What can we learn from education to make ideation workshops more productive?

We’ve probably all been in the situation where someone has caught us off-guard and asked, “any ideas”? For as confident that we might be that we ought to be able to come up with ideas, they’ve caught us off-guard, we feel totally un-prepared and our mind goes blank.

The next time you run an ideation session, assume that most of the people feel that way – they’re waiting for others to speak up first. It’s why, all too often, the last 15 minutes of a brainstorming session are the most productive – it’s where the magic seems to happen. The more ideas we see, the more triggers we have to help us, the more ideas we seem to have.

We can address this by borrowing from educational research into the different modes of learning. Educators have long recognized three broad learning modes which can help us run ideation workshops.  


[ezcol_1third]Learning Mode[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third]Features[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third_end]Solution[/ezcol_1third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Visual Learners[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third]Some people need visual stimulations to unlock great ideas. Changing the scene, seeing colours, examples and pictures helps make connections. The more stimulation they see, the better their imaginations work. [/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third_end]So, rather start with an empty white-board, prepare a ‘mood board’ or post images on the walls or scatter flashcards on the tables in-front of them.[/ezcol_1third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Auditory Lerners[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third]Auditory people will need to have noise and conversation to be able to produce good ideas. Silence is a killer for creativity for these people. Most brainstorms are designed for auditory people – there’s every chance the boss that decided to have a brainstorm is an auditory person. It’s one of the many reasons why lots of people hate brainstorm sessions.[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third_end]Although you might be keen to start capturing ideas, these people are likely to be able to need a pre-amble conversation to kick-start their creativity.[/ezcol_1third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Kinesthetic Learners[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third]This last ‘mode’ is perhaps the most under-used. Kinesthetic people will think best when their hands are engaged and doing something. [/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third_end]Kinesthetic people need to touch and feel things and be given the chance to process or throw things around in their mind to make sure it feels right. If you are looking, for example, for new packaging ideas, bring a selection of innovative packaging into the workshop for the kinesthetic learners or a scale model or prototype, or page through a magazine.They won’t give you quick ideas, they’re best off thinking things through overnight.[/ezcol_1third_end]
If you are reading this and there’s a aha moment – you’ve recognised which most closely matches how you feel the most creative and productive, that’s great. If you’re reading this because you facilitate brainstorming sessions, you need to be aware that you’re likely to have a mixture of ‘types’ in the workshop so you need to serve them all in order to get the best out of the session.

Use color, movement, interaction, conversation and combine all the learning modes together so as to ensure that everybody in the room is engaged with their particular style. This will boost the productivity of your workshops. 

Why we kill our own ideas


Human beings are idea machines. All of us have ideas all the time. Most of us don’t notice because we kill those ideas as soon as we have them.

We’re all guilty of this. In writing down and sharing my ideas on this blog I’m pretty unique – odd some might say, but despite the fact that I’ve documented hundreds of ideas, I too kill most of them. 

Why do we kill our ideas? 

One word answer: risk.

  • What if it’s a stupid idea and I risk looking silly?
  • What if it’s the best idea a human as ever had and I risk someone stealing it?
  • What if it’s already been thought of and I risk people thinking that I’ve stolen it?

The creative part of our brains that triggered the idea is in a constant fight against the parts of our brain that are designed to keep us alive. Human beings, like all living things, are essentially designed to stay alive and our brain’s job is, first and foremost, to keep us safe — to reduce risk.

When it recognises that it’s in survival mode — when we need creativity it serves us with ideas. When it doesn’t, when everything is fine, it kills those ideas because it’s safer to kill an idea than do anything with it.

It’s safer to tell ourselves that we’ll do some more work on the idea before we tell anyone about it.

It’s safer to convince ourselves that it probably won’t work than spend time trying to figure it out.

It’s safer to allow yourself to be distracted by the next brilliant idea.

It’s safer to stick with the status quo than take a risk that our idea might make our lives better. That’s why most of us stick with the status quo even if we believe we’d like to change something about our lives.

The people that seem to have done exceptional things regardless of what that is — building a business, inventing something, getting rich, walking around the World, saving lives, winning a medal at the Olympics — whatever, they didn’t wait for the ‘best’ idea, didn’t wait for someone else to motivate them, they simply acted on their idea

Fighting Commoditisation with Innovation

The global nature of commerce is such that all products and services are liable to commoditisation – the process of products becoming simpler, more ubiquitous and lower cost.

If you are in the business of disrupting a marketplace, commoditisation is great, otherwise, it’s very much the enemy. Generally speaking the more commoditised a product, the lower the margin and the harder it is to differentiate your offer from other lower-cost offerings.

