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“Practical and Powerful New Idea Generation Techniques”


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Bryan Mattimore is a world-class expert on applied creativity and an innovation process consultant to over one-third of Fortune 100 companies. He and his team have helped create and launch products and services worth over $3 billion in annual US retail sales. His clients have included City of New York, BNY Mellon, Thomas’, Ben & Jerry’s, Sony, DKNY, Wyeth, Unilever, IBM, Honeywell, Pepsi, Centrum, Dove, Crayola, Bauer, Ford, and Craftsman.

Growth Engine is an Innovation Agency dedicated to helping thought leaders and their companies achieve sustained revenue growth through innovation. Growth Engine provides the following; new products or services, brand positioning, marketing strategic planning, vision and strategy workshops with company leaders, innovation process development, operations, and culture change.

Bryan Mattimore’s latest book, IDEA STORMERS: HOW TO LEAD AND INSPIRE CREATIVE BREAKTHROUGHS publishes on September 19.

MO: Congratulations on your newest book. Can you talk about the inspiration behind, IDEA STORMERS: HOW TO LEAD AND INSPIRE CREATIVE BREAKTHROUGHS, and what you hope the average reader walks away with?

Bryan:  I wrote Idea Stormers for a variety of reasons. It’s been 19 years since my first book on applied creativity, 99% Inspiration, came out, and since then I have facilitated close to 1000 brainstorming sessions, so there is considerable new learning that I wanted to share. The challenge of helping organizations, large and small, create new ideas on every conceivable kind of creative challenge: new products, naming, positioning, cost cutting, advertising, promotion, HR challenges, culture change, selling, strategy, etc. has allowed – or you might say forced – me to invent dozens of workable new group creative techniques and innovation processes.

Designing and facilitating all these brainstorming sessions – as well as conducting research with consumers: focus groups, in-depth interviews, shop alongs, etc. – means that my coworkers and I have considerable expertise in matching and customizing specific creative techniques for different kinds of creative challenges. I know that these processes work, and I also know that all organizations – and individuals too – can benefit by using them. So I thought that writing this book and sharing these easy-to -learn and very practical processes from my work, including when and how to apply them, could have a much broader impact on the world than I or my company could ever have strictly from our consulting assignments.

I also feel, in a strange sort of way, that by sharing as much as I can about what I’ve learned and invented and discovered about creative thinking, group creativity and innovation processes in the last twenty years, it will create space in my brain and mind for inventing new things.

MO: First of all, can you explain the concept of ideation? Second of all, can you talk a bit about your ideation techniques which resolve the essential paradox of ideation and what that means for your clients?

Bryan: Ideation is the process of coming up with ideas. Today, the term ideation is most often used to describe group creative techniques and processes. “Ideation” has replaced the word “brainstorming” because brainstorming—invented in the 1930’s by Alex Osborne – is, strictly speaking, just one of literally hundreds of group creative techniques that have been invented in the last 75 years. If you also consider that different ideation techniques can be customized with specific stimuli for a particular creative challenge to increase its likelihood of success, you could say then there are an infinite number of ways to trigger a group to generate new ideas.

To give you a simple example, when we were helping Oral-B to come up with a new positioning and tag line for their electric toothbrushes, among the ideation techniques we used was the Headliner technique. We did key word searches of a variety of databases: clichés, movie titles, slang, book titles, advertising tag lines, etc. – and then used the results of these searches to inspire the creative team to create new ideas. Among the terms we searched in these databases: dentist, brush, clean, tooth, and smile. The expressions that came from this search helped inspire the winning positioning and tag line: Oral-B, Brush like a Dentist!

The essential paradox of the work I do is that on the one hand, you want new and different and unobvious ideas. On the other hand, you want the ideas to be strategically on-target, fit with a company’s core competencies, fulfill important consumer needs, and align with the equities of the company’s brand(s). These often competing creative and strategic goals is one of the reasons I have invented so many of what we call focused ideation techniques: Techniques that will, at the end of the day, inspire creatively new and different ideas, but at the same time work within very tight strategic constraints.

MO: What happens in one of your Innovation Learning Workshops?

Bryan: My coworkers and I spend a lot of time thinking about the design of our ideation/innovation sessions. We try to match creative challenges with the techniques we believe will have the greatest likelihood of success. We also try to use a variety of techniques that will “ping” people’s brains, and leverage their inherently different thinking styles and strengths in unique ways. So for instance, we might start an ideation session with a fantasy technique like wishing, and then move to a more analytical technique like questioning assumptions, jump to a metaphorical technique such as idea hooks, and end with a visual technique like picture prompts. We also want to choreograph the techniques so that we’re managing the energy flow in the room, recognizing that people get tired and might need more inherently-fun, and more stimuli-rich techniques as we proceed throughout the day.

MO: What advice would you give to someone who has hit a rut in their creative process? Can you share one of your easy-to-learn idea-generating techniques?

