Some people think that great ideas happen out of the blue. Yet great innovation doesn’t have to be a random occurrence. Innovation experts Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich have turned creative brainstorming into a step-by-step process that is well-structured, easily implemented and yields successful results. Terwiesch and Ulrich break down how to set up an innovation session, generate high-quality ideas and efficiently choose from the pool of opportunities. Through utilizing their guide, you can build a culture of creativity within your company ready to take on any challenge.
- Before you begin brainstorming, clearly define the problem you are trying to solve.
- Create a framework for generating and choosing solutions.
- Decide how much you want to direct the type of solutions generated.
- Aim to generate a few high-quality ideas.
- Efficiently organize how people pitch their ideas.
- Select solutions quickly but accurately.
- Allocate resources to develop opportunities.
Before you begin brainstorming, clearly define the problem you are trying to solve.
Companies spend billions of dollars every year trying to come up with new ideas that will allow them to increase profits, make internal operations more efficient or change the market entirely. They look for problems both within and outside the workplace and charge their innovators with solving those issues. However, often the people working to solve a given problem don’t actually deal with the issue firsthand. Innovators need help from those with direct experience with the issue. They must collaborate to narrow down the root problem. For instance, if you wanted to reduce wait times for hospital patients, you should ask the doctors, nurses and other staff for their input to get a well-rounded picture of what actually causes long wait times.
Think about how you phrase the problem to your innovators. The way you frame the issue can inspire a lot of solutions or only a few. For example, the question, “How might we reduce patient wait times?” may only generate three solutions: reducing demand, increasing staff or staggering scheduling. When you broaden the question to, “Why is it important to reduce wait times?” you expand the solution possibilities to things like enhancing patient comfort or reducing patient stress. From there you could ask, “How might we enhance patient comfort?” and arrive at solutions such as having bigger waiting rooms, access to free Wi-Fi or offering telehealth options.
“Pick a problem statement that feels just a bit too general and that makes everyone a little anxious because of its lack of focus.”
Asking “why” something is a problem helps you broaden solution options and asking “how” to fix a problem helps you narrow down those solutions. It’s easier to start broad and then narrow things down, but bouncing back and forth between your “whys” and “hows” creates a clear understanding of the problem, because it helps you uncover the real need that your team should focus on solving.
Create a framework for generating and choosing solutions.
Before you start throwing solutions at your clearly defined challenge, think about how you want to structure your “innovation tournament”: the process of generating ideas and narrowing the best ones down.
“The first tournament is a test run for instituting more systematic innovation activities.”
As a leader of a tournament, creating a structure helps you determine a budget, the resources you will need and what you expect from tournament members. Structure also helps keep people focused and usually provides better ideas that achieve the results you want.
Every tournament structure must address these nine questions:
- How often will you run the tournament? – Some can be ongoing events, but most are onetime events, occurring within a strict time frame. Often, the best choice is to conduct a tournament over a six-week period, with three selection rounds.
- Who will be involved? – Closed tournaments usually involve 20-60 people and happen privately, but bigger companies might include all employees and then choose the top ideas and form a smaller innovation group to continue the process.
- Where will the tournament take place? – Smaller groups usually work better in-person, while larger groups across different time zones work great online.
- How many solution-selection rounds? – Longer tournaments allow for more selection rounds than short ones, but each selection round should cut the number of ideas down by at least half.
- Who makes the selections? – The people who generate the ideas should narrow them down because they know the challenge best.
- What is the tournament’s timeline? – Tournaments can run anywhere from one day to 12 weeks, or even more, depending on the complexity of the problem. Give yourself enough time to find the best solutions.
- Who will lead the tournament? – Usually, a manager or executive runs innovation tournaments, but for companies with no experience, it’s best to hire an outside consultant.
- What is the budget for the chosen solutions? – Innovators want to know that the company has the resources to invest in their ideas. Typically, managers budget to fund at least four solutions. They should be open about the budget from the beginning.
- What is the incentive to participate? – Avoid giving out prizes because a $1,000 dollar prize for a solution that saves a company millions can feel cheap. Instead, provide company-wide recognition, possible promotions or a share of the profits.
Decide how much you want to direct the type of solutions generated.
Years ago, an innovation tournament took place to improve the game-watching experience for LA Clippers fans. The tournament team presented dozens of solutions to the CEO. Though she praised their efforts, she also expressed her disappointment that none of the ideas on the table were truly radical. Everyone thought of low-risk ideas, not knowing how “groundbreaking” the CEO wanted to go.
