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Why using one creative process stage leads to dull ideas

When you "brainstorm" for ideas with a team, do you typically deliver conventional ideas that -- if you're honest -- you could have obtained without dedicating so much extra time? Well, the reason you ended up with these ordinary low-hanging fruits doesn't mean that you and your teammates are not creative. Rather, it means that you used an ineffective process -- if you used a process at all.

Most innovation process methods don't allow you to move beyond the "obvious" ideas -- the ones everyone else in your industry also thinks of first -- because they use only one creative process stage. Today, let me explain how you can move from ordinary ideas to extraordinary ideas by adding a second creative stage.

The unspoken problem: Most innovation process methods have only one creative process stage. The classic Creative Problem-solving (CPS) model labels this stage "idea finding"; the models of Bragg & Bragg, Clegg & Birch or VanGundy call it "idea generation"; and the popular design thinking method names it "ideation". This stage is directly followed by one used to critically evaluate the ideas and select the best ones for further development.

"That's precisely how we always do it too," you may be saying. "So what's wrong with that?" you may wonder. Well, you're likely to end up with a low number of ideas that are all safe, sane and set.

What causes the problem? When generating ideas, innovation project team members are supposed to follow four ground rules of ideation suggested by Alex Osborn, the famous advertiser and inventor of Brainstorming and other creativity techniques:

1. No killing of any idea. Defer judgement.

2. Go for idea quantity as it breeds quality.

3. Shoot for wild, crazy, funny, off-the-wall ideas.

4. Combine and improve on ideas.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to follow these ground rules if your innovation method has only one creative process stage. Why? If idea generation is going to be followed directly by evaluation, how likely are you to adhere to all the ground rules of ideation? Quantity over quality, no idea too wild or crazy?

Most probably not. It's highly likely that your inner voice of judgement will dismiss any wild idea the moment you think it -- you won't even write it down. You will end up with fewer ideas overall -- most of them ordinary or even boring.

There is another problem: Suppose that against all odds, you had really mastered all your courage to adhere to the ground rules of ideation. If there were only one creative stage, would you be likely to select any wild idea for further in-depth evaluation?

No way! You would kill all wild ideas at the very beginning of the critical evaluation phase, as you regarded them as useless to resolve your innovation challenge.

A wild idea is often the seed of a truly outstanding one. That's why we need two creative stages to make an innovation process really work and move beyond the same set of conventional ideas.

The solution: At Thinkergy, we developed the X-IDEA innovation method to move beyond conventional ideas by introducing a second, distinctively different creative stage, Development. Thus, the creative process flows as follows:

First we investigate the innovation project case in the Xploration stage to gain novel insights into what our real challenge is.

Then, the first creative process stage, Ideation, emphasises idea quantity. Here we try to produce hundreds of raw ideas (including wild and uncommon ones) in a playful, fast and furious atmosphere.

In the second stage, Development, we take our time to transform idea quantity into quality. We're looking for a smaller portfolio of two to three dozen novel, original and meaningful concepts.

Next, we evaluate the pros and cons of our idea concepts in a critical and realistic stage, Evaluation. Now we're finally allowed to judge our ideas, but not before. Finally, we take Action on those ideas that we selected for real-life activation.

How exactly does the crucial second creative stage work? In the Development stage, we discover, design and develop to turn idea quantity into idea quality.

First, we discover intriguing ideas within the large number of raw ideas generated during Ideation. Then, we use these intriguing ideas to design realistic concepts through refinement, combination and transmutation. Finally, we develop these concepts further by looking for ways to add even more value to them.

Just as we did during Ideation, we also must follow four ground rules in the Development stage. While ground rules 1 and 4 stay the same as before, two rules reflect the altered objective of the Development stage: 2: Go for quality, and take your time; 3. The more meaningful, the better. Shoot for valuable, useful, realistic, meaningful idea concepts.

Lesson: A creative process can unfold its magic only once it consists of two creative stages. Continue using a conventional, ordinary innovation process method with one creative stage if you only want conventional ideas. Or switch to an unconventional method with two creative process stages if you want to get unconventional, extraordinary ideas.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, the ideation and innovation company in Asia. He is also an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at

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