Ideation in Startups: Your Daily Must Do
Recently I experienced two instances of latter stage companies squelching ideation in favor of “focusing” on current products and business opportunities. There was even a reference to “What would the VCs think?” in one discussion in a meeting just after the ideation was scotched.
Interestingly and ironically, Google lists two of the principal uses of the word “ideation” as “paranoid Ideation” and “suicidal Ideation”. Really, Google? You’ve got to do better than this. Dictionary.com offers a better (but terse) definition. “Ideate – verb. To form ideas; think.”
To me, ideation shouldn’t be considered first and foremost as a word associated with specific (and negative) mental or psychological processes. Forming ideas and thinking should be encouraged at all stages of people’s personal lives. As for your startup, ideation should be ingrained as one of the most important parts of its corporate culture, a highly valued activity that needs to be always encouraged and protected. It should also be encouraged as a daily practice.
There are a variety of techniques, work practices and technologies that can help you ideate on a wide variety of subjects while you’re at the office, working remotely, or simply relaxing at home). Following are some of these methods and approaches.
Whiteboarding – This is a good, simple and time-tested way to lay out a plan and capture hard-to-articulate details related to technologies. It’s probably the most common ideation technique used in offices, with results usually documented by mobile phone pictures.
Brainstorming – The “No ideas are bad ideas” fluidity of this approach often surfaces good solutions to vexing business problems. Sit on a carpet, fold up your legs, and think of yourself floating on a cloud, and the ideas will start flowing. This technique is used frequently in business, but sometimes the good ideas can slip through your fingers. Avoid this by thoroughly documenting results after the great thoughts are produced.
Flowcharts – This is a standard and technique for combining known variables and unknowns. It’s an ideal tool for rendering IT infrastructure ‘schematics’, and for detailing time and resource planning projects.
Mind mapping – This is useful for capturing information and representing it in hierarchies so the relationships within can be understood and optimized.
Sketch drawing – This is a good tool for product design, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Some of the best designs and business ideas were first sketched out on a blank piece of notebook paper, the back of an envelope or the proverbial cocktail napkin. Of course, there are apps for this, too.
Reexamination of assumptions– This is involves taking an additional pass at your assumptions, appearing for example in your 2nd or 3rd year P&Ls, or 2nd or 3rd tries at your first one. Best to use spreadsheets for these efforts.
Storyboarding – This can be a terrific help for writing speeches, creating videos, and producing product launch-related content. For most of us, however, our graphics design skills are limited. That’s why it’s recommended that for these types of deliverables, you should work with an artist or graphic designer
Analogy generation – This is an interesting and often effective way to approach handling difficult concepts or complicated subject matter. This works best when you involve clever, literate, and culturally attuned people.
Humor – Making people laugh or just putting smiles on their faces is a uniquely human way to break up dug-in lines of thinking and calcified attitudes. Like at comedy clubs, alcohol can help lubricate this effort. Surround yourself with funny, quick-witted people. Don’t invite Chris Rock and Will Smith.
Scenario planning – By combining known facts, key drivers and trends, one can add new ideas to short-, medium- and long-term plans. Scenario planning is supplemented by simulations.
Role playing, improv and persona adoption – Being made to step out of one’s self and role temporarily can spur great progress in areas such as product and UX design. It also can be very effective in addressing personnel issues. A minimum of two people are required, but with more people it’s usually a more productive exercise.
Worst-bad ideation – List out your worst ideas and the reasons why they’re on that list. Then, invert the exercise and put forward your best ideas based on what you want to avoid in the worst ideas. The recommendation here is to use a moderator.
This is just a sample; there are many more techniques and technologies that you can use to do daily or regular ideation.
Resistance to ideation increases as startups mature. This is partially because as startups mature, they hire professionals – many of whom have corporate backgrounds. Those types of people tend to want to avoid upsetting the apple cart. This manifests as attempts to stifle or outright derail new ideas that may change the main business.
In addition, ideation can wane in startups that are growing into emerging companies. This is due to the focus on execution – putting in processes and systems that support ‘rinse and repeat’ cycles. This, in turn, restrains expansive ideation; new ideas are only allowed sunlight if they support and preserve status quoprocesses and systems.
Many great breakthroughs in business and technology were generated by ideation. It’s worth a daily investment of time and energy. Always take time to form new ideas...and to think.