Ideation sessions – the importance of an outside in view

Ideation sessions – the importance of an outside in view

This week I participated in an ideation session which was set up to look at identifying new service extensions for a Utility company. The session was a half day, well run and great fun. It was facilitated professionally by an outsider which gained credence for the process too.

But it was a bit pointless.

There were good things about the session that included some smart insight on the issues facing the service and a focus the internal organisational barriers to new thinking. The session was positive and included some involving game-play and the psychology of how & why cross functional teams can come up with new ideas in different mind states. Finally, as in most brainstorms, there were some familiar ground rules – no negativity, no such thing as a bad idea, encouraging everyone to participate etc. What worked, and always does, is that the teams got out of their natural environment and roles – moved away from their screens and were allowed to create, to play, to contribute. They were equal contributors and (probably) able to not worry about what the boss may say/not say. Never undervalue this part of such sessions.

The objective was relatively clear, the sessions upbeat and a lot of coloured Post-It’s captured ideas that were collated and used to get a most-liked-ranking at the end by the whole group.

I suspect that the 3 most liked ideas will move forward and then stall. There are two reasons for this – firstly there was only scant interrogation/understanding of the customers – and very little on what was changing for them. The focus was more on existing customer service and how the organisation delivers against that. This is a relatively static and narrow view of the business looking outside at customers from inside via their existing delivery mechanism.

Customers are changing and are more demanding for better, more rounded, more rewarding experiences. What was interesting was that the ideation session was organised by marketing and the customer services department reported into Sales. There was only a little dialogue between customer services and the marketing team – and almost no real dialogue between marketing and the real customer.

Which means the innovation was being developed in a vacuum. The best thing that came out of the session was a clear understanding that all the internal people that touch the customer journey need to communicate better (& much more frequently) and that the customer view of a service offering was perceived differently than they expected and that a regular dialogue with the customer from a future facing perspective would be essential. I wasn’t sure that the urgency they expressed in improving this dialogue would be shared by the bosses who ran each silo – especially as the stated outcomes were weak and this by-product “aha” about dialogue would have a loud Homeric (Simpson) response of “D’oh! – You mean you don’t already! ”

The second reason why these outcomes were a “Fail!” came from too much dependence on “brainstorming” naivety – where all ideas are good. Actually, in the real world, all ideas are just ideas. Most new things fail. There needs to be an element of challenge, of debate and of being able to overcome a sceptical view. I think this should involve the same teams who participate in the creating phase – so that they learn to defend the idea, to test the rationale, to stretch the ideas, to learn to favour and hone someone else’s idea. This evaluation and debate stage is often done later in a process by different teams. The customer often gets to see the prototype ideas even later.

A few of the people found it really hard to think like a customer who was so different from themselves – so they would be adding ideas they thought they personally would like. A deeper understanding & representation of the customer was needed plus to see that they view the service from a broader, less static view that the business does. this different perspective becomes vital in ideation sessions. Real time dialogue, with real customers, always help ideas breathe in a real context.

Ideation sessions have great value if it involves an outside in approach to a business’s offer and the filtering down of ideas happens as part of the same session with input from customers.