When leading your own tournament, don’t make this mistake. Communicate your strategy up front to your tournament team. Leaders who have a broad challenge such as “make more money” don’t necessarily need a strategy for generating ideas. They can let any emerging opportunity dictate which direction to go and give their innovators free range to brainstorm, without having to worry about rejecting ideas because they don’t fit a strategy. However, leaders like the CEO of the Clippers should take a more refined approach to ensure they get the kinds of ideas they need for their more precise challenges.
Your strategy should communicate whether you want innovators to pursue low-risk solutions that create incremental change or high-risk solutions for radical change. For example, in the case of the LA Clippers, a small change such as introducing tacos to vendor menus is a quick and easy solution that doesn’t require much funding or infrastructure alteration. A big change such as building a jumbotron with Bluetooth crowd-interaction capabilities requires a lot of resources and time.
“You can easily apply additional direction through the selection steps in your tournament if that direction is still warranted in light of the opportunities identified.”
Let your innovation tournament participants know your budget for solutions, which direction you want to go and whether you want them to create the strategy themselves before beginning.
Aim to generate a few high-quality ideas.
It doesn’t matter how many ideas your team generates if none of them are very good. For instance, if you ran a medical research foundation, and you received funding proposals every month, would you rather have 10 decent ideas or one that could cure cancer? Probably the latter. Within your innovation brainstorming sessions there are a few ways to root out those exceptional ideas.
First, widen the pool of participants. Rather than a single company-wide email, which might go unnoticed by top executives, write personal emails to key stakeholders whose input would help the process.
Second, since you probably won’t be the one who comes up with the genius idea, find the most creative people at your company and get them to participate. Also, make sure the people who deal with the issues you want to solve are a part of the idea-generation process. Both of those groups will come up with better ideas because they are either naturals at thinking outside the box or understand the inner workings of the challenge better than anyone else.
“You increase variance in the quality of ideas by increasing variance in the sources of those ideas.”
Finally, do what you can to diversify your idea team. For example, if you work in health care, avoid relying on only doctors’ input. Ask nurses, patients, janitors, administration and other staff for their ideas to make sure you have multiple points of view. You never know where a good idea could come from, or who might understand the problem the best.
Efficiently organize how people pitch their ideas.
In the first round of brainstorming, a quick 60-second pitch of each idea is a must. It makes evaluating the ideas quick and easy and prevents people from losing focus during the presentations.
Each 60-second pitch should focus on the need you want to address, such as improving the patient experience at a hospital, rather than the solution such as more comfortable waiting rooms. For example, 30 years ago, a professor excitedly pitched his idea of battery-powered roller skates to a colleague as the solution to the need for more efficient commuting options, when a person is just traveling a short distance. Unsurprisingly, the electric skates concept never caught on. A more compelling pitch would have focused solely on the fact that people need quicker, easier ways to get around and that a battery-powered personal transportation device could be the answer. That way the solution search would not have only focused on electric skates, but on all possible options – including scooters and bikes – which would have upped the chances of a successful innovation.
“In the early rounds of the innovation tournament, the answer is simple: Focus on the need.”
Keep the pitching process as simple and efficient as possible. Most leaders set up 60 pitches in 60 minutes. Don’t allow for discussions, questions or even applause as this will turn that hour into an all-day affair. If the pitch sounds right, mark it for advancement and move on to the next.
Listening to 60 pitches in an hour is taxing on people’s attention spans. Oftentimes, people complain that their ideas didn’t advance because listeners were too tired when it was their turn to present. You can’t always avoid this, but you can make things fair by making the order of pitches random. Shuffle the slide deck, go counterclockwise around the room or use software to randomize the order.
Select solutions quickly but accurately.
Choosing from the vast pool of opportunities your tournament generates is a balancing act between being as accurate as possible in deciding if an idea is good or bad, and as efficient as possible in narrowing down your choices. For example, imagine you work for Pixar and you need to pick the next movie to make. Creators come to you with 100 movie pitches. It would take forever to make each movie and then decide which is good, so your first assessment involves looking at short descriptions of each movie and then deciding if they’re worth a deeper look or not.
“Early on in the tournament, efficiency is king, so rely on the wisdom of the crowds.”
Your first selection round should determine if the idea is worth being considered for development; you are not choosing to develop it right now. There are many ways to narrow down opportunities. One way involves using around 10 to 15 judges to vote on the first round of ideas using a sticker voting system. The panel of judges should be familiar with the issue if not already part of the innovation tournament. Your selection process in the early stages should be swift and cut solutions down by at least half for the next round.
