Brainstorming vs. Ideation

Christy Hogan Hutchinson Corporate Innovation, Design Thinking, Product & Service Ideation, Strategy

You’ve undoubtedly been in brainstorming sessions. Some of these sessions have likely been fruitful, others disappointing. We often get asked how ideation is different from brainstorming on “Brilliant.”— a podcast hosted by Magnani’s president. One guest distinguished the two types of sessions by asserting most brainstorms are simply “meetings… with better food.” But beyond that perhaps undeserved jab at brainstorming, there are several aspects that separate brainstorms from formal ideation.

First, what is an ideation session, anyway?

Before I jump into the difference between a brainstorm and an ideation session, I should provide some context for anyone unfamiliar with this process.

In traditional design-thinking, the ideation phase is often the most exciting step within the process. The ideation session itself is the organized gathering of minds within that step where the litany of ideas is generated against some highly defined problems or desired outcomes. These ideas range from the possible to the seemingly impossible given current organizational constraints.

A time and a place.

For what it’s worth, I love a good brainstorm. They’re fun, engaging and often produce creative ideas. They are collaborative and aid in generating new ideas to improve internal processes, develop creative campaigns, share ideas, etc. This is all important work.

But let’s remember that ideation is the third step in a more formal design-thinking process and should be treated as such. It should be informed by learnings emerging from the Empathize stage, address specific challenges outlined in the Define phase and, finally, create a starting point for the Prototype and Test phases.

Ideation is about not only generating ideas but also systematically upending and exploring the mental models surrounding those ideas, assessing recurring themes, evaluating ideas through a variety of lenses and, ultimately, converging and consolidating various branches of thought into manageable future areas of innovation. Ideation, to that point, also requires more time, commitment, homework and buy-in from stakeholders. 

Ideation may be utilized for a multitude of business challenges. Some examples include:

  • Developing new product or service directions
  • Exploring new business strategies and revenue streams
  • Finding new business angles by solving complex customer-centric challenges

Leave it to a professional.

When led by a trained moderator, ideation sessions get users beyond the myriad obvious solutions often generated in traditional brainstorming sessions. The session moderator leads participants through a series of carefully structured exercises designed to create an abundance of ideas and then explore, build on and refine the most viable. There is a substantial amount of exercises out there (this site is a nice repository for a number of tools and methods), but understanding which exercises are best suited to address your particular challenge is a skill honed through repetition and experience. Having a moderator who can teach or lead your team through the effective use of these tools is equally as critical as wielding them in the first place. 

A successful session leader will help you:

  • Ask—and answer—the right questions
  • Break through organizational constraints to view challenges in a new light
  • Keep your “hero” user’s needs and behaviors at the foundation of your innovation
  • Rise above the obvious solutions to increase innovation potential 
  • Identify and leverage different perspectives to uncover unexpected angles for innovation

There’s definitely a team in “I.”

In ideation, fielding the right team is critical. Sure, brainstorms usually include teams. But, yet again, ideation is different. It’s important to bring in the right expertise and perspectives to maximize the value of a session. A diverse group of resources is the most effective, from internal subject matter experts and designers to trend experts and sometimes potential customers. The diversity of expertise within the group can be critical in creating and enhancing groundbreaking ideas, ensuring all angles have been explored, examined or exhausted.

It’s always a matter of time.

In addition to being internally focused with little structure or outside perspectives, most teams dedicate an hour or two for a brainstorm. Little thought or prep work is required. Ideation, on the other hand, is a commitment—session preparation, session execution and idea refinement. To be successful, most sessions require a time commitment of one to two business days.   

Just interesting people kicking back, sharing a beer and developing a breakthrough innovation?

If only it were that easy! The truth is, while they may be fun and stimulating, ideation sessions are hard work. When done right, most participants leave both stimulated and exhausted.

Too long, don’t want to read? Here’s a quick snapshot of the difference between a brainstorm and an ideation session.

Brainstorm

  • Often a standalone meeting based on a singular objective
  • Used to generate new ideas
  • Good uses of a brainstorm include:
    • Improving internal processes
    • Developing creative campaigns
    • Naming exercises
  • Often unstructured with takeaways delineated at the end of the meeting
  • Often include homogenous teams
  • Time commitment: 1–2 hours

IdeationSession

  • The third step in the design-thinking process: informed by gathered insights and defined challenges to solve
  • Used to generate ideas and explore what surrounds those ideas, assess themes and evaluate ideas
  • Good uses of an ideation session include
    • Developing new product/service directions
    • Exploring new business strategies and revenue streams
    • Finding new business angles
  • Highly structured with pre-work and post-session refinement
  • Includes diverse perspectives and internal and external resources
  • Time commitment: 1–2 days

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