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Approaches to Fostering Innovation in Ideation Sessions

Posted On  July 3, 2012

Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating new book, is replete with implications for the ways to help innovate in Actionability Workshops® or ideation sessions, and we are moving quickly to build some of these ideas into our trademark approaches.  All of us in marketing research use workshops to help clients take research to the next level.  But, we have long suspected – and Jonah Lehrer’s book confirms – that some seemingly minor changes can produce real improvement.  Here’s what we’ve learned, and some peeks into how we’re changing our approach.

Alpha Wave – You know those insights you get in the shower?  The ones that come when your mind is thinking about something entirely different?  We have long suspected that a degree of ‘fallow time,’ time when you are engaged in a completely different activity is meaningful when it comes to innovative new ideas.  It turns out that a degree of relaxation is necessary to generate the steady stream of alpha waves emanating from the brain’s right hemisphere that, according to University of London psychologist Joydeep Bhattacharya, are crucial to insights.  A study led by Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia suggests that “mind wandering” may be the only mental state that allows both our left and right brain to work together.   Consequently, whenever possible we are lengthening our workshop time to provide participants with just this kind of relaxation.

Struggle – Insights flow…sometimes.  Transforming insights into actionable ideas requires struggle.  It requires attention, work, and collaboration.  In the words of Milton Glaser:  “people need to be reminded that creativity is a very time consuming verb.”  And in the words of Jonah Lehrer:  “The sobering reality is that the grandest revelations often still need work.”  Sessions generally end with a wealth of ideas, most of them not fully developed, ideas that are then handed off to company stakeholders charged with taking them to the next level.  Struggle matters.   We ensure that participants have time not just to generate, but to work with ideas.  To do the hard job of vetting them, examining them from all angles, pressure testing them, building on them; creating a set of fleshed out concepts that can withstand scrutiny, because they already have.

The Right Collaborators – Milton Glaser again:  “There is no such thing as a creative person.”   In other words, what matters is not so much who participates, but the relationships between participants.  We need to harness what sociologist Brian Uzzi calls the power of Q, the level of social intimacy between participants.  What is the ideal level?  Not what you might expect.  The ideal scenario is a group of people with a mix of close and relatively distant relationships.  That’s why we work closely with our clients to ensure that the right people are in the room.  Too many close connections and the work becomes insular; too much distance and people feel uncomfortable working together.  The right mix is as important in determining success as the structure and exercises.

Criticism – Conventional wisdom has us believe that nothing kills creativity like negativity.  However, the most successful collaborations come from an environment where people feel safe and comfortable enough to critique each other’s ideas.  Why?  Criticism “encourages us to fully engage with the work of others.  We think about their concepts because we want to improve them.”  The tension caused by diverse viewpoints will combat “groupthink”, which can kill creativity because of too much agreement and similar perspectives.  We teach our workshop participants how to give, and accept, criticism in a way that doesn’t deflate egos.

Are there more ‘tweaks,’ more points to be made, more insights from the book?  Absolutely; at least 17 blog posts worth.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on Imagine, if you’ve read it, or thoughts on techniques that have worked for you in fostering creativity in ideation sessions.


  1. Thanks for sharing this – I thoroughly enjoyed how you underscored the too-often-ignored importance of these different steps/practices.

    There is no lying about it: [quality] research is expensive. It’s painful to see clients want to spend good money on qual work that doesn’t ‘squeeze all the juice from the fruit’. Leveraging these practices above can help ensure we get the absolute maximum value and insight from the research.

    Also, it is so fascinating (and useful) when qual groups just click together, ignite and take off. Seems these ideas can help provide that catalytic spark.

    I’ve yet to read this book but feel it needs to quickly climb the ranks of the reading list.

    1. I enjoyed this article also.

      It definitely makes sense to me that if there is group session with a close group of friends, there tends to be too much time wasted having fun and not getting much accomplished. If there is a group session with people that are intimdating and the chemistry is not there, group members will not be as willing to open up and give valuable feedback.

      I can definitely understand how, like you said, “The ideal scenario is a group of people with a mix of close and relatively distant relationships”.

      It seems like a challenge to find the right mix, but I am sure that finding the ideal mix leads to amazing results in virtually any group setting.


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