The crème de la crème of ideation tools

If you're really looking for that creative edge during ideation — or any other time when you're exploring creative possibilities — the tools you employ can go a long way in helping you create fresh and powerful ideas you might not have otherwise seen with less effective methods.

  Post by Paul Morris • Mar 5, 2020
Concept discovery  Tools  Ideation  Innovation  Creativity  Design thinking

This essay will outline 3 of the very best tools I've personally used with great effect over the years. Let's begin.

1. Blue Ocean Strategy

Blue Ocean Strategy was introduced to the world through a book of the same name written by W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne in 2004 (published by Harvard Business School Publishing) and has become a real hit sensation in the innovation community.

Before we jump straight in to their powerful tools, a bit of context is in order. Blue oceans are a metaphor for industries not yet in existence. Companies who create blue oceans are carving out new markets they can lead which don’t yet have competition. They are creating new demand and there is an excellent opportunity for fast and profitable growth. Creators of blue oceans are writing the rules of a new game.

Red oceans by contrast, are those industries that are already in existence. Industry boundaries have already been defined and accepted and companies competing in these oceans are usually competing on common competitive factors (such as price and market share) along with other standardised or benchmarked criteria.

Red ocean companies are attempting to grab a greater share of existing product or service demand from their competitors. Since these market spaces are crowded, products and services tend to become commodities and cutthroat competition turns the ocean bloody; hence the term "red oceans".

Kim and Mauborgne have invented a series of tools to help innovators create blue oceans—and they’re not just applicable to the creation of new business models or companies. You can also use the following tools in your ideation sessions to generate innovative ideas and solution alternatives for new products and features.

The table below summarises how you can apply these tools to your ideation sessions so you can generate useful ideas and consider problems from unique perspectives.


Tool
How to use it for ideation
Strategy Canvas

Captures the current state of play in the known market space which enables you to clearly see the factors an industry competes on and invests in vs what buyers receive.

With the new product or feature you’re looking to generate ideas for, use the Strategy Canvas to plot the features that competitors in your industry currently compete on (horizontal axis) vs the offering / service level buyers receive for each of those features (vertical axis). From here, you will be able to identify where the opportunities are to carve out a blue ocean and potentially a new offering that customers have not yet seen or experienced. Those areas that are either underserved or overserved are ripe candidates for creative thinking / ideation.
ERRC Grid

Helps companies unlock blue oceans by simultaneously eliminating and reducing certain factors that industries currently compete on, as well as raising existing and creating new factors.

The long name for this tool is the Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create (ERRC) Grid. It is the perfect tool for specifying exactly how you will carve out your blue ocean. The competing factors identified from the Strategy Canvas (horizontal axis) will make the ideal starting point. You will be detailing those factors (or features) to eliminate completely from your product along with those that you will reduce below the industry standard plus those that you will raise well above the industry standard and finally, those that you will create that the industry has never seen before.
Three Tiers of Noncustomers

Companies can turn huge latent demand into real demand by unlocking noncustomers (i.e. people and groups who currently don't buy from them).

The best way to use this tool is by conducting research first through surveying or interviewing noncustomers from the three tiers. The three tiers are comprised of: Those closest to the current market or sitting just 'on the edge' (First Tier). Those refusing to use an industry's offering (Second Tier). And those farthest from the market (Third Tier). Being armed with real data (that you've sourced yourself) is key. Asking questions that help you develop a deeper understanding as to why these customers are not currently customers, what they consider are their pain points and what would convert them to paying customers would generate a wealth of insight that could be directly fed into an ideation session.

2. Lateral thinking

Dr. Edward de Bono is one of the world's leading authorities in creative thinking and the teaching of thinking as a skill. He defines lateral thinking as:


"...a structured approach for thinking differently. Lateral thinking is for changing concepts and perceptions instead of trying harder with the same concepts and perceptions."


Lateral thinking enables you to break out of established, habitual ways of thinking so that you can discover fresh ideas and perspectives that would not have otherwise been "in range" of your thinking prior to adopting the technique.

When you're really serious about innovating, it is often more useful to change direction than it is to exert more effort in the pre-established or current direction which is encapsulated perfectly in Dr. de Bono's quip: "You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper."

Lateral thinking is also an excellent way to access creativity "on-demand". When we're in ideation workshops or creativity sessions, this is exactly what we need to do. We can't always rely on a hit of inspiration to strike at just the right moment.

You might be interested to know that The Concept Canvas itself has been designed with lateral thinking as its underlying foundation. The simple fact that you are generating numerous solution alternatives (and associated concepts) based on lenses is lateral thinking in action!

De Bono offers numerous tools to help you effectively practice lateral thinking. The table below describes 3 very effective ones.


Tool
How to use it for ideation

Shaping

Develop ideas and shape them to fit a specific situation based on constraints. This is considered a Treatment of Ideas technique in de Bono's toolkit.

Instead of viewing constraints as a negative limitation, we reframe them and use them as fuel for creativity. Start by thinking of any constraints or limitations (perceived or real) that might get in the way of the execution of an idea and then shape ideas around those constraints. The Concept Canvas provides a strong foundation for this in Zone 1 where you define success measures and assumptions. Both of these sections can be considered starting points for constraints. This Harvard Business Review article contains some research and examples on why constraints are good for innovation.

