• Desirée García-Torres

Innovation Toolbox: 6 Actions to Drive Effective Online Ideation

"Failing to plan is planning to fail"

Benjamin Franklin

In this time of uncertainty and change, innovation may be more important than ever as organizations look for ways to rebound — or continue momentum — as they move forward after major disruption. But many innovation activities previously done in-person have been paused, potentially slowing growth, and impacting future competitiveness.

With online becoming more ubiquitous (thanks to technological advances as well as COVID-19 necessitating that people work from home), innovation offerings need to be more flexible and accessible via online methods. In response, GrowthWorks has expanded its offerings to include a full suite of online innovation approaches and techniques. Most recently, we transitioned a scheduled in-person ideation to online, allowing our client to continue with critical work. Significant time and preparation was needed to plan and manage the logistics of this transition, with meticulous consideration given to each step in the ideation process.

Based on this work and the positive outcomes we are seeing, we have identified six factors that are essential and should be considered when developing a plan for successful online ideation:

1. Align on realistic objectives for the project and the team

To set the session up for success, you should be very clear on what the expectations are for ideation. Depending on project scope, do not expect to come out of the session with fully hashed out ideas. It may be all about quantity and not quality. The intention is to generate a large number of ideas that the team can then filter based on practicality, degree of innovation, operational capabilities, and / or internal business direction. And remember to be human! Particularly in current times, in which a lot of people are working from home while managing childcare and other responsibilities, don’t expect people to be too formal…keep things light. Expect glitches, lost connections, and other technological hiccups. However, laugh about it, flow with it, and seek to mitigate whatever happens without derailing the overall goals of the session.

2. Inspire with thought-provoking stimulus and creative ideation techniques

As part of the product design process, we start by tapping into consumers’ needs and expectations and use that learning as inspiration to ideate. If possible, inviting consumers and experts to participate in a panel during ideation is a great way to hear first-hand what people need and all the thought-provoking ways in which experts believe expectations might be addressed moving forward. It lets you know exactly what consumers like about products and some of the challenges and things they wish could be improved. Additionally, experiences that used to be impossible in an online format are now achievable through interactive tools like screen sharing and virtual reality. In addition, activities like sharing video tours and video shopping can help bring the experience to life and push thinking out. We advise taking some time to debrief after each activity – sharing out any initial ideas and exploring them further through ideation techniques, such as Brainstorming, SCAMPER, Mindmapping, Storyboarding, etc.

3. Create clear agenda(s)

Not having an agenda that highlights the goals and steps for each activity can set the project up to fail from the start. Agendas help to establish the schedule, inform the type of activities that will be taking place, and define the expected outputs for each activity. We suggest having two agendas: one for ideation participants and another for the internal team running the logistics of the session. Keeping a very detailed internal team agenda that establishes specific owners for each activity will help avoid confusion, especially if people on the team are working remotely. Even if you are working alone, maintaining an agenda for yourself will help keep things on track as you move the session along. The agenda you share with participants should also include online platform-specific details, for example, when participants should mute themselves, what to do/who to reach out to if there are any technical issues, how to share information that comes up on the fly, how to vote on ideas, etc.

4. Choose the online platform that best fits your needs and goals

With online ideation, there may be some added challenges and fewer opportunities to improvise due to technological considerations. However, the types of ideation activities and stimulus planned for the session will help inform which online platform best serves your needs. Considerations such as capturing notes in-real time (whiteboarding), the ability to integrate other applications with the online platform, conducting interactive exercises (e.g. managing sticky notes, rating and evaluating ideas, etc.), or having visual capability to support creative design work are a few of the things to think about when choosing an online ideation platform. There are a number of excellent online tools you can use for your session, ranging from simple (noninteractive) platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangout, and GoToMeeting, to more interactive tools such as Miro, SessionLab and Stormboard. Your choice should be influenced not only by your needs but also by the overall goals for the session.

5. Be thoughtful about the number of session participants

At the end of your session, the goal is to have a significant number of clear ideas that the organization can take to the next level of consideration. Therefore, productivity is key. To ensure you meet your goal, we recommend balancing the desire to include a wide range of participants with the logistical realities of managing an online session. The number of participants will also factor into the amount of time you will need to run an effective meeting. Maximizing time so that everybody can voice their questions, opinions, and ideas while still efficiently reaching a consensus on what to move forward is critical, but often difficult with too many participants. Rushing people into making decisions is also an issue that can lead to missing some great opportunities or moving forward without considering some of the risks. Sessions with 10-12 participants are manageable, but more than that can add confusion and complexity, potentially requiring separate sessions that act as virtual “breakouts” to ensure that everyone participates and is heard.

6. Send physical materials and stimulus to participants prior to ideation

Technological advances have made conducting online meetings/sessions possible even when being together in the same room is not. However, as human beings, the psychological factor of interacting in 3D, rather than with a 2D screen, makes for more personal experiences that help with sparking ideas and taking in all the information presented. Therefore, we recommend shipping working materials to participants (well) in advance of the session, such as writing pamphlets, worksheets, and most importantly, inspirational products to touch, taste, smell, hear, and see personally. Items should be marked to open up at specified junctures of the process. Given that with online ideation the human-to-human and human-to-product interactions are missing, the shipment of these working materials will help infuse excitement with surprises and real-time activities, and give participants something tangible with which to connect.

Creating products and services that meet consumers' evolving needs is a goal of many consumer-facing organizations. However, uncovering those needs is just the beginning; a process that successfully translates those desires and expectations into innovation that resonates is also critical. A strong ideation process, whether in-person or online, is a key step in helping to do just that.

At a time when in-person activities may be curtailed, and even when they are not, online ideation provides advantages as a way to move projects forward quickly and effectively. Following the careful planning steps and other considerations outlined here can help ensure an inspiring and successful virtual ideation experience and support an organization's overall innovation and growth efforts.