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The Idea Process

My son recently had to come up with a topic for a coding project for school. He likes to just jump right in, but the teacher is requiring them to journal each day on what they did for the project…which means no throwing the code together during the last couple of days. So he was overwhelmed on where to start and had no ideas on what his coded app should focus on. I told him to start with brainstorming to generate ideas.

This inspired me to revisit some of my creativity doctoral work. Get ready, I am putting on my Dr. Jen hat…

There are many ways to brainstorm, but I particularly like the structure based on the Idea Process model as outlined in Michanek and Brelier’s (2014) book The Idea Agent.

Text Box: Figure 1The Idea Process (Michanek & Breiler, 2014)

Each phase of this process model will guide you through the process of determining you needs as well as determining the success of your outcomes. Within each phase, there are also recommended tools and techniques that will need to be followed. These tools and techniques have been selected based on their appropriateness for the particular phase that they are being implemented in. Some of these ideas are from the Ideas Agent book, but others are from the fascinating resource Tinkertoys.

This is another awesome resource I have talked about before!

Moving through the Phases

            The following section outlines each phase of the process as well as the different techniques that are recommended to be used in that phase:

Need. During the need phase, the project basis and framework are established. This may mean establishing the criteria for the project team membership as well. Although the need may have already been established, it is important to also familiarize the team with what everyone perceives as being part of the problem. Sometimes, identifying solutions are easier than identifying what the problem is. So it is important that everyone be on the same page.

The Team. Before moving through the phases of the Idea Process model, the Idea Agent must first determine who will serve on the team. While having related knowledge is important, there is also the frequently overlooked position of non-expert (Michanek & Breiler, 2014). People with no experience can often bring a different perspective to the team than those who have vast and expert level experience. For good synergy and perspectives on the team, the make-up should consist of people who have various experiences and future roles for the project. If it is not possible to include representatives from all these groups on the committee, then tasking team members with approaching questions, scenarios, and ideas from the view point of these members may also be helpful. This would utilize the Idea Generation tool of the “What If…” where each committee member adopts a role for the purposes of thinking from that perspective when presented with ideas during the Idea Generation phase (Michanek & Breiler, 2014). This will help to inspire the team members, but also serve to make sure that that perspective of any important group is not left out.

The Phoenix Checklist. Using the roles that were established in the “What If…”exercise, team members will begin looking at the problem by using a series of questions known as the “Phoenix Checklist” (Michalko, 2006) that were created by the Central Intelligence Agency as a way to break down the pieces of the problem and how to address it. Using this technique not only serves the purpose of analyzing the problem, but it can also serve as a way to draw out the creative juices of the team members and make everyone comfortable sharing with each other (Michanek & Breiler, 2014).

Idea Generation. While some techniques have already been applied as a way of warming up the team, it is during the Idea Generation phase that most of the tools and techniques will get the chance to shine. During this phase, tools and techniques will be applied as a way to generate ideas related to the problem. However, before these techniques and tools can be used, the Idea Agent must first establish some parameters with the rest of the team. For example, guidelines need to be set for how long each idea generating session should last. Is there a timeframe or is there a quota of ideas that must be reached? How will these ideas be shared? Once these have been established, the Idea Agent can move to sharing the next technique with the committee. The Idea Agent should also remind the committee members to address the technique from the roles that were established in the “What if…” exercise.

Bug list. In order to determine what is needed, the team should first think about what it is that bothers them about their current setup or product. This is known as creating a “Bug List” (Michalko, 2006) because it is a list of annoyances.

Brainstorming. This technique requires that negativity be left behind and that all ideas are welcome. There are no bad ideas in this phase since the focus is quantity over quality. The “Brainstorming” technique is based on the idea that quantity breeds quality. In other words, the more ideas that the committee comes up with, the more likely they will be to hit on the best solution (Michalko, 2006).

Everyone’s a consultant. With this technique, the team members are all tasked with thinking about a problem, need, or concern they have from the perspective of the role that was established during the “What if…” exercise. They write it down on paper and then pass it to the right. Each person who receives the paper then writes down an answer. By applying the “Everyone’s a consultant” technique (Michalko, 2006) every member from the team is able to address their acquired roles’ concerns or needs. It also gives everyone a chance to think about how the need or concern can be solved and generates productive discussion.

Screening and development. In the third stage, the ideas of what are needed have already been established. The team must now discuss the ideas and determine which ones are needed and which ones can be thrown out. This can be done using the cluster method where similar ideas are grouped together. These groups can then be given categories depending on the scope of the project. Then the clusters can be rated on scale of importance. While discussion is important, the Idea Agent must be ready to step in and steer conversations back on track so the team does not derail (Michanek & Breiler, 2014). At this point the team will investigate which existing products are available and analyze them to see if the features that were listed during the Idea Generation phase and at the top of the clustering scale are available in each product.

Murder Board. A “Murder Board” can be helpful for narrowing down the list of possible products to pursue (Michalko, 2006). This is another technique created by the Central Intelligence Agency. The purpose of this technique is to eliminate the product that would not best suite the organization. The role of the team here is to deliberately look for the negative of the product and see if it outweighs the positives. They are looking for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For example, if it is a robust system with all the features that the team wants, but would not have a good end-user experience.

Enrichment. In the fourth phase, the team begins to conceptualize what the product may look like (Michanek & Breiler, 2014). This could mean demoing products to evaluate their fit with the criteria that the team has established. It is also possible that at this stage new needs have popped up which may mean cycling back to previous phases to include this new information. If a product is being tested, it might also be helpful to invite others not on the team to test out the product as they could bring new insight to the value or demerits of the product. All testers should use the same criteria for evaluating the product as established by the team.

