Items you need:
- A pack of sticky notes and a pen for each person. You don’t need a unique colour for each person but it can help if you need to organise requests by department for example.
- A whiteboard to stand around or a table to sit at. A whiteboard can make it easier for everyone to see the sticky notes and standing is better for the energy levels and participation.
- Pick a good time, people need to be attentive and full of inspiration. Morning sessions after people have had their coffee tend to work well.
- Timebox the session, with an alarm if needed. One or at most two hours is enough.
- The host needs to be able to get the participants excited for the project and the different ideas, and they need to make sure everyone gets a chance to input ideas. Ideation sessions are no place for people that have no input or, even worse, are just there to criticize.
- Diversity is essential! Different genders, cultural backgrounds, people from different departments in the organisation, different ages, etc. You need many viewpoints so that ideas can be generated and analyzed from different angles.
- Have a clear brief of the project with the key goals.
- The host introduces the project with any relevant background information and lays out the key goals for the project. What is the business trying to achieve with this solution and who is it for? If specific requirements from users are known already then they should be shared at this point too. For those new to ideation sessions, the host should explain the rules and approach - either way, a quick refresher for everyone can be helpful.
- Coming up with ideas: list every idea down on a sticky note (one idea per sticky note) and stick it on the table or whiteboard. No matter how crazy the idea is, existing ideas can be added too - we are going for quantity not quality at this stage. Celebrate milestones (10,50,100 ideas!) to keep people excited. Most importantly, do not review, critique or edit the ideas at this point, just come up with ideas and write them down. Others can expand on an idea but never reject or complain about it.
Mike Middleton uses a red/yellow card system for this. If someone tries to stop an idea or starts assessing it, he gives them a yellow card. If they do it again, the get a red card, and after the third time they are asked to leave the session (You don’t want negative people in this first stage of ideation!). Mike as quite a few great videos about ideation and other topics on his linkedIn profile.
- Once all the ideas are up on the board and you reach the end of the session you can call it a day. If possible, sleep on it at this point, or at least take a lunch break.
- Then we are going to discuss, analyze and organize the ideas, this often requires a bit of research and support from subject matter experts. Like the first session, we want to timebox it and all the same people from the previous session should be present.
- First, if anyone has any new ideas since the last session, you can add them to the board quickly before proceeding to discuss and organize.
- Take the ideas from the board one by one and assess them, poke holes in the ideas, bring up potential risks, expected costs, and business, legal or technical challenges they might have. One exercise is to have different people take turns attacking or defending a particular idea. This will give different perspectives looking for problems and finding opportunities. As each item is discussed, note down the pros, cons, risks, challenges and opportunities, and place them into one of the following groups:
- Been done already
Ideas that are the same, iterative or minor difference only. This is mostly relevant for advertising, marketing or social projects so may not matter for your project, in which case this group can be skipped.
Idea has been confirmed to be technically, legally or financially impossible. Keyword here is “confirmed”, this is why subject matter experts are important for this session.
- Not Relevant (enough)
Ideas that are great, but just not relevant enough to the business or project goals. We can consider these for future phases or other projects so keep them safe.
Great ideas for this project, it’s good to note if they are confirmed ideas (by the actual intended users) or if they are still assumptions.
Within viable ideas you might want to further categorize them depending on the nature and size of your project. For example, you might have mobile and desktop ideas, frontend/backend, or grouped by department or use case. Also be clear to note if there are multiple ideas for the same feature, which means a decision still needs to be made to pick the one to be implemented if both are validated by actual users.
- Been done already
Typically, such a session will result in ideas that we call “Epics” - high level requirements for the project that are generally quite broad. The next step will be to split the viable ideas into more detailed user stories for estimation and planning.