"Real" Breakthrough Ideation

20 Jul 2008|Steve Diller

In the last decade or so, it seems like marketing departments have come to see “ideating” as a core test of their coolness and creativity. Since few of us in business maintain parallel careers as artists, this expectation creates anxiety about corporate managers’ capacity to be creative on demand. The success or failure of an ideation session often seems focused on whether people’s inner creatives were liberated, that the session had been fun and cool, and that the experience produced novel, far-out ideas. While I enjoy creative thinking exercises as much anyone, I think these expectations are way out of whack. The thing is, when it comes to success in the marketplace, creativity isn’t what matters. Relevance is what matters.

That might seem self-evident. But if you look at the promotional efforts of many firms offering ideation services, they seem to think that the most important task is to stoke participants’ creativity so they generate “breakthroughs” that will disrupt and transform their industries. But why do so many people assume that creative exercises produce superior offerings?

In my experience at Cheskin, the most useful ideation sessions are those that take a fresh look at existing assumptions, broaden them based on an understanding of emerging needs, and then simply ask- now that we know more about our customers’ needs, what can we do for them? This can involve just a slight “tweak” to an idea that’s been bouncing around the client’s office for the last ten years. It may be a subtle repositioning of an existing product that should be doing better based on what we know about consumer need. It may be an extension of an existing product into some new type of touchpoint. But it certainly doesn’t have to be something the world’s never seen before. It just has to be right.

This type of imagination can often lead to success, because it’s doable in the real, resource-constrained world of the workplace. As a matter of fact, it’s much more likely to succeed, since people inside the client company can look at it and say, “oh, OK! I can see half a dozen ways we can do this,” instead of “what were you guys smoking when you came up with this? Yeah, it’s cool, but the tech for this will take 20 years to invent!”

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