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Ideation Insights from Steve Meister of Big Bang (Interview)

In the “The Design of Business” author Roger Martin points out that the companies moving forward “with an eye to creating advances in both innovation and efficiency” gain the competitive edge.  Sounds true enough, but how do you innovate?  How do you surface that hidden gem of an idea and bring it into the light?  And, how do you implement that idea efficiently and profitably?  Well, that’s where ideation comes into play.

I sat down with Steve Meister, the President of Big Bang, to get his thoughts on the process of ideation and where it fits in the product development lifecycle.

Kevin: Tell me about Big Bang — what do you guys do?

Steve: We are a product development consultancy offering product ideation and implementation services for a diverse range of clients including Cuisinart, Newell Rubbermaid, DenTek and many others.  Our team is made up of Graphic Designers and Mechanical Engineers.

Kevin: Where does Big Bang’s discovery process begin?

Steve: Our process begins with observing users. This allows us to identify and better understand users’ unmet needs and frustrations, and consequently, the opportunities. Our clients are always looking for something new and something different, but they don’t know what it is.  And, if you ask their customers, they don’t know what it is either.  But, if you go out and observe users’ pain points, define a concise problem statement and then come up with a solution to the pain, you’ll have a winning product!

Kevin: After observing users, what’s next in your process?

Steve: Next up is an ideation or a brainstorming process with a group of stakeholders. At Big Bang, we call it “idea farming.” For the idea farming day, the client group can and should be made up of a variety of business disciplines. It’s a good idea for clients to invite those in their organization that are creative thinkers or very comfortable with brainstorming.  Our team prepares a schedule for the day and it is comprised of many different creative brainstorming exercises.  These day-long idea farming events always take place outside of the office in a new and interesting location; we’ve used the conference room that is over-looking the Atlanta Zoo, as one example.  The activities are fun and they are solution-focused, with the goal of generating tons of new ideas that solve the problems previously identified.

Kevin: What happens when the group gets ‘stuck?’ How do you get them re-engaged?

Steve: We have about 50 different brainstorming exercises in our bag of tricks.  When we have an idea farming event, our team has to come armed with a variety of exercises, just like a DJ arrives at an event with 700 different songs.  Like a DJ, if we’re finding that one thing works really well with the group, we’ll use those types of exercises.  If not, we’ll try something else.  No two groups or problem statements are the same and so we have to switch it up constantly. Finding the right rhythm, maybe mixing large group, interactive exercises with small team, passive challenges is critical.   Also, we’ve learned what types of things to do after lunch, when everyone is feeling tired to get them going again.  For the project at the Zoo, we were working with a client who develops haircare products.  So, after lunch, we had the participants go out into the Zoo and identify one animal and explain how they dealt with their haircare issues.

In a nutshell, you’ve got to get people out of their familiar environments and activities, get them moving and get them thinking in different ways.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with the same old, stale solutions.

But, another key to what we do is that we follow a very specific process.  Ideation is not a flippant activity of throwing things against the wall.  We take the process seriously even if some of our exercises are fun and entertaining.

Kevin: After your brainstorming day, you and your clients have a huge list of ideas — what do you do next?

Steve: On the very same day of the idea farming event, we start sorting and prioritizing ideas, measuring the ideas against our client’s business strategy.  We’ve found that it is better to organize the ideas quickly and immediately.  We have some unique ranking tools that help us prioritize the ideas. But  again, this is according to our client’s business goals.  The result is a list of actionable ideas for the client to run with.

Once we have identified the best ideas with the highest priority, we leverage our design expertise to draw a picture of what the client’s product might look like.  The picture is descriptive enough that anyone on the client’s team that missed the idea farming event could understand the concept. It could also be used in research to gauge consumer reaction.

Kevin:  Give me an example of a product that Big Bang helped create.

Steve: We helped Rubbermaid Commercial Products (RCP) expand their waste containment line.  We discovered janitors’ unmet needs through observing their routines and then went in to our all-day idea farming event.  The top ideas that came out of our efforts on this project led to the development of the award-winning MegaBrute waster container; it’s a large capacity, mobile waste container that has saloon-like doors that allow the liner to be easily removed.  It was a completely new product in the category and was a real home run for all those involved.

Kevin: What piece of advice would you offer to all of us on brainstorming, just for in-house stuff? Do you have a go-to exercise?

Steve: To me, it’s less about the specific exercise and more about the process.  You can pick up books to learn brainstorming exercises.  How you treat the process, though, that’s up to you.  I’d recommend that you take your brainstorming seriously and create a formal process around it. For example, always have a clear problem statement, maintain ground rules such as “There’s no such thing as a bad idea” and  “You can’t say ‘no’ to an idea, you have to add to it.” And finally, get out of the office!

To learn more about Big Bang, visit www.bigbangip.com.