Bryan: Ruts can happen for so many reasons: trying too hard, defining a problem in a way that makes it impossible to solve, emotional and/or self-esteem challenges, knowing too much about a challenge, trying to analyze your way to creative inspiration, even too much success in a particular field (being the expert) which makes it difficult to give up the tried and true and invent something original and new.

An incredibly simple idea-generating technique that I’ve used use to help get out of a creative rut is to: 1) give myself a goal of generating a large number of ideas for a specific challenge, and 2) link that challenge to the question, “AND What?” So for instance, for a speech I once gave to Columbian flowers growers, I gave myself the goal of generating twenty new marketing and new product ideas. To reach this idea goal, I asked the question, “Flowers AND What? “Flowers” AND … fashion, sports, food, religion, vacations, celebrities, fund-raising, education, holidays, birthdays, etc. made it easy to come up with these twenty ideas. “Flowers and food” inspired the idea of having high-end restaurants offer specific flowers and flower garnishes to match specific dishes. “Flowers and sports” led to the idea of selling flowers (boutonnieres?) whose colors matched those of the home sports team. “Flowers and birthdays” helped inspire the idea of creating – and popularizing as gifts, a flower for each of the twelve birth signs.

There are two reasons why having an idea goal and combining it “AND what?” can help get you out of a creative rut. First, by having a high-number-idea goal, it paradoxically, takes the pressure off getting the “correct” or the single best answer. Said differently, psychologically, it’s sometimes easier to get a lot of ideas than just one idea. Second, by using the “AND what” question, it forces you to look outside yourself, to the outside world for inspiration. Creative ruts can come from too much self-involvement or inward focus.

In the early days of my first company, working alone, I sometimes got creatively blocked, and as a result depressed. And so, as a way to trick myself out of this creative and depressive rut, I would force myself to go to random meetings often in subjects in which I had little or no interest. I remember one of these meetings was with the local chapter of a national software engineers association. The meeting turned out to be a lot of fun. And by simply by interacting with people in a different field than my own, it got me out of my then self-involved, mentally-limiting world!

MO: Can you share how employees at every level of an organization have the potential to make creative contributions to the enterprise? What are some tips for fostering creativity in the workplace?

Bryan: One simple and easy way to help employees contribute ideas is to use an interactive, suggestion-box technique we invented called the Whiteboard Technique. Here’s how you do it. First, get a whiteboard, put it in a public place, and write a creative challenge in the center of the whiteboard, while making it known to your co-workers that you would like some help generating new ideas. Then encourage your coworkers to continually add new ideas over a pre-determined period of time: say seven to fourteen days. Put a time line at the bottom of the whiteboard, crossing off one day – each day – at a time. This will create a sense of urgency for you and your team to get all your ideas down in the allotted time. When the time is up, summarize the ideas, and report back to your team on how the whiteboard process helped you, and what ideas you might be pursuing as a result. It’s a very simple, but powerful technique. It’s a concrete way that managers can show they want new ideas from their co-workers. At the same time, it allows managers to set a strategic/creative agenda based the kinds of challenges they are putting on the whiteboard week after week.

One other thought: if you’re frustrated as a manager that your team members/direct reports infrequently come to you with new ideas, there’s an easy solution. Create a list of very specific, but also open-ended questions for which you want several creative alternatives/ideas. Three examples of specific, but open-ended questions are: 1) What are some Hispanic promotion ideas we could use to increase sales of our brand on Cinco de Mayo? 2) How could we reduce costs by being better partners with our suppliers?… or 3) What’s a new, more convenient way for a family to consume our product for when taking a road trip? Challenging coworkers with these kinds of question will release enormous creative potential within the organization.

MO: What are some ways that our readers could potentially turn their worst ideas into surprising solutions?

Bryan: The “worst idea” is a specific technique we use to help loosen a group up, but also generate practical, occasionally breakthrough ideas. This technique, like our other ideation techniques, is very simple. You start by generating not good ideas for your creative challenge, but the worst possible ideas you can think of. These ideas could be stupid, ridiculous, gross, sexually inappropriate… just really terrible ideas. Then you take these worst ideas (usually 10 to 15) and use them as creative inspiration for creating new, good ideas.

There are two strategies for turning a worst idea into a good idea into a good idea. The first strategy is obvious: do the opposite. Typically, doing the opposite may not be either: a) obvious or b) that interesting. The more interesting strategy of is usually to say, “as bad as this idea is, is there anything I can use from the bad idea to inspire a good idea.” A good example of successfully using the worst idea technique was an assignment we did for a famous information services company. One of the worst ideas was for this company to give away their proprietary information, instead of selling it as they normally do. As they thought about how they could use this worst idea to inspire a good idea, it led them to create a multi-million dollar service where they gave away not all their data, but only a small portion it, as a way to attract more clients.


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