There are countless examples of commoditisation in every marketplace, but let’s take just one – data storage. It was a specialised product – in fact I have NAS drive on my desk that cost me £250 back in the day. Of course now, thanks to disruptors like Dropbox the cost of storage in the cloud has tumbled and according to industry experts this trend is only set to continue.

Whether it’s due to technology innovations or purely competition, commoditisation is an inevitable fact of life.

How do you maintain margin in highly competitive markets?

Firstly, it’s up to you what you sell your products for and there’s a simple model proposed by Ian Gotts and Dominic Rowsell in their book “Why Killer Products Don’t Sell” to help you think about how to market your products and services. It identifies three buying cultures that we / customers have:

  • The first is called Value Offered. VO products fulfil a recognised need, buyers buy after taking the briefest look at the alternatives, all of which are a similar price, and make a choice. Buying a domain name is a perfect example of a VO buying culture. There’s little or no way of differentiating one product from other so we decide based on cost, convenience and good old marketing
  • The second is called Value Add. VA products fulfil a recognised need, but the price point or differences between the products in the marketplace are generally complex enough that the buyer does some comparison or talks to suppliers to understand the differences between their offerings. Selling Value Add gives you an opportunity to build a relationship with the customer which in turn gives you an opportunity to ‘sell’. Selling a domain name in a package that also includes hosting, support, tutorials etc. would be a great example of where you have matched a recognised customer need, but created an offering that added value
  • The last one is called Value Create. VC is where you are literally creating new value for the customer – value that they didn’t know they needed yet. It takes longer and costs more to sell VC, but not only are the margins higher, the competition is lower. Selling a fully managed service that includes everything, expertly built and maintained would be an example of VC.

Commoditisation can happen rapidly

Most new products start as Value Create offerings and the successful ones inevitably become commoditised and become VA then some become VO. Twitter was VC – no-one needed to be able to blog in only 160 characters – Twitter had to ‘create’ an understanding of the value of it to get their first users. Once they achieved this, it quickly became Value Add then Value Offered – no-one takes any time thinking about what microblogging platform to use any more.

The alternative strategy to avoid the race to the bottom

If you find your products and services are under increased price pressure, you can either join the race to the bottom, or take some action;

  • Re-think the proposition to either ‘add’ value to differentiate your product or service or ‘create’ new value, or
  • Find new marketplaces for whom you can add or create value, so if we return to the example product, when you sell domains and hosting to IT people, they don’t need help so it’s hard to add or create value – their priority is likely to be to show their boss that they’ve got the lowest price and saved the company money. But if you built a proposition selling broadly the same thing but to schools where they don’t have an IT person and want and value help – in other words they want a value add buying culture, you make it easier to maintain margin, become the customer’s best friend and lock-out low-cost competitors

Innovation is THE tool in your armoury to defend against commoditization

A great example of creating new value in a highly commoditized marketplace was Dell. PC manufacturers generally had a $1,000 offering, a $1,500 offering, a $2,000 offering etc. so the consumer decided how much they wanted to pay and chose based on the spec, recommendations or the deal from the retailer or reseller – a classic Value Add buying culture. Dell made a killing by ‘creating’ new value – you could buy it directly from them, choose exactly the spec and the price you wanted and they would build it just for you.

Another great example of beating the commoditization trend is Starbucks. It’s no secret that your $3 Grande Espresso Macchiato is actually 5 cents worth of coffee with added air, but that doesn’t stop us going to Starbucks – we go there for the experience; the environment, the customer service – the whole package.

The bottom line

Commoditization is a fact of life. Where there’s a successful product and customer demand, smart people somewhere are thinking about how to disrupt it, make it simpler, easier to buy and cheaper.

The best form of defence is attack; get out of highly commoditised marketplaces before it’s too late by adding or creating new value for your customer, find new customers or customer segments that want and value support and are less price sensitive, exploit innovation and create new customer experiences.

Searching for ideas? Here’s where to start

Do you find that sometimes ideas seem to flow really easily, and other times it seems impossible to come up with ideas? I often get asked “how do you come up with ideas”?

The first thing that you can do is…. stop trying to come up with ideas…

It’s counter-intuitive I know, but stick with me.

Ideas happen when we make connections (I created some simple slides on this topic, click here) – literal connections in our brains – we see something, hear something, read or experience something new and it makes connections with things that are already stored in our brains.

So, the in the search for ideas we are first going to search for new connections.

You can do that right now. Stop what you are doing and just look around you or reflect on what you’ve been doing in the last hour or two. What did you find difficult or annoying? What, if you could, would you fix or not do again?

Jot down all the things that occur to you. Don’t filter. At this stage we’re not even pretending we are looking for ideas – we’re just trying to make connections.

Some of you will find it easier to do this by interviewing colleagues or friends and asking them to reflect on their experiences – in Design Thinking terms we call this stage Empathise.

