is that, again, these sessions are not meetings. They won't get you that single final answer you or your boss might be looking for. These sessions are about going wide and looking for quantity. In fact, set a goal of 100 ideas per hour-long session — and don't go longer than one hour. After the session is over, have everyone involved vote on their top 5 ideas. Using the team's know-how and experience — or as we call it, "informed intuition" — let the rest fall to the floor. But before you do that, when you're writing down your ideas, give them headlines only. This will prevent someone from droning on about one idea and holding back the team from reaching a high number of ideas. One more thing: Number the ideas as you write them on the board or on your napkin. This simple metric will give the team a goal instead of allowing them to evaluate ideas as they go.

Give everyone an idea notebook.

Leonardo Da Vinci called his notebooks "idea wallets." I suspect it sounded cooler in Italian, but you get the idea. Think napkin sketches—immediate, tangible, sharable, inspirational, and so on. You've equipped your teams or been equipped with Blackberrys, laptops, and gadgets galore, but nothing beats a pen and paper. It's a simple gesture, but adding idea notebooks to that list sets the tone of a creative company with lots of ideas and that's important to your company's culture. Lately, I'm partial to a pocket-size version that Moleskine makes. It's only a few bucks and it looks cool.

Expand your company's magazine library.

It turns out that most of us are reading roughly the same magazines. Depending on your industry, you might add in trade journals, but basically we're being exposed to lots of similar things. Expanding your magazine library is a simple way to jumpstart new ideas. For example, if any part of your business is doing packaging, are you subscribing to AXIS, Colors (English and Italian), Form, Octane, or Surface? You get the drift — look for the extremes. Before boarding a long flight, Tom Peters grabs a dozen magazines to flip through and pulls out stuff he finds inspiring. For a few hundred bucks a year, you can quickly expose your teams to wildly inspiring thinking and presentation.

Organize dynamic duos.

Try pairing two folks together for a week with a challenge. At the end of the week, have them present their best ideas. It's even better if you do this with three or four teams at the same time. The writing and comedy world probably has the most examples of success with this technique. I've had great success with what I call Game Day—on Monday, I announce the duo teams and by Friday, they have to present a new game concept to the larger group. It works because you can bounce ideas off your partner and use informed intuition to keep strengthening the best ideas.

Encourage your key employees to bookend travel.

I arrive late the night before, arrive early to the meeting, spend all day in the meeting (in an uninspiring room, eating even less inspiring food) then depart late that night. Sound familiar? Argh! Instead, I'll try to cushion the departure and take the next morning or the previous afternoon to get out and see some retail experiences, local sites, or museums. Why? To get inspired. When I do this, I'm amazed with how many new ideas I have. Similarly, we've created dynamic experience journeys for our clients when they come to San Francisco or New York. It becomes a kind of scavenger hunt for them to see how many things on the list they can experience. Now compare that to sitting inside the whole day. If you set the tone that this is valuable and not goofing off, you'll see the payoff with more ideas.

Build (more) impromptu meeting spaces.

You need more spaces in your offices that encourage people to "bump" into each other and spontaneously share ideas. Think ultimate water cooler. I can't tell you how many companies have shown me their "idea room." Inevitably, it's a room off to the side, filled with beanbags and some other "creative" stuff, and usually a team has to sign it out. That room speaks loudly that it is the only place we can go to have ideas. You want ideas everywhere. I love when I visit the toy and game company Cranium's lobby — it looks more like a hip café, with everyone in the company walking through several times a day, folks exchanging ideas, and creating new ones just because of its location!

Dedicate project spaces for teams.

If the idea room above sounded familiar, it's not too late to save it and turn it into something great. Take a project team and give them a dedicated space to work in. Make it temporary for the life of the project, and have them move in for the duration of the project. This flips the dynamic and creates an active project "war room." Make every vertical wall in the room either a white board of a giant pin-up wall. Designate one wall as the idea wall, and start to fill it with post-its. Younger folks coming out of school are used to this project atmosphere; they'll get it and realize that's where the action is. Important projects that need lots of ideas can't live in a PowerPoint deck bounded by meetings. I call project rooms "we" space vs. the "me" space. Imagine reserving your best conference room for a team meeting, not for an hour or even a day, but for the whole project!

Dedicate prototype spaces/labs

How fast can you turn ideas into a prototype? The faster the better; this will help you improve the concept. You'll be able to make a more educated decision about how fast you kill the idea or go forward with it. The key here is to create a space that everyone can prototype in. These are rough and rapid, or quick and dirty. Provide the right "stuff" in the room. It might be foam core and hot melt glue or props to act out a service idea. Experiment and hire a trained storyboarder to hang in the space who can translate an idea into a scenario.

Collect great examples.

On the first day of class that I teach at Stanford University, I show examples of work from previous students over the years. I don't show the average work, I show the absolute best. I see jaws drop around the room with worried faces thinking how am I going to do that? Of course, I may have forgotten to mention that it's only the best I'm showing them. The bar is set high, and each year, I seem to have even more impressive students than before. Do you have a place, physical or digital, for best-in-class examples from all your competitors, from possible competitors, or from different parts of the world? A packaging collection? A photo display? These types of collections are an incredibly powerful knowledge management tool. Teams are constantly going back to this area for inspiration, and inspiration leads to more ideas!

Create a playful culture.

Shareholders, stock price, competition, Return On Investments, strategic plans, budgets, projects schedules and timelines — it's all pretty serious stuff. In your innovation culture, you'll want your ideas to come easy and your people to welcome them. Playful cultures go hand-in-hand with innovation hits. Going back to Cranium: Anyone who does something remarkable at Cranium gets to "Bang the Gong," which is literally a large Chinese gong hanging in the common area. Once the gong sounds, everyone gathers to hear about the star performance, and the stereo automatically cranks out that "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" song by T. Rex. Walk through your "innovation" department; do you get the sense of this energy? Making it fun is one of the secrets to making innovation repeatable, and play is serious business.

Brendan Boyle is a partner at IDEO, a worldwide design and innovation firm. He is a consulting professor in the mechanical engineering department at Stanford University.