#75 from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 1          January 1994

New Product Ideas by Design, Not Chance
by Arthur B. VanGundy, Ph.D.

Dr. VanGundy is professor of Communication at the University of Oklahoma and president of VanGundy & Associates.  He specializes in generating new product ideas, and has written seven books, including Techniques of Structured Problem Solving, 2nd Ed. (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1988) and Idea Power:  Techniques and Resources to Unleash the Creativity in Your Organization (AMACOM, New York, 1992).

Over the years, I’ve helped many companies generate new product ideas.  Every time I start a new job, I wonder how I can help keep the ideas flowing—but somehow, things work out.  It’s just a matter of knowing how to structure the process and tap the creative potential of the group members.

Companies create departments to research, develop and, yes, even discover ideas (companies like S. C. Johnson Wax have "Research, Development & Discovery" departments).  Most new product ideas come from individual scientists, group brainstorming sessions, customers, suppliers, competitors, and so forth.  Companies pour millions of dollars into projects which follow accepted principles and procedures.  Some of these projects are profitable successes, but too many are expensive flops.

Muddling Along

Human factors explain many of these failures.  Most scientists, trained to be technically competent rather than creative thinkers, muddle along, doing their best.  If a company is lucky, some of their scientists possess "natural" creativity and occasionally come up with a breakthrough.  Meanwhile, someone in R&D or even another department starts asking "What ifs...?" about a strange chemical byproduct, discovers Silly Putty, and creates a new-product home run.

All of this is fine if you want to leave creativity to chance.  You can always hope that you have hired truly creative people or that accidents will favor you.  But chance is expensive in today's fast-changing, competitive environment.  If you want to be successful, you must be able to generate thousands of new product ideas every year and hopefully find a few that pass the market test.  Note I said "thousands" of ideas.  If you can do this, you become more immune to the whims of fate and increase your odds of finding the home runs.

Is generating thousands of ideas difficult?  Yes, but not as difficult as you might think.  In a small experiment we conducted recently, we assembled 30 groups of four people each.  Our primary goal was to test which procedure would produce the most ideas.  We assigned the 30 groups to five brainstorming methods.  The first set of groups used traditional brainstorming while the others used some of the variations described below.  We gave each group 45 minutes to generate new snack-food product ideas for a large food-products company which was cooperating with us.

After eliminating duplicate ideas generated by each method, we found that the groups generated a total of 1,486 ideas!  That's an average of about 50 ideas per group for 45 minutes—slightly more than one idea per minute.

Of course, if we use four groups, each group producing an average of  67 ideas per hour for a period of four hours, we get 1,072 ideas.  Not bad for a half day's work—especially when you consider that quantity generally breeds quality! 

Most companies, however, can't achieve these numbers on their own.  They don't have the resources and know-how to eliminate the chance factor from idea generation.

In fact, you can get even more ideas if you know how to tweak the process.  And you don't need a trained facilitator (although it certainly helps).  First, you must set up ideal conditions for brainstorming.  Set ground rules, starting with the most important:  Defer judgment while generating ideas.  You crank out more ideas if you separate idea generation (creativity) from evaluation.  Moreover, maintaining a focus on creativity creates a climate conducive to innovation. 

Some other factors to consider:

  Limit brainstorming groups to four or five people.

  If a brainstorming session lasts more than an hour, move the group members at random to different groups.

  Encourage a playful atmosphere--silly ideas spark practical ones, and research shows that groups with a lot of humor produce more ideas.  (Some techniques even include a play component.)

  Keep the pace moving.  If a group runs out of ideas, switch techniques or change the membership.

  Use a variety of techniques:  some should use visual stimuli and some should ask members to generate ideas in writing.

  Set idea goals and quotas to spur productivity.

  Try to include one facilitator or at least one verbally adept person in each group.

I'm familiar with at least 100 individual and group methods for generating ideas; here are a few that work well in various new product and process situations:

Pin Cards

This technique is simple to implement and requires few skills in group facilitation.  It should supplement brainstorming approaches, however.  It's not a stand-alone technique.  Here's how it's done:

1.  Give each group member a stack of index cards.

2.  Have each member write down one idea on a card and pass it to the right.

3.  The receiving person uses the idea to stimulate a new idea (or modifies the original).

4.  This person writes down new ideas or modifications (on separate cards) and passes all the cards to the right.

5.  This process continues until time is called (usually about 10 minutes).

Our research shows that this method will yield an average of about four times as many ideas as traditional brainstorming.  It ensures equal participation and eliminates most of the negative effects of status differences and personal conflicts.  It also serves as an excellent method to purge the brain of conventional ideas. 

