Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Three Search Spaces for New Ideas

The first productive stage in the innovation process is the generation of ideas for new products, services or business models. This is where the front end of innovation is at its fuzziest.

If you study the literature on creativity, you will find a confusingly large number of different methods. This state of affairs has led to the "Idea Engineering" research being carried out by our company Zephram together with the University of Magdeburg in Germany. One of the objectives of this research is to systematise the methods for generating ideas.

One very simple visualisation which has come out of this research is shown in the diagram above. It shows the space of all possible ideas for solving a problem, which is divided into three search regions: Rational, Creative and Hidden.

  • The Rational region contains all the ideas to be found using methods based on experience, expertise or common sense. In product innovation, these methods include all the questions and checklists found in the innovation literature such as the Lead User Method, TRIZ and the Blue Ocean questions. Analysing the competition and other rational analogies also belong in this category.
  • The Creative region contains the ideas to be found using weakly related and unrelated stimuli. The prime example of this class of methods are the methods which use randomly chosen words or images to stimulate new ideas. These methods are the darlings of the creativity literature and generic ideation sessions. However, they are of little importance in ideation for innovation, since they cannot be easily steered and their success rate is very low. In our innovation workshops, we use these methods only to liven things up, since they can be implemented in a fast and fun way.
  • The Hidden region contains the ideas that are inaccessible to the expert because they are invisible to him/her or even explicitly excluded. This region owes its existence to tunnel vision, functional fixation and other psychological and cultural effects. Provocations are the method of choice to overcome these blockages and access this region of the search space. This is the region which often contains the best and most innovative ideas. At the same time, it is the most difficult to execute effectively, because it questions long-established beliefs and customs.

In the centre of the diagram is a yellow circle which represents the expert's own horizon. This is the region of ideas which he/she can access without the use of questions or other stimuli.

The diagram makes it very clear why well-designed idea production techniques are so important: they provide access to a much larger space of ideas. It also explains why classical brainstorming and the many related methods which do not use stimuli perform so weakly: they do not support the expert in leaving his or her existing idea space.

High-quality ideation sessions are facilitated using a script. It is part of the art of the scriptwriter to find the right mix of idea generation techniques which helps the participants to explore all relevant regions of the idea space in order to obtain the best possible inspirations for the next generation of innovations.

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