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The Seven Rules That Lead to Great Ideas

Notables such as Aristotle ("Well begun is half done") and educator/philosopher John Dewy ("A problem well-defined is half solved") have echoed Nobel Prize–winner Herbert Simon's notion that a well-defined problem is a solved problem. The closer a problem frame approaches a desired goal, the more likely it is to become a solution or, at least, it has the potential to be turned into one. This article will discuss framing innovation challenges for the most productive and effective idea generation.

Criteria for Evaluating Innovation Challenges
Evaluation criteria typically can be classified as general or specific. General criteria apply to most decisions and typically involve resources such as time, people, materials, and money. Specific criteria pertain directly to the nature of the alternatives available. Based on research and experience, I believe that the seven most important criteria required for evaluating and selecting innovation challenges are:

1. Begins with the phrase, "How might we . . ."
2. Singularity of objectives
3. Absence of evaluative criteria
4. Absence of solutions
5. Appropriate level of abstraction
6. Appropriate use of positioning elements
7. Clear and unambiguous

1. Begins with the phrase, "How might we . . ."
Posing challenges as open-ended questions ensures they can be used to generate specific ideas for specific challenges. Otherwise, the challenge might be better focused in another direction. For instance, the challenge “What will be the most important business performance indicators over the next fifty years?” calls for conjecture about trends and predictions. A better statement might be “How might we increase awareness about our new line of floor-care products?” This statement is divergent and more likely to elicit a variety of possible responses.

2. Singularity of objectives
This means that there should be a focus on only one objective in each challenge. It is difficult enough to generate ideas for one challenge, let alone two or more at the same time.

Consider this example from a major produce distributor: “How might we differentiate ourselves from our competition and radically increase consumption of our produce?” There obviously are two objectives: differentiation and increase consumption. They both can be used, but not at the same time. Better wording would be: “How might we differentiate ourselves from our competition?” and “How might we increase consumption of our produce?”

A decision then is needed as to which of these, if either, should be subordinate, or secondary, to the other. For instance, in this case, it might be assumed that if the company can differentiate itself effectively, then consumption will increase correspondingly. Therefore, the framers might decide to focus first on differentiation. If this challenge is resolved satisfactorily, it might not even be necessary to work on the primary challenge because it may take care of itself.

3. Absence of evaluative criteria
Juggling criteria at the same time you are attempting to generate ideas can create information overload and result in lower-quality ideas that are unlikely to satisfy the criteria. Thus, a focus on judgment during creative activity can restrict the potential of any challenge or the creativity of any idea. A focus on judgment also creates a negative thinking climate—within an individual or a group—that can detract from both the quantity and quality of creative output. So, the issue is not whether to use criteria but when. Whenever possible, use criteria later, after you have generated all possible challenges.

4. Absence of solutions
There can be a fine line between challenges and solutions. One reason is that challenge objectives and criteria are often both included within a single challenge. Here is an example from a restaurant chain: “How might we increase the number of diners in our restaurants by creating a more healthy menu?” It appears that the primary objective is to increase the number of diners. Thus, creating a healthier menu is one potential solution for achieving that objective. Or, the challenge might be framed as, “How might we make our menu healthier?” The solution becomes a challenge based on the assumption that a healthier menu will increase the number of customers.

5. Appropriate level of abstraction
This can be a difficult criterion to apply. In general, the broader the level of challenge abstraction, the better the challenge. Broad challenges encompass a greater number and diversity of potential challenges. Overly specific challenges can be limiting in scope and not contribute much from a strategic point of view. For instance, a company might become so focused on increasing the sales of one product model that it neglects its overall strategic marketing campaign, with a resulting negative impact on profit margins.

What is appropriate depends on values, priorities, and the efficiency with which different objectives can be achieved. To help make such decisions, challenge maps can be created consisting of visual diagrams of how different challenges might be related. These maps can illustrate more vividly the hierarchical relationships that are perceived to exist among various challenges.

6. Appropriate use of positioning elements
Positioning elements help frame the scope of the primary challenge. Although they typically are used to help select ideas after ideation, they should not be emphasized as the primary focus. For this reason, they should not be overly specific, nor should they be included as part of the challenge statement.

Instead, positioning criteria should be more general. For example, an executive recruitment firm using the challenge: “How might we brand ourselves as the leader in online job placements?” might position this question by noting that ideas should reflect the use of advances in digital technology.

Using positioning criteria effectively can be tricky. Under pressure to complete an assignment exactly as they think their superiors have requested, management is often overanxious to clarify exact objectives. As a result, they sometimes include too much information, either as part of a challenge or as auxiliary information. If this information is not stated clearly and distinctly from the primary objective, it may serve only to confuse rather than to clarify management's intentions.

Positioning criteria should be used sparingly and not positioned as separate challenges. Instead, they can be used later on as criteria for evaluating the final ideas. So, one way or another, they can be involved in a challenge. (This is especially important in political situations in which different parties may be competing for scarce resources.)

7. Clear and unambiguous
To test this criterion, review the challenge to be sure that all of the previous criteria have been considered and that there is a clean, simple, and straightforward challenge capable of generating ideas. Most important, before beginning any idea generation session, ask all participants if they understand the challenge. However, even if no one says anything and the challenge is not clear, this fact usually becomes obvious once ideation starts. You may have been in idea generation sessions where, after brainstorming for a while, someone says, “Now exactly what is our problem?”—that is the major sign that additional framing is required.

A challenge is well framed if it satisfies all the preceding criteria, because they all represent the general criteria needed to qualify a challenge as appropriate and useful for productive idea generation. As a rule of thumb, if one to three criteria are not satisfied, then the challenge in question may be considered as semi well framed; if more than three criteria are not satisfied, then it could be characterized as ill framed. Any challenges not satisfying at least three criteria should be reevaluated. However, remember that this is just a rough rule of thumb. The ability to satisfy the best criteria for a given situation always has priority over the number of criteria satisfied.

Therefore, use caution in basing any challenge selection decisions on these guidelines. The specific criteria not satisfied also should have an impact on this decision. Perhaps the most pivotal criteria in this respect would be the inclusion of evaluative criteria and the level of challenge abstraction. Evaluative criteria within a challenge can bog down an idea generation session by considering the merits of individual ideas before all possible ones have surfaced. The level of abstraction, however, is probably more important because it can determine the order in which challenges should be used to achieve strategic objectives. A too narrow or too broad challenge can be just as detrimental, if not more so, than trying to implement a bad idea.