Adventures in innovation: Another great idea session!

Published by Lucy Gower on

We established in my previous post that to run a very good idea session you need to put in some time and thought to planning. We covered the importance of the physical environment, how a focus will help you get better results and the need to inspire as well as get the right mix of people in the room. This blog gives some tips on how to structure the session to get the most from your participants. Some things to consider;

Have fun – Most people come to meetings their mind filled with the pressures of daily work, the stress of overflowing emails and numerous deadlines. You will get better results if you help people relax. Start with an ice breaker or an exercise to change the energy in the room. You don’t have to make people do crazy stuff, but something to set the tone, even simply playing music will help. The internet is packed with ideas to try out, Google ‘energizers and ice breakers’ for ideas. Humor and a sense of play are important catalysts for innovative thinking. Creating a playful atmosphere will help your creativity. It’s a legitimate part of the idea generating process – so embrace it.

Set some rules – It is crucial that you set some rules and that everyone in the session agrees to them. My suggested list is:

1. Be present; we know that people are distracted by being constantly connected to their phones, ask people to commit to being 100% present and focused.

2. Listen to each other’s ideas and build on them; that’s why you invite different people with different perspectives, great ideas are often combinations of several ideas.

3. Respect each other’s opinions; sounds obvious but its really easy to be flippant about a new idea that you don’t think will work. It’s important that people feel safe to speak freely.

4. No hierarchy; everyone is equal, regardless of rank or how long they have been with the organisation. Having a good facilitator and setting the tone at the beginning of the session helps ensure that all ideas are considered with equal respect.

5. No idea killers; for example, ‘We’ve done it before, it didn’t work’; ‘we don’t have a budget’; we won’t get it signed off’. In the idea session none of these destroyers of creativity are allowed. In fact have a forfeit for anyone who does kill an idea. It’s human nature to try and help by pointing out where things haven’t worked in the past, but the world moves fast – what didn’t work before might work now, or it might work if delivered differently. More importantly killing an idea, however helpfully, stops people taking part; we all fear criticism and once someone has killed your idea you become less likely to put your neck on the line again.

Use techniques to help generate ideas – Plan and structure your session with your independent facilitator. If you genuinely want fresh ideas you have to help people approach the challenge from a new perspective. There are many tools and techniques to help generate ideas. Again Google ‘creative thinking techniques’ for a wealth of information or see top 10 techniques for fresh thinking on sofii.org. Use at least two different techniques per session, this way you will have more chance to appeal to more people’s creative preferences. Fight the temptation to stop at your first good idea. Often the first good idea is OK – but who wants to settle for OK? Keep generating more ideas after your OK idea – you will be surprised at what you get.

A creative session is always in two parts

Part 1 – diverge

This is about getting lots and lots of ideas, nothing should be filtered here, anything goes. I’m not saying any idea is a good idea, but this part of the session is about describing all the ideas, no matter how crazy they sound, somewhere there may be a gem of brilliance. A while ago, conventional wisdom thought the idea to wear a rubber band on your wrist that you bought for a $1 was a rubbish idea. NIKE produced over 5,000, initially for Livestrong; ultimately over 70 million wristbands in different colours were produced for a range of charities and raised a huge amount of money. Thank goodness that idea didn’t get killed in its initial stages.

Part 2 – converge

This is where we select the ideas that have some potential; the ones that best fulfil the brief and can be developed and piloted. How you choose the best ideas will depend on your initial focus. You might prioritise the idea that will have the most impact, or is easiest to deliver, or the most simple. Choose several of the strongest ideas and allocate actions for named individuals to develop them further after the idea session.

Look after your participants – We’ve all been there, got all fired up at an ideas session and then not heard about it again. You wonder whatever happened to all the energy in the room. Did the ideas ever come to anything? Treat the people who give up their time to attend your ideas session as your closest allies, give them a great experience and look after them well. Thank them for showing up with their ideas, give them an opportunity to keep in contact after the session. Some people mull things over and have their ‘aha’ moment after the event, so ensure they know that they can still have input after the session. If an idea from the session gets implemented, let everyone know. If nothing happens, let them know that too.

Be brave – Not every idea session will work as you expected. Approach it as a learning experience. I know an organization that makes anyone who kills an idea to wear a joke shop arrow through the head. I tried this concept with a pirate hat. It didn’t work because everyone deliberately killed ideas because they really wanted to wear the hat….. In order to get people thinking differently you will take some risks. Debrief after each session, record what worked and what didn’t. Consider how you would do it differently next time. Build a bank of experience that you can refer to when developing future idea sessions.

Manage your expectations – Your creative session cannot be the answer to all your problems. But it will provide a great start to getting to grips with many of them. There is no guarantee that you are going to come up with the perfect solution, even if you follow all the advice in part one and this blog. But if you don’t try you definitely won’t come up with anything new. And that my friends, is part of what makes the subject of innovation such an exciting adventure.


This is the fifth part of a series on innovation. You can read the other four parts here:
Adventures in innovation – The Prequel
Adventures in innovation – The power of four
Adventures in innovation – The challenge of time
Adventures in innovation – Your great idea session!

Categories: strategy

Lucy Gower

Lucy has been a fundraiser for over 10 years and is passionate about innovation and how it can transform organisational and individual performance. Lucy is an independent trainer and consultant specializing in innovation in fundraising. Lucy also blogs for fundraising website sofii.org and is a conference speaker both in the UK and overseas.


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