The Structure of Idea Generation Techniques: Three Rules for Generating Goal-Oriented Ideas

The Structure of Idea Generation Techniques: Three Rules for Generating Goal-Oriented Ideas

Stefan Werner Knoll, Graham Horton
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-519-3.ch009
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Idea generation techniques play an important role in the innovation process. Until recently, the space of techniques has been unstructured, and no clear guidelines have been available for the selection of an appropriate technique for a given innovation goal. This chapter uses an engineering approach to study and develop idea generation techniques with the aim of obtaining more structured and rigorous guidelines for generating ideas. One element of this approach was to identify and understand the fundamental mental principles underlying an idea generation technique. In this chapter, three such principles suffice to cover a large range of published idea generation techniques and can be used to improve the utility of idea generation within the innovation process.
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Suppose you are the innovation manager of a company that produces and sells a high-quality product. Business is good, but changing circumstances are influencing your competitive position. For example, competitors are introducing new or improved products or your patent protection will soon expire. In order to maintain a competitive position in the market, your company introduces an innovation process. This multi-stage process combines a variety of techniques and methods to analyse the market situation, define strategic goals, and generate and implement ideas, yielding new products and market strategies.

As innovation manager, you know that the biggest weakness in the innovation process is the so-called Fuzzy Front End (Herstatt, Verworn, & Nagahira 2004), which ranges from the generation of an idea to either its approval for development or its termination. Furthermore, different strategic goals of the company, such as maintaining market share, entering new markets, or achieving a particular growth rate require different types of innovations. These may include incremental and platform product innovations, process innovations or business model innovations. These in turn require different types of ideas. Therefore, the Fuzzy Front End needs to generate a variety of ideas, in order to increase the probability of obtaining ones that are suitable for the given innovation goal. One approach to achieve such a pool of ideas is to conduct an idea generation workshop which uses a variety of common idea generation techniques such as Brainstorming (Osborn, 1963), Analogies (VanGundy, 1988, pp. 82-84) and Bionic Ideas (VanGundy, 2005 pp. 229-231). But how do you know that the chosen combination of idea generation techniques will yield ideas that are appropriate for your innovation goal? This question has remained largely unanswered.

Since Alex Osborn (1963) introduced Brainstorming as a method to improve the creativity of groups, more than one hundred idea generation techniques have been published (Higgins, 1994; VanGundy, 1988, 2005). Each of them provides a step-by-step sequence of actions or instructions to support a group or an individual in an ideation process. Several studies have characterized and classified these techniques along several dimensions (Herring, Jones, & Bailey, 2009; Smith, 1998; VanGundy, 1988). For example, VanGundy (1988) subdivided idea generation techniques into group and individual techniques and used the dimensions: whether idea generation is “verbal” or “silent”; whether ideas are produced by “forced relationships” or “free association”; and whether the technique employs stimuli that are “related” or “unrelated” to the problem. However, most idea generation techniques are generic, i.e. they are presented in a non-problem-specific form. From the literature, we found no clear guidelines for the selection of a given technique with regard to the innovation goal. As a result, the innovation manager has to rely on experience for the selection of an appropriate technique.

This need for experience is increased by technological enhancements like Group Support Systems (GSS), which have changed the innovation process by enabling group work with virtual teams across geographical distances. GSS represent an information technology-based group meeting environment, which offers a variety of tools to assist the group in the structuring of activities, generating ideas, and improving group communication (Nunamaker Jr., Dennis, Valacich, Vogel, & George, 1991; Vreede, Vogel, Kolfschoten, & Wien, 2003). Examples for GSS include: ThinkTankTM (“ThinkTank” 2010), Google WaveTM (“Google Wave” 2010) and StreamWorkTM (“Stream Work” 2010).

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