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Ideation Process: So, What’s The Big Idea?

by Cheryl Little
June 13, 2018

Have you ever participated in a ‘brainstorming session’ for a new design, development, or sales project? How did it go? Did you come together as a team and find a solution successfully or did you talk yourself into a list of dreams that could only be accomplished someday along with the hope of a few miracles? The goal of this article is to provide insight and clarity on how you can use the ideation process to effectively generate the next big idea for your upcoming design, development, or sales challenge. 

It is the notion that the innovation process begins with an idea. This is the myth that misleads. An idea is the output of the innovation process, not the starting point.

The Benefits of Ideation

Structured Flexibility

Ideation has been termed the ‘reinvention of brainstorming’ by Bill Donius, author of Thought Revolution. A structured problem-solving process based on the concept of time-based Sprints that build on a collection of ideas, Ideation utilizes brainstorming exercises along with other techniques. A flexible process, Ideation can be done individually, with a group gathered together in a physical location, or with a group working remotely. The Sprint sessions can be short and sweet or span multiple hours, and can be held once or as recurring events. 

Playful and Productive

Ideation can be defined as ‘the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas’. Lots and lots of ideas quickly, in order to select the best ideas to move forward with. An organized and structured form of brainstorming through engaging exercises, Ideation sessions are an opportunity to relax and have fun with playful, productive, and inspiring idea generation. 

Together Alone

Ideation begins with an ‘I’ for ‘individuals sharing their own ideas’ in the same space, which brings accountability and group consensus building in a team setting. In an environment where free ideas are encouraged, people naturally tend to ask the question: “How can I be a better team member?” Often, being a successful participant requires that they think outside the box and explore areas where they may be typically uncomfortable. Since each individual member will likely take more responsibility in the process, the chances of the process resulting in a breakthrough idea are much greater.

Use Your Entire Brain

The right side of your brain is the artist and musician in you: your intuition, emotions, and problem-solving ideas. The left side is your inner ‘Spock’: logic, analytics, math, and science. Since it involves both the right and left sides of the brain, Ideation encourages breaking free from both habitual and circular thinking which often occurs when ideas are channeled through confined parameters. Participants with the greatest results usually spend a bit of time prior to each session thinking about the topic. The process of Ideation will combine the insights of the right brain with the logical ideas from the left in order to create new, fresh, potentially extraordinary yet realistic ideas.

7 Guidelines for Successful Brainstorming

Quantity will breed quality, and the combination of ideas and suggestions for improvement should be encouraged. In order for a group session to be successful, certain known barriers to divergent thinking must also be removed, such as criticism. 

  1. Judgment- Keep an open mind and don’t get all judgy. Judgment-free sessions will result in more diverse ideas. Defer any judgment of an idea as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ during this divergent thinking phase. You can judge, just wait until later. 
  2. Wild Ideas- Everyone must break out of their comfort zone. Crazy thinking may not always work directly to get you to the final destination, but oftentimes it will provide elements that will help blaze a path for extraordinary ideas.
  3. Build- When grouped together your ideas may develop a theme. Many ideas can be combined or built off of each other to provide the ultimate solution. Using the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ will encourage inclusivity in a positive setting.
  4. Stay Focused- Try to keep everyone focused on the same target, while also encouraging divergent thinking. Keep your eyes on the prize. If no end goal is communicated, nothing will be accomplished. 
  5. Take Turns- Creativity can get exciting and sometimes people have a hard time concentrating on one idea at a time. Be sure everyone gets a chance to share their ideas.
  6. Visualize- Colored sticky notes or markers and paper work great for in-person sessions. For remote Ideation, try tools such as Pin up, Notely, or Stormboard.
  7. Go for Numbers- Armed with a timer and the goal of how many ideas you want to reach, give the ideation session the appropriate amount of time and make sure everyone has the tools they need to generate a large number of ideas.

Below are some other things that will also help encourage a successful brainstorming session:

  • Keep Groups Small- The bigger the group, the less successful the session. 
  • Stay Structured- Structure and clearly communicated processes are the blueprints for success.
  • Pick the Right People- People should be considered equals so they will feel free to share ideas. They should also be informed about and integral to the success of the project.

Who Should Participate?

A strategically selected group of participants will help to ensure the greatest results for your session. You will only want to include people who have something to add: stakeholders who are invested, people who have background knowledge about the project at hand, and those who will be invested in moving the project forward. Avoid including people just for the sake of adding others or those who may have no prior knowledge about the project.

Another consideration when selecting participants is the hierarchy that exists within companies between different titles in order to avoid that becoming a primary obstacle to the generation of good ideas. People are often more inhibited from creative thinking when overshadowed by another person’s rank, so group sessions will work best when all participants are considered equal so they will feel free to express their ideas.

