Idea generation applies mostly to the development of new products or services, but can be used to identify alternative solutions to many types of problems. In the area of development, a company seeks to instill creativity into the management process, and into the people who manage the process.
Creativity is the ability to see things in a new way and from that insight generate something new. It is the ability to make a connection between two very dissimilar ideas through sensitivity to ordinarily inane objects, events or facts.
Idea screening follows the generation process, and is a sorting process to filter the more productive ideas and guide resources that must be allocated in the technical development phases. Screening is meant to insure that resource allocation is consistent with the business mission and strategy.
There are two sources of new ideas for a firm, internal and external. Within the company, ideas can be found in any of the functional areas through employee suggestions, but the most common are marketing, research and development (R&D), and production.
Product managers, sales personnel, applications engineers, installers, service workers, and warranty claims are the most common areas within marketing. Product designers, materials engineers, and process engineers are the areas within R&D.
Industrial engineers, quality control and packaging are areas within production that are fertile grounds for new ideas. External to the firm, customers, distributors, dealers, and consultants often perceive solutions that are creative because they are not involved with the daily routines within the company that often stifle creativity.
New technical solutions to problems can be found in patent attorney’s files, from licensors, independent investors, competitors, materials suppliers, research labs, universities, and technical consultants.
Some companies even sponsor movies and cartoons on company time, and pay the way for employees to visit art galleries, watch plays, and window shop; all in a search for creative new ideas.
There is ample evidence suggesting that the innovator, the first one to market with an idea, is the one that reaps the most awards. By being first to market an innovation, other companies must play catch up.
It is possible to gain the largest market share, get the best ROI, and carve a sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace.
While many ideas are the result of the purposeful development, others come spontaneously.
Several methods of generating new ideas are common.
- First is “brainstorming,” which is simply getting a group of people to focus on a problem and generate solutions to that problem. Brainstorming sessions should be freewheeling, non-critical, and primarily interested in the quantity of ideas rather than the quality.
- Second is focus groups, which take 8 to 12 users or potential users of a product and ask them about potential solutions. The idea is that users are often the best equipped to provide solutions that are outside the culture constraints of the producer company, and listening to users is the core of the marketing concept.
- Third is synectics, which takes a group of people with widely varied backgrounds and asks them to generate ideas. By utilizing different backgrounds, the transfer of ideas from one area to another often produces unique solutions.
- Fourth is word association, which asks potential users what they associate with words that commonly describe a product or service. This method is commonly used with consumer products to name products and test potential advertisements.
- Fifth is attribute listing, which takes attributes of a current product and puts them together in various combinations to arrive at new solutions. Ways to modify each attribute, and then combinations of attributes, can lead to improvements in a product or service.
- Sixth is forced relationships, which ask potential users to determine bundles of attributes or groups of products to invent new products that combine the most important attributes and form a unique solution. For example, an office equipment manufacturer might use all the objects commonly found in an office environment and consider combinations of those objects to invent new concepts.
- Seventh is morphological analysis, which singles out the most important dimensions of a problem, and then examines all the relationships among those dimensions. Dimensions are usually defined by asking end-users which attributes are most important to them.
- And finally are analogies, taking similar circumstances and extrapolating the reasoning to form solutions to a particular problem. As is usually true with analogies, the lesson is seldom obvious until the situation is abstracted.
Evaluation of new product ideas should be done with an idea screening process. Initially no idea should be rejected because it appears implausible. There may be considerable opportunity behind an obviously absurd solution.
It should be part of the idea screening process to determine the feasibility and risk associated with each new idea. Production and marketing that are convergent with current methods present the least risk, while divergence in production and marketing presents a greater risk because the company knows less about new products and markets than the products and markets in which they are already involved.
A typical example is an industrial products company that envisions an opportunity with consumer products. The two areas generally require very different expertise, and companies often find themselves woefully lacking in knowledge and success in the area that is traditionally divergent to their company.
Screening should insure a proactive position in a changing environment, a sustainable competitive advantage, a match between capabilities of the firm and its resources, assumptions which are explicit, and a sufficient focus on market needs.
Innovations resulting from ideas must be subjected to a rigorous screen as the ideas progress from early development to eventual market introduction. Generating ideas is the lifeblood of the firm because it leads to innovation and growth.
Screening ideas insures a market focus and success in introducing new products and services. Idea screening is more qualitative than quantitative, and should not be an inhibiting factor in the idea generation process. Idea generation and screening are part of the overall new product development control process.
Applications to Small Business
Several areas are worth considering for the small business.
- First, businesses should allow sufficient time to define a problem or opportunity, rather than say “Let’s get on with it.” A little more time can avoid treating a symptom as a problem, and facilitate understanding the assumptions that are being made.
- Second is to promote the talent of thinking by setting objectives, defining problems explic¬itly, and devising alternative solutions.
- Third is to enhance evaluative thinking ability, and broaden perspective. Short courses, seminars, workshops, and travel are common methods for obtaining new ideas and perspectives.
- Fourth is to watch for unanticipated solutions and ideas. These usually become apparent after talking with employees and colleagues, and are often a function of being aware of subtle changes in the environment in which the business operates.
- Fifth is the use of constructive criticism. Such criticism might produce controversy, but at the same time increase morale and productivity.
- Sixth is a people orientation that reduces inhibitions and enhances confidence. The rule is to guide rather than tell.
- The seventh and final method is to be involved with monitor groups. These are usually found in trade associations or similar industry organizations. Involvement with such groups enhances the ability to envision new solutions and methods.
Synonyms: screening, idea screening, concept screening