Hopefully you have a number of things written down. We can then move to the next phase which is called Define. To do this we simply underline one or more that really interest you. Doubtless you will have noted a number of problems or irritations; which of these, if you could fix, would be the most valuable? If you can, expand on those items that were underlined a little more.

Now, hopefully, we can start to see how we might solve or address some of the problems we defined – some ideas.

Again, don’t filter, avoid judgments – remember, all brilliant ideas started out sounding utterly ridiculous.  The more ideas you have, the more ideas you have, but don’t force it. When it seems to become difficult, stop. You’ll know when you’ve found an idea that grabs you. If you have to, come back to the list. Sometimes ideas need time to mature and develop. If it keeps you awake tonight….you might be on to something!

What next? Well this blog post was always meant to be a 2 minute read, and the what next is another 2 minutes !-) You can read more about this on this link.




Bike manufacturer sees huge reduction in delivery damage by printing TV on the box


Now this IS a good idea.

Dutch bike manufacturer Vanmoof sells bikes online so most of their customers receive their bikes via a courier. They were irritated by the number of damages caused in delivery. For some reason the couriers seemed to drop or damage their consignments.

“No matter who was doing the shipping, too many of our bikes arrived looking like they’d been through a metal-munching combine harvester. It was getting expensive for us, and bloody annoying for our customers,” creative director Bex Rad wrote on the company’s blog.

And just like that, shipping damage to our bikes dropped by 70–80%.


There’s an innovation lesson here. Think outside the box….sorry, that was a terrible pun. Seriously, break down the problem, think laterally and be prepared to run an experiment to see what happens.

Damn. Someone beat us to it. We should stop, right?

So you’ve had a great idea, and you start work on it only to find something’s already out there – someone beat you to it. You should stop, right? Wrong. 

We’d love to think all of our ideas are unique, right? And when we find they aren’t, we’re naturally deflated.

But don’t stop. Remember; Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, Facebook didn’t invent social networking, Google didn’t invent the search engine, Star Wars wasn’t the first story about an orphan with special powers.

Innovation is about creating new value. Better trumps first every time. In many ways late(r) entrants to the party have the benefit that someone else has built the market for you.

So, don’t stop. Focus on innovating the customer experience, fixing problems, finding new value and a different set of Users.


Obsess in the problem your idea solves rather than the technology that solves it


I see and hear about new ideas all the time – partly because it’s my business, but partly because I’m a naturally inquisitive person. It’s not hard to find cool new ideas, but….the acid test is, “would I use it” and indeed, would I use it more than once or twice, would it become a habit – would it ‘stick’ and all too often the answer is no. 

Ideas that stick are ideas generally ideas that solve a problem. If that problem that doesn’t really exist (or not enough people have, or recognise they have the problem), it won’t stick. It’s as simple as that.

I’ve doubtless made the same mistake – I’ve become obsessed with an idea and start building the best solution I can straight away before I’ve really understood the problem or validated that anyone else has the problem. My best advice therefore:

“Obsess in the problem your idea solves (and the people who have the problem) rather than the technology that solves it”.

And be truthful and that can be hard to do – and the more time you invest into the solution, the harder it gets to see it objectively. We’ve all seen this on shows like Dragons’ Den / Shark Tank – entrepreneurs and inventors literally invest their life savings into a ‘thing’ but can no longer describe why anyone would use it.

Actively try and disprove the problem before you start work on the solution.

You can do that in a number of ways; you can interview the people who you believe have the problem and ask them what the impact of the problem is. Even better, find data to support this. Do these things before you show them the solution so as not to introduce any bias.

The job here isn’t just to confirm that there is a problem, but to be sure that the people that you believe have the problem care enough about it that they will adopt your idea to solve it.

I have an experiments board that I use. I will publish it online, but if you want to see it, email me, mike@everythingbrilliant.co.uk


Those clever Innovators from IKEA are at it again

One of the Innovation Tools I teach is SUBTRACTION – you take a process or value stream and subtract one thing at the time and then ask “if we subtract this, how will we still make money / satisfy our customers? A good example of this is as a warm-up exercise is a restaurant. You start with some simple subtractions like the menus, or the waiters but then get to more challenging things like the food, or the kitchen – or the cooks.

Well those clever innovators at IKEA have done exactly this; they’ve opened a restaurant where you cook your own food – they’ve built a working restaurant but removed the chefs (well…virtually because there are some chefs there to supervise you, but you and your friends and family do all the cooking).

Brilliant. Here’s the link to an article on their website.  http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/about_ikea/newsitem/The-dining-club

You could do this in your business! If you need help or guidance, contact me (mike@everythingbrilliant.co.uk)