Economic Slowdowns Demand Fast New Ideas

A Recession Is a Perfect Time to Get Ahead by Developing Fresh Products; Here's How to Kick-start the Process

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Look to these brands: Sharing the stories of market-changing products such as the iPod or designer Karim Rashid's Dirt Devil KURV can inspire your employees to do some innovative thinking of their own.

Patrick Hanlon
Patrick Hanlon
Even as budgets are frozen and costs cut, companies still demand fresh thinking. Looking for a new and better way to come up with brilliant ideas? Start by innovating your innovation workshop.

Here, suggestions to kick-start your 2009 inspiration quest:


First, do your homework. Grab all relevant data, reports and studies you've conducted or seen over the last year. Know the landscape, the trends, what's happening.

Identify your goals, your biggest challenge, your biggest opportunities. Determine how shifting U.S. demographics, international influences and societal trends such as sustainability will influence your product or service, and conversely, how your product or service impacts these trends.


It's great to be blue sky, if your company pays for blue sky. But these days most people are looking for solid ground. Whether you think forward by thinking backward or go straight to granular, have definite outcomes in mind. Knowing what you want to get out of your session will help you have a better experience. And better ideas. The successful session comes back with some answers -- as well as better questions.


Great sessions don't just happen. They must be designed.

Keep PowerPoint presentations to a minimum. Divide people into prearranged groups and put them around round tables (never square). Mix people up. It's the fusion of dissimilar, random, lateral thinking and observation that invites fresh thinking.


Of course, your ideas will only be as good as the people having them. Bring in people from all parts of your business. Research and development. Finance. Human resources. Sales. Retailers. Product managers. Any partners you may have relationships with. The last time these people got together in the same room was way back when you still had holiday parties. But they all work on the business and want to succeed.


Give your brightest people a brain boost. Bring in award-winning designers, ethnographers, trend-makers, stylists and thinkers of all kinds.

And make them relevant. Marketing to millennials? Experts have written books on the subject, so bring one of them in. Want to create a brand badge like that of Harley, Apple, Nike, Target or Starbucks? Many of the people who helped create those brand affinities are available for hire. Fly them to your session.

Or bring in executives formerly with companies such as Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris, ConAgra -- those with their heads still in the game. They can be objective and practical and smart about your business opportunities in ways you can't.


While you're at it, bring in relevant thought leaders outside of your business silo, too. Things that seem status quo in one industry or geography can be revolutionary in another. Consider a furniture designer when looking for ideas on how to design new packaging. Or a film director (whose job it is to create visual storylines) when looking to make more meaningful connections with your consumers.
Patrick Hanlon is founder-CEO of Thinktopia, an idea-engineering firm that has conducted successful ideation workshops in Chicago, Seattle, New York City, Moscow, Beijing, Bogota and elsewhere. Participating clients have included Wrigley, Taco Bell, Microsoft, Levi's, American Express and others.

We've brought in people who worked on Apple computers to work on fast food; people who worked on premium vodka to think about premium credit cards; people who worked on cigarettes to work on an antismoking product. You get it.


Have a flow to the day (or days). Let people know what to expect up front.

Clue people in to what you already know. And don't assume everyone's read the 100-page brief (or two-pager) you sent out last week. Take everyone through it. It will serve as a reminder for those who read it and a briefing for those who haven't.

Pre-think creative exercises. Push yourselves to create exercises that help build something bigger. Insist that each part of the ideation builds on the next and draws from the previous.

Now that you have structure, remember that creativity is messy. It usually doesn't come in a box labeled BIG IDEA HERE. It's usually just a comment that gets run over by someone else.

Which leads to a final point about structure: Make sure someone is accountable for following through on the output from the session. It is critical that they cull through the ideas and weed out the good, the great and the transformational so the best have a chance to grow. Assign timing and responsibility and give the participants the flexibility to nurture the ideas.


Stimulate everyone in the room with great ideas and great thinking that others have already had. This could be a study on examples of great products in other categories. It could be a study of great product design, great retail spaces around the world, car-design awards or innovative products in other categories. You can tell the great creation stories of products such as the iPod, POM or the common potato.

We always try to bring in products into the room that exemplify great design, great opportunities well met or just ideas that feel like some thought went behind them -- for example, Karim Rashid's Dirt Devil KURV, Kid Robot toys and Ikea glassware.

We also engage people in all the senses: touch, sound, taste, sight. We even engage them in discussions of scent, even if their brand has no scent or even the possibility of scent.

You also want to stimulate people's backsides. Places where people can relax and feel at ease are almost mandatory. Use cushions, couches and lounge areas.


Think about others who have been successful. They don't even have to be in your same category. What drove little companies to become big ones? What competitive advantage, insight or quirk of fate propelled them to greatness? We often grab product successes and put them around the room (or just fun products) to help kick-start people's brains. Sometimes it's just easier to look at someone in a different category than it is to think about yourself.


Think about what the world will look like in 2020. Then think backwards. Demographers predict that whites will be in the minority. Hispanics will be one of the largest populations and growing. Energy will be fueled by ... what? Information will be piped to us via computerized data clouds. What should you be doing right now in order to prepare for the future headed your way?


What would it look like? What would people do there? What kind of music do they listen to? What do they wear? What do they dream about at night? What's the one thing they always want, but can never have? Sounds strange, perhaps, but you can easily imagine what a community by Nike, Apple or Starbucks would look, sound and feel like. Such is the power of their brands.

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