“Ideation is about shared invention. Attaching a single person to a single idea hinders collaboration and greatness.” — Brendan Boyle

Framestorm Before You Brainstorm

Preparing for an Ideation session is a critical step in getting started to framing the problem. Take the time to prepare each question you want to ask prior to the beginning of each session and remember the tone and language will dramatically affect the type of responses you receive. Words matter, so think about your problem or topic as a mission statement. Are you looking for a way to stay dry in the rain or do you want a better umbrella?

Key Assumptions

When you begin to determine the challenge at hand it helps to understand what is already known. Begin by listing assumptions about the topic such as industry norms and the reason why those exist.


Describe the personal or professional reason this challenge is appealing. What is the goal? 

Paint the Picture

Describe the challenge and why there is an opportunity for a new solution.

  • Focus on the need not the function
  • Keep it general to allow for unexpected value to be discovered.
  • Define it well enough so the topic remains manageable
  • State the challenge as a goal or a mission statement. “To keep a person dry when it rains.”

Establish Boundaries

The goals of each Ideation Session will be more easily reached when the participants know what is expected in the end, what their role is, and the guiding parameters. Each session should always have a designated leader to ensure the session moves along according to plan. The leader should be a person with diplomacy skills and who is used to helping people stay focused. This is also the person who will make the final selection during the convergence phase.

Methods of Ideation


Many folks consider this method to be a fundamental method of Ideation. A group of people gather together to generate ideas as they follow a set of rules.

Other People’s Shoes

Gain empathy by looking through the eyes of different perspectives. This can be accomplished through role-playing techniques, storyboard drawings, or written user stories.


Bring the unexpected elements together and spark fresh new ideas never before considered.

E-Storm or ‘Slack it’

Ideate with a group of people who don’t share the same physical location with a shout out email or a Slack channel that includes a well-stated challenge and outlined steps for follow-up. 

Breaking the Ice

Making everyone feel comfortable is the most important part of a successful Ideation session. Eliminating any anxiety will help to break down communication barriers and encourage people to relax and collaborate. Have fun and start the session off with an Icebreaker.

One Word

Divide the participants into a few small groups. Tell them that their assignment is to think for a minute and then to share with their group one word that describes (fill in the blank). It could be a company, a product, a person, or anything else that would spur conversation.

Animal Reincarnation

Place the participants into a large circle. Go around the circle and ask each person: “If you could pick which animal you would be reincarnated as, which would you pick and why?”

Icebreaker Classic

Place the participants into a large circle. Go around the circle and ask each person: “If you were stranded on a deserted island, which three people would you want with you (dead, alive, or famous) and why?”

30 Circle Warm-up

Place the outline of 30 circles on a page and print a copy for each participant. Set the timer to three minutes. With a marker or drawing pen, turn ordinary circles into recognizable objects.

30 Circle Warm Up Graphic

Ideation Techniques

Sticky Notes

State the number of ideas that are the goal and set the timer. In groups of 3-4 participants, each group member adds an idea to a post-it note and places it on the wall. Once complete, the team reviews to determine topics that are linked to a central theme.


Sketching in groups of 3-4 participants, each member independently sketches a central image related to the topic. Set the timer. The first person in the team sketches an image, then hands their sketch to the next person to sketch another related visual element. The step is repeated until every member of the team has drawn an element. Once complete, the team reviews to determine visual elements that are linked to a central theme.


List all of the non-visual sensory elements related to your topic (sight, sound, touch), then if possible recreate these senses for yourself. Set the timer. With paper and pen, try to recreate these sensory experiences.  

The key to Ideation is giving yourself tight time limits. Deadlines motivate and help focus the creative process.
 - Ideo U

Time to Converge

So now you’ve generated a lot of ideas but since you’re not judgy you can’t really say yet if anything is good or not. No worries, now it’s time to focus. Keep in mind we’re not removing ideas just because they may be too risky yet. Consider the wild, the brilliant, or a combination of the two. 

Leave plenty of room for creative thought by not baking in a solution to the problem right away and look for ideas that will inspire you to get motivated. Make sure the audience is specific so you understand their needs and can target them appropriately, and select a specific part of the journey or timeframe.

  1. Democracy- Give everyone 3-5 votes to pick their favorites. Find a fun way to designate favorites, such as star stickers.
  2. Cluster- Look for similarities between ideas and group them together. Look for emerging themes.
  3. Discuss- The team leader should summarize what ideas resulted from this phase, then the team discusses which are worth considering. What were the top 3-5 ideas and why?
  4. Decide- The final decision is made by the team leader.

Next Steps

Repeating the ideation process over and over again will help refine your idea as you experiment your way forward to the next step in the process of idea generation: Rapid Prototyping. Your best idea will really come to life when you use the mindset ‘build to think’. Building something that others interact with can provide critical feedback and will get you to the best solution in no time.

Cheryl Little profile picture

Meet team member, Cheryl Little

As the Senior Director of UX, Cheryl leads the Digital Strategy and Design teams at Mediacurrent.  She capitalizes on opportunities by using the intersections of both disciplines,  effectively enhancing each project while providing maximum ROI for clients. Her strengths include resear

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