#75 from R&D
Innovator Volume 3, Number 1
Product Ideas by Design, Not Chance
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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
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:
Give each group member a stack of index cards.
Have each member write down one
idea on a card and pass it to the right.
The receiving person uses the idea to stimulate a new idea
(or modifies the original).
This person writes down new ideas or modifications (on
separate cards) and passes all the cards to the right.
This process continues until time is called (usually about
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
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
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:
Each group (or member) receives a CheckList or Circle.
Group members randomly select a stimulus word and briefly
free-associate with it.
Members use the free associations to provoke ideas.
(There really is no "correct" way to get ideas;
just see what ideas the stimuli produce.)
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
Perfume-scented socks (from "Try to saturate
Socks with reflective materials or mirrors (from "Make
Socks with cushioned soles (from "Think of
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
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
Project a picture on a screen, or give each group several
pictures from magazines. Use
a variety of pictures; avoid close-ups of people.
Group members study a picture and describe, in some detail,
what they see.
Members use the descriptions to stimulate new ideas.
Repeat the process with a new picture.
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."
descriptions, the group might generate the following ideas for new
Exercise socks with water weights (from "the water is
Socks with storage pouches built in (from "attached
Water-proof socks (from "mill near a river").
Self-adjusting socks (from "the faster the water
flows, the faster...").
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:
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:
People Who Wear Socks
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
Make the sock colors change after each washing (from
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
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
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