How to Structure an Idea Generation Workshop

Idea generation sessions are the workshops I enjoy the most. I love the buzz, the energy and it’s so satisfying to go through the journey of inventing something new. If you were to simply walk into an idea generation session, it may appear chaotic with post-its, magazines, random products and objects strewn all over the place. However, the best sessions are really well organised. Of course they need to be planned properly, but once this is done, this is how you structure them.

An Idea Generation workshop is a game of two halves. The first half is dedicated to divergent thinking ie ‘going out’, the second half is about convergent thinking ie ‘coming in’. As a facilitator you need to always be aware of a) which phase of the workshop you’re in at any given time - out or in b) how far are you able to ‘stretch’ people - at what have you managed to extract all possible ideas from everyone.

The shape of an Idea Generation workshop

The shape of an Idea Generation workshop

Part I Divergent Phase

During the divergent phase you’re in classic ‘brainstorming’ mode. The emphasis is on generating a high volume of fresh new ideas and on encouraging people to build on each other’s thinking, without criticism or judgement. Ask people to capture ideas individually on post-its, so that everyone gets a chance to contribute. Remember that brilliant ideas often emerge from individual reflection, rather than groupthink.

Then, after the individual ‘brain bank’ turn to more syndicate work using a series of creative exercises to really stretch thinking. The emphasis is very much on forcing and encouraging further lateral connections. There are many different types of creative exercise to choose from, which I’ll highlight in a separate post, but normally I’d use no more than three as by then, people will have become mentally jaded. As a facilitator you’re looking to maintain high energy levels and to really challenge people to develop as many new ideas as possible. You’re looking for both quality and quantity.

The Turning Point

About half through the session, the walls of the meeting space will be full of post-notes packed with ideas. Occasionally there’s a feeling of panic - ‘what are we going to do with all these ideas?’ . Now, you have to transition to the convergent phase which requires a different mode of thinking. To help you do this, simply ask people to ‘spot ideas with most potential’. This is where you introduce judgement into the session, where you call out the good vs the weaker ideas. Once you’ve got these together, you should group and cluster these ideas into similar ‘themes’ so you can make sense of them. Look for a manageable number of groups. Typically go for 6-8 clusters.

Part 2 Convergent Phase

During this phase, the focus is making ideas more tangible and concrete. You’re moving from the individual thoughts and ideas generated in part one into more rounded product or service concepts. Here, you provide people with ‘idea templates’ that force people to become more clear and precise in capturing a fully formed idea. It’s best that people work alone or in pairs, usually with the help and support of a visualiser to help bring their ideas to life. Throughout this phase, the detailed concepts are continually captured, shared, and built. As a facilitator you’re constantly pushing people to create distinctive, rounded and powerful idea concepts, whilst offering encouragement and feedback. Don’t get bogged down in too much wordsmithing at this stage. Just make sure the ideas are clear and powerful.

So to sum up

Idea generation sessions always follow the same pattern. They go through the two phases - a divergent and a convergent phase with a turning point about half way through to switch from one to the other. Your role as a facilitator is to guide the team through these two phases. During the divergent phase push people to generate a high volume of ideas and to stretch their thinking as far they can go. During the convergent phase, encourage teams to develop more concrete, detailed innovations. The most important thing to remember is to maintain good levels of energy throughout. After all, what’s more exciting than being creative? Remember, with a nicely planned, well structured session and a group of brilliant people, you’ve got a great opportunity to invent something really amazing.