Quick votes on what innovators think customers will want often leave a lot of uncertainty. In higher stake tournaments, many innovators like to use the “minimum viable product” method. For example, Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn set up a prototype website where people could order shoes to determine if people actually would order shoes online. The prototype was a success, and he used the real-world data to obtain funding. Even a rough prototype, like the cardboard model Apple designer Tony Fadell made of the first iPod, can help you determine how to refine or develop a promising idea further.
Allocate resources to develop opportunities.
Once your team has narrowed down possible solutions to the very best ones, it’s time to start developing them, so you can choose a winner.
“As an individual contestant in an innovation tournament, you will need clarity in order to compete.”
At this point, innovators will need some resources to start creating prototypes of their solution to see if it works in the real world. To determine if an idea will be successful, it must answer these three questions:
- “Is the need real?” – Is the issue your solution addresses something that customers actually want solving? For example, you could spend months coming up with a better break room layout and lunch options for your office only to find out that most people bring their lunches or like to go out. Talk to potential customers to see if your solution will be useful.
- “Does the anticipated solution address the need?” – Sometimes you have a great idea, but it doesn’t exactly solve the issue you need to fix. For example, the professor’s battery-powered roller skates did not prove to be a practical solution to short commute issues because people couldn’t easily balance on them. Test your solution out on real customers to see if it works.
- “Does the innovation create value?” – You can’t always know the answer to this question early on, because companies often won’t know an innovation’s real value until after the product has been on the market. Still, there should be data from trial runs that demonstrate customers are willing to pay for your solution, that you can deliver it cost-effectively and show how you will get paid.
As a leader, make sure your innovators know exactly what resources, such as cash, time or help will be available to them so they can answer these questions accurately.
About the Authors
Authors Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich are professors at the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania.
“The Innovation Tournament Handbook” by Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich is a valuable resource for individuals and organizations seeking to identify and implement effective solutions to complex challenges. The book provides a step-by-step guide to hosting an innovation tournament, a structured process that brings together diverse perspectives and ideas to solve pressing problems. In this review, I will delve into the book’s key concepts, strengths, and weaknesses, offering insights for those looking to utilize this approach in their own endeavors.
- Innovation Tournaments: The authors define an innovation tournament as a structured process where a diverse group of individuals or teams compete to develop and present solutions to a specific challenge. The tournament is designed to surface the best ideas, regardless of their origins.
- Five Steps to Hosting an Innovation Tournament: The book outlines a clear and concise five-step process for organizing and running an innovation tournament: (a) Define the Challenge, (b) Identify the Players, (c) Develop the Tournament Concept, (d) Execute the Tournament, and (e) Select the Winner.
- Tournament Design: The authors provide detailed guidelines for creating a tournament format that encourages diverse participation, ensures fairness, and promotes creative thinking. This includes selecting the right participants, defining the challenge, and establishing a judging panel.
- Idea Generation and Development: The book emphasizes the importance of generating a large pool of ideas, fostering collaboration among participants, and providing guidance on how to develop and refine those ideas.
- Innovation Culture: The authors argue that an innovation tournament can help create a culture of innovation within an organization by promoting collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity.
- Practical Approach: The book offers a practical, step-by-step guide to hosting an innovation tournament, making it accessible to a wide range of readers.
- Real-World Examples: The authors provide numerous examples from various industries, demonstrating the effectiveness of the innovation tournament approach in different contexts.
- Actionable Insights: The book offers actionable insights and strategies for hosting a successful innovation tournament, including tips on how to structure the tournament, select the right participants, and evaluate the results.
- Holistic Approach: The authors recognize that innovation is a complex process and provide a comprehensive framework for addressing the various aspects of innovation, including idea generation, development, and implementation.
- Lack of Depth in Some Areas: While the book covers a wide range of topics related to innovation tournaments, some areas could benefit from more in-depth exploration, such as the psychology of creativity and the role of leadership in fostering innovation.
- Limited Focus on Technical Innovation: The book primarily focuses on business-related challenges and solutions, with limited coverage of technical innovation or scientific breakthroughs.
- Lack of Case Studies: The authors could have included more case studies or examples of successful innovation tournaments in different industries or contexts to provide additional insights and inspiration.
“The Innovation Tournament Handbook” by Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich is an excellent resource for anyone looking to establish an innovation tournament within their organization or to apply this approach to solve complex challenges. The book provides a clear, practical guide to hosting a successful tournament, while also offering valuable insights into the psychology and culture of innovation. While there are some limitations to the book, its strengths make it a valuable contribution to the field of innovation and a must-read for anyone seeking to enhance their innovation capabilities.