Ideation in a time of crisis, and beyond

Eadaoin Doherty

Eadaoin Doherty

Product. Pilates. Soy chai lattes.

As we adjust to the new remote working normal, we’ve been asking ourselves a lot of questions about how we work from home – where’s the best place in the house for a make-shift office? How often should we hold company meetings? Is working from a cupboard good for your mental health? Yes, someone tried this!  

Wardrobe offices are cosy but lack daylight!

We, like many other companies, are also asking questions about the focus of our work, and what we should be working on. We’ve seen plenty of businesses ask themselves whether they should continue with business as usual (working on the strategic focus areas that they had planned) or should they become more tactical with their reaction? Companies will react differently to survive this strange time; there are some inspiring cases of companies embracing innovation to manage the effects of COVID-19, but there are also plenty of companies who are challenged and don’t have such a clear Plan B. 

The world we live in is changing rapidly. The pain points that we had planned to resolve this quarter may no longer be the most urgent. We need to ask ourselves if there are new and more immediate concerns for our customers that we should address.

As with the development of any product, we must also understand our company’s needs. Does the company have demands that are new or more urgent than before? Do customer service teams need to respond in a new way? Do we need to make changes to our product to better assist internal teams?

As product managers, it can often feel like the pressure is on us to find the solutions to these problems. However as Marty Cagan says “the best idea often comes from the bottom up” meaning we need to get the whole team involved, and a crisis like this is no exception.

Now is the time to harness the power of the collective. It’s time to get all those incredible brains in your team, and in your company, working on solutions. 

It’s time for an ideation session!

There are many ways to elicit ideas from teams, but here are some that I particularly like, and have used over the past few weeks.

What problem are we trying to solve?

If you are going to ask your team to ideate, they first need a clearly defined problem to solve. Work with your team or senior stakeholders to identify the key question you are trying to answer. You can frame these questions by starting with the phrase “how might we…”. Some common examples:

  • How might we increase short term revenue?
  • How might we better support the customer service team to deal with new queries?
  • How might we make it easier for customers to self-serve at this time?

Find the question that is most important to your organisation, this will be the focus of your ideation session.    

Let’s ideate

Diversity is key, so make sure to include people from areas across your company like sales, marketing or finance, as well as developers, designers and product managers. Groups of 10 people or less are ideal, so if needed, break into multiple groups. 

At the start of your ideation session, particularly when everyone is remote, it’s important to run through the agenda. Some attendees may not have taken part in an ideation session before so giving them an overview of the plan for the meeting will help them understand how important their contribution is.

Make sure that your ideation approach is remote-friendly and can take place over a conference call. Running a ‘Crazy Eights’’ session is a great option. 

In Crazy Eights, the team is given 8 minutes to come up with 8 ideas each on how to solve the problem. The timer is set and everyone works independently to create their own set of 8 ideas. 

Here are some guidelines on how to find your best ideas (thanks for the tips Mural);

  • Defer judgement: Don’t be hard on yourself if you think your ideas are poor. As a group, you’ll decide together which are the best ideas.
  • Go for a volume of ideas: Try to get to 8 ideas in 8 minutes. It’s challenging, but often it’s ideas 5, 6 and 7 where the real gold lies.
  • Build on the ideas of others: If someone else has an idea you like, keep the discussion going and build on it as a starting point. 
  • Stay on topic: Keep checking back to the question and ensure you haven’t strayed off the path.
  • Encourage wild ideas: Go crazy and enjoy it. Even if your ideas seem impossible, they may spark an idea for someone else, or at the least, they will give your team a laugh!
  • Be visual: You don’t need to be an artist for crazy eights, stick figures work perfectly!

Sharing ideas 

Once sketching is complete, ask each team member to present their top 2 ideas, remembering to show off those amazing sketches by holding them up to the camera for everyone to see. I like to limit everyone to 1 minute each for their presentation, otherwise people can get into too much detail for this phase of the discussion. Others can ask questions for clarification, but can’t give judgement yet.

Another way to share sketches could be to take photos and share them on a team Slack channel. Either way, it’s important to ensure everyone contributes, we want to hear every voice. 

Sketching out ideas to share with the team

If the group is large, the people presenting last may have had some of their ideas discussed already. Get them to pick some ideas that haven’t been presented yet – we’re looking for volume at this stage.

Selecting the best ideas, as a group 

At this point, you could have up to 20 ideas from a group of 10 people. I can almost guarantee there will be a couple of ideas in there that you would never have thought of on your own, and that’s the beauty of a diverse group!

You now need to decide which ideas have the most potential – it’s time to vote. I recommend voting using Mural, it has a feature that stops you from seeing other votes so you’re less likely to be influenced by the group. 

Once voting is complete, the results are revealed to the whole group at the same time. Cue lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” as people review the results. 

Votes are revealed in Mural after all votes are cast

Identify viable ideas that will add real value  

As this ideation exercise is designed to solve a tactical problem, it is important to move quickly to deciding whether the ideas selected are feasible and will have sufficient impact. Prioritisation methods such as RICE could be used for this task, but feel free to use a simpler approach. One I have used recently is to assess each idea against its potential to add value to the business and its customers, versus the estimated effort required to bring the idea to fruition.

Using the selected prioritisation method, go through the top 10 ideas from the ideation session and grade each one.

Once the ideas with the top potential value have been identified it’s time to present to other teams who have been ideating and to senior managers. Working together, the company can decide if a shift to being more tactical will be of value at this time. 

A great example of a company shifting to work on a tactical idea during COVID-19 is discussed here.

Turning to the future

As well as using ideation to think about immediate tactical work, it is also a great way to think of the long term approach. The process could also be used to answer the question “how might we come out of this situation in a stronger position?”.  

As the old adage goes; “this too shall pass”, so how can we get ready for the “new normal” that awaits us. Ideation session anyone?

Need help working through an ideation or clarification process? 

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