Product Improvement CheckList/Circles of Creativity

Both of these techniques, which I developed about 10 years ago, use random stimulus words to help people free-associate and come up with ideas; they are especially useful when a group begins to run out of steam. 

A Product Improvement CheckList is a poster-size worksheet which consists of 576 random stimulus words grouped in four categories:  "Try to..." "Make it..." "Think of..." and "Take Away or Add...."  

A Circle of Creativity is a spinning disk, containing about 200 stimulus words, that uses die cuts and arrows to select words. 

The steps are:

1.  Each group (or member) receives a CheckList or Circle.

2.  Group members randomly select a stimulus word and briefly free-associate with it.

3.  Members use the free associations to provoke ideas.  (There really is no "correct" way to get ideas; just see what ideas the stimuli produce.)

For instance, here are some new-product ideas for socks, along with the stimulus which produced it:

  Socks which pump up like shoes (from "Try to punch it").

  Perfume-scented socks (from "Try to saturate it").

  Socks with reflective materials or mirrors (from "Make it reflect").

  Socks with cushioned soles (from "Think of eggshells").

One R&D manager at Hershey Foods described how his group keeps a Circle handy during brainstorming sessions (U. S. News & World Report, November, 1990).  When the ideas begin to dry up, the group brings out a Circle, gives it a spin, and sees what stimulus words will spark new ideas.

Picture Stimulation

Research has shown that people respond best to a variety of stimuli.  While PICL and Circles use stimulus words, another technique offers pictures, which many people prefer to words, and which may require less coaching.  Multiple pictures offer an almost endless supply of stimuli.

1.  Project a picture on a screen, or give each group several pictures from magazines.  Use a variety of pictures; avoid close-ups of people.

2.  Group members study a picture and describe, in some detail, what they see.

3.  Members use the descriptions to stimulate new ideas.

4.  Repeat the process with a new picture.

For instance, suppose a group selects a picture of a mill near a river.  Their descriptions might include:  "The mill is near the water; the water is running very quickly; the water wheel turns with the water flow; the wheel grinds grain; there is an attached storage building; the faster the water flows, the faster the wheel turns."

From these descriptions, the group might generate the following ideas for new sock products:

  Exercise socks with water weights (from "the water is running").

  Socks with storage pouches built in (from "attached storage building").

  Water-proof socks (from "mill near a river").

  Self-adjusting socks (from "the faster the water flows, the faster...").

Semantic Intuition

This unusual method reverses the typical product-invention process:  Instead of inventing a product and giving it a name, we generate product names first and use them to stimulate ideas.  The steps are:

1.  Generate two lists of words related to the problem.  One list should be related to product features; the other to people who use the product.  For example, for the sock problem:

Socks         People Who Wear Socks

hot              walking

colors          washing

heel             running

material       darning

patterns       folding

moisture       pulling up

tightness      worn toes

2.  Randomly select one word from each list and use the combination to trigger new ideas, such as these samples:

  Install cooling agents in the socks (from "hot-walking").

  Make the sock colors change after each washing (from "colors-washing").

  Have the sock design patterns change as the socks are raised or lowered (from "patterns-pulling up").

  Put chemicals in the socks to absorb moisture (from "moisture-running").

This approach uses elements of the problem to maintain focus on the problem.  Because it also provides unusual perspectives and associations, it compromises between the needs of people who like to stay focused on a problem and those who like random stimulation.

It's said that ideas are a dime a dozen—and what matters is what you do with them.  I agree—but only up to a point.  R&D departments clearly have many potential new product ideas sitting on their shelves.  But organizations must also improve their use of innovation and insure that they have the right kinds of ideas--ideas must "fit" the company.  If they don't, they probably will remain on the shelf.

Innovation can be managed and not left to chance.  I will discuss some specifics of how to organize for innovation in another issue of R&D Innovator.

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