Random Stimuli

Use unconnected input to open new lines of thinking.

Begin by getting clear on the problem / opportunity you're looking to address (this becomes the focus area) by forming a question (a "how might we..." question as suggested in The frame section of The Concept Canvas is ideal). From here, randomly select stimuli from either a prepared list of words, pictures, sounds or everyday objects to open new lines of thinking. Then connect the random stimulus with the focus area and generate new ideas. Once done, you can select the best ideas for further development. Here's a short article with an example of how Apple has used this technique. The source of that article is also a good read.

Provocation

Use a provocative statement to generate useful ideas.

A provocative statement is defined as a deliberately unreasonable idea. Start by defining a provocative statement or a range of them. They might seem ridiculous or a waste of time at first, but the underlying intention is to take you (and your team) out of your current perception or track of thinking and shift you to a new one. From here, you'll use what de Bono calls movement techniques to get from a provocation to a practical idea that could work (which involves generating numerous alternatives). This Wikipedia entry on provocation operation (po when abbreviated) has a great example of the technique in action.

3. SCAMPER

SCAMPER is a fantastic technique to adopt when you want to generate numerous ideas from a range of perspectives very quickly using the fine art of questioning. It was conceived by Bob Eberle to address targeted questions that help solve problems or ignite creativity during brainstorming and creativity sessions.

This tool is especially useful when you're looking for innovative ways to improve existing products. You may, as a result of using the tool, create a breakthrough improvement or a whole new innovative offering you and your team hadn't considered before.

SCAMPER is an abbreviation of 7 perspectives: (S) substitute, (C) combine, (A) adapt, (M) modify, (P) put to another use, (E) eliminate and (R) reverse. The aim of each of them is to consider whether you'll be able to create something entirely new from what you already have or deliver a substantial improvement.

Here's how it works.

Substitute

The substitute perspective is considering what areas in your product could be replaced with something else. Some guiding questions could be:

  • How might we substitute our underlying business model with another one?
  • How might we substitute the way users navigate through our website with a more refined structure?
  • How might we substitute how information is displayed with a design from a product in another industry?
  • How might we substitute parts or all of our online support with a chatbot?
  • How might we substitute parts of our process with better alternatives?
  • Combine

    The combine perspective is considering whether two or more components, parts, ideas or concepts could be merged together. Some guiding questions could be:

  • How might we combine features (or process steps or technology components) A and B?
  • How might we combine use case A with use case B?
  • How might we combine features, techniques or approaches from a product or service in another industry with one of ours?
  • How might we combine our processes or resources with an industry partner?
  • How might we combine navigation or information structures?
  • Adapt

    The adapt perspective is considering whether any existing aspect of your product could be adjusted or tweaked. Some guiding questions could be:

  • How might we enhance certain parts of our product to achieve better results?
  • How might we improve our existing onboarding and support processes?
  • How might we adjust our design so our product is more user-friendly and appealing for new users?
  • How might we improve the copy so it's easier to understand?
  • How might we tweak the interaction patterns we use on certain screens?
  • Modify (magnify or minify)

    The modify perspective is considering whether any aspect of your product or supporting services could be more emphasised (magnified) or de-emphasised (minified). Some guiding questions could be:

  • How might we re-focus our efforts so we support a smaller set of impactful features?
  • How might we serve more customers through our support centre with the same level of resources?
  • How might we reduce the amount of information being displayed on our screens?
  • How might we reduce the amount of time customers spend in the support sections of our product and resolve their issues quicker?
  • How might we increase the engagement rate for our product by improving certain features?
  • Put to another use

    The put to another use perspective is considering whether your product or any aspect of your product could be repurposed to solve a different or similar problem than otherwise intended. Some guiding questions could be:

  • How might we offer our product to other internal departments or customer segments?
  • How might we recycle the waste we produce?
  • How might we use the downtime of staff between certain tasks?
  • How might we share our design assets or functionality so they can be of use to others?
  • How might we share our learnings with other internal departments (or external organisations)?
  • Eliminate

    The eliminate perspective is considering whether any aspect of your product could be removed. Some guiding questions could be:

  • How might we eliminate features A and/or B and still achieve the desired results?
  • How might we remove processes or parts of our processes to make things more efficient?
  • How might we get rid of verbose copy?
  • How might we completely eliminate waste?
  • How might we remove screens or pop-ups that don't add anything significant to the user experience?
  • Reverse

    The reverse perspective is considering whether any aspect of your product could be rearranged in order to create something new. Some guiding questions could be:

  • How might we reverse the steps in our process?
  • How might we rearrange certain steps in our process?
  • How might we rearrange the order in which certain features are organised?
  • How might we rearrange the elements on our screens?
  • How might we rearrange the content in our online support centre?
  • Onward

    The great thing about these ideation tools is that they make the innovation process more disciplined, structured and reliable. You'll be able to explore the types of premium quality ideas that can result in groundbreaking innovation and progress.

    Tools such as these can also help you move away from the assumption that you "need to have genius creatives on your team as the *only* way to innovate" to an approach whereby you can innovate on-demand with your current staff and expect top-quality outcomes 💡

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