The Da Vinci Technique. During the enrichment phase, it can be helpful to sketch out what the finished product should look like. By sketching out the ideas and what the team wishes them to look like, this takes the intangible and makes it tangible (Michalko, 2006).

Results. The final phase of the process is the Results phase (Michanek & Breiler, 2014). In this phase, the best product has been selected or developed and the team now must present it to the decision-makers at the organization. It is important to consider all the reasons that people could have for turning down the proposed Product. Some of this could be grounded in logic and some of it could be arbitrary. So it is important to consider the best approach for presenting the product and the proposal. Consider what the objections could be and tailor the presentation to address them before the audience can. It is also important to build enthusiasm for the idea.

According to Bridges (2003), you cannot have innovation without change. It is a messy process that inspires fear in many people. Part of that fear is because there is too much that is unknown. So it is important that people are trained to use the product in the scope of their roles. I love using scenario activities for this type of training.

Appealing to Decision-Makers. According to Bizzle and Flora (2015), during the process to implement creative and innovative ideas, the decision-makers implementing the decisions might resist the implementation idea because they are intimidated by the technology, unfamiliar with the topic, or consider it a waste of resources. The researchers suggest that it is important to identify who decision-makers are and the best ways to communicate with them. Anderson (2011) has found in his research that since boards of trustees are often legally responsible for the actions of their organizations, it is essential that the individual members of the board also be involved in any change initiative. However, it is important to remember that decision-makers can range beyond just boards of trustees or managers. The people in the community and those who work in the organization all represent part of the decision-maker group. Carson Block, of Carson Block Consulting, even goes a step further by suggesting that not only should the immediate decision-makers be identified, but also those that are in their circle of influence. Once those immediately involved in the decision are convinced, then ways to appeal to those within their circles must also be found (Bizzle & Flora, 2015).

In most cases, according to Bizzle and Flora (2015), an appeal to decision-makers will need to appeal to one of two things: the emotions of the decision-makers or their values. For example, this could be a story of the impact the project can have on staff or the financial value to the library by implementing the idea. Since it can be hard to tell which route to take with new or previously unknown decision-makers, it is important to pay attention to the questions they ask. If they ask many questions about budgets, cost, and resources; then appeal to the financial value.

One way to know who your decision-makers are and the questions they have is to conduct an evaluation. An evaluation can be an important tool for focusing on the issues related to the quality of an organization’s projects and activities that promote their strategic objectives. Evaluations can take the form of focus groups, surveys, or questionnaires. By focusing on who the decision-makers are and what questions need to be answered, it helps to focus the direction of the evaluation and determine the best ways to communicate the results of the evaluation. According to Russ-Eft and Preskill (2009), conducting an evaluation can provide valuable information to the members of the organization that are participating in the decision because it can teach them valuable information about the project.

The Final Step: Evaluate and Review

While not demonstrated on the Idea Process model, there is a final step that must not be forgotten when it comes to selecting or designing a product: evaluate the product after implementation. This is different from the evaluation that was done to determine the best way to appeal to the decision-makers. This evaluation is done with the goal of gauging satisfaction with the chosen product after implementation.

Conducting a survey is one way to collect feedback that can be used to gauge the satisfaction. The important first steps for developing this survey would be to determine the key questions that would need to be answered by the questionnaire being used. It could be a question related to how comfortable people are with their personal mastery of the product. According to Ruft-Eft and Preskill (2009), the Likert-scale utilizes ordinal data that allows for the ability to rank the results. However, when analyzing the data, it can also be treated like interval and ratio data using a scale. Participants can rank their answers to the questions on the survey on a scale from one to five. The numbers can then be compared to see how many respondents are satisfied verses unsatisfied. The individual results on the scale do not matter as much as which was the majority of responses for each question. If following the Kirkpatrick model of evaluation, this would be level one of the evaluation which would be to gauge satisfaction with the learning, level two would be to understand the extent that they know, level three to evaluate how the knowledge is being used, and level four would address the impact on the organization (Russ-Eft & Preskill, 2009). It is important that this survey be done towards the beginning of the implementation process, so the project managers can address any needs before the project is officially signed-off on. The feedback gained can also be helpful when addressing future enhancements, upgrades, or replacement decisions.


By utilizing the creativity tools and techniques outlined in this post, the team will be able to map out a clear goal of what is wanted which will make it easier for them to wade through the vast amount of possibilities. However, it is also important for the team to remember that their task is not over when the project has been implemented. They must continue to evaluate and improve so that satisfaction continues to remain high.

Find out more!

The researcher in me has posted citations where I gained my info from, but if you would like to find out more, I encourage you to check out the following resources.

Anderson, A.D. (2011). Engaging resistance: How ordinary people successfully champion change. Stanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

Bizzle, B. & Flora, M. (2015). Start a revolution: Stop acting like a library. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.

Bridges, W. (2003). Managing transitions: Making the most of change (2nd edition). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Cook, N., & Yanow, D. (2011). “Culture and organizational learning.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(4), 362-379. doi: 10.1177/1056492611432809

Michalko, M. (2006). Thinkertoys: a handbook of creative-thinking techniques (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Crown Publishing.

Michanek, J. & Breiler, A. (2014). The idea agent: the handbook on creative processes. New York, NY: Routledge.

Russ-Eft, D. & Preskill, H. (2009). Evaluation in Organizations: A Systematic Approach to Enhancing Learning, Performance and Change. New York, NY: Perseus Books.

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