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How to use time wisely in ideation planning

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Why read this? : We explore how to use time wisely in ideation planning. Learn the 3 key time phases which drive any ideation session. Read this to improve how you plan ideation sessions.

Ideas are the starting point for all new business growth and innovation. Whether that’s about improving existing products and services or doing something completely different. Everything new starts with an idea.

However, businesses manage ideas in different ways. More creative companies bake them into their culture. But for most, ideas are only explored during either marketing planning or when they have a problem to solve.

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

Generally, the more thinking that goes into how you come up with ideas, the more and better ideas you get. For that you need time, so this week’s focus is on how to use time more wisely in ideation planning.

Ideation planning

Ideation is a combination of idea and creation. Whatever your innovation or creative process, it’s the specific time when you say “This is when we’ll come up with ideas”

As per our 5Ws of idea generation article, the better you plan how this will work, the better the results you’ll get.

For example, be clear on why you need ideas in the first place. Define the form the ideas should take. Who needs to be involved. Where you’ll do the work.

Marketing innovation process - formal approach to screening and approval - 6 steps are idea generation, idea screening, business case, develop product, launch, post launch review - with different goals, costs and numbers of ideas

Deciding “when” you do it is also critical. When turns ideation planning into ideation action. There are 3 key time phases in ideation planning :- 

  • time before.
  • time on the day.
  • time after.

Ideation planning - time before

The popular adage “fail to plan, plan to fail” fits ideation planning very well.

You have to prepare everyone involved so they arrive on the day with all their idea brain cells ready to fire. 

This can be a challenge as it often involves the dreaded concept of “pre-work”. Your attendees are busy people.

Giving them what sounds like extra work over and above their day jobs can be off-putting.

Business meeting round with a man presenting in front of a screen to 5 colleagues

The key is educating and inspiring them on the value of preparation time before an ideation session. And to position the “pre-work” not as work, but as a creative opportunity.

Ideally, you call everyone together a few days before the ideation session to brief them on the plan. This doesn’t have to be a long session. You should be able to cover the key points in 15 minutes max.

Outline why you’re having the session and what’s expected of them. Use this briefing to excite them about the opportunity they’re getting to stretch their creative brains. You want them to start the process of creative thinking as soon as they’ve been briefed. 

Creative process - the value of preparation and material gathering

All good creative processes include a phase before the creativity takes place.

For example, Graham Wallas’s 1926 The Art of Thought outlined 4 stages which start with preparation. James Webb Young’s 1939 A Technique for Producing Ideas outlined 5 stages which start with gathering raw materials

The key is that to come up with ideas, your brain needs something to work on. It needs inputs and stimulus. The longer you give your brain to work with these, the more and better ideas you’ll have.

Creative header image

Where much ideation planning goes wrong is in expecting people to just rock up with no preparation and be full of brilliant ideas. That’s not how our creative brains work. 

Let the Zeigarnik effect do most of the work

As per our thoughts about thinking article, a psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik effect comes into play here. 

Named after a famous Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist, it’s based on an observation that when given a problem to consider, our brains keep thinking about that problem until it’s solved.

This happens even if we move our conscious thoughts onto something else. The subconscious brain keeps working away in the background. 

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

Ever been stuck on a crossword clue and found the answer pops into your head a few hours later seemingly out of nowhere? That’s your subconscious at work. The Zeigarnik effect. 

Or you can’t remember which TV show an actor used to be in. But you wake up the next morning, and the answer’s now obvious. Again, the subconscious and the Zeigarnik effect. 

Your brain’s subconscious and memory functions will keep working away in the background on your problem while your conscious brain focuses elsewhere. Like apps updating in the background on your mobile while you check emails and Instagram.

Here’s the trick with ideation planning though. If you plant those idea seeds a few days before the ideation session in the briefing, attendees will have had their Zeigarnik subconscious brains working away in the background on possible ideas. So, you’ll get faster, more, and better ideas on the day. 

Ideation planning - stimulus

To set this up, you’ll need some sort of stimulus to start people’s thinking. This doesn’t have to be complicated or a lot of “work”. In fact, avoid calling it “work” if you can. That makes it sound like it’ll take effort. Instead, call it something like thought starters for the ideation session. 

Share the key overall goal for the session so people know what you’re trying to achieve. Then give them some prompt questions to consider. Ideally, no more than 3 to stimulate their Zeigarnik subconscious brains ahead of the session. 

Example ideation stimulus

For example, say you run a D2C store. And your ideation planning goal is to come up with ideas to improve how you deliver products. You could share prompt questions like :-

  • if there were a World Cup for D2C product delivery, which brand would win it?
  • if Napoleon (or some other historical figure or celebrity) were in charge of our D2C delivery, what changes would they make?
  • if you could eliminate any pain point in the customer journey tomorrow, with no consequences, which would you get rid of?

The goal is to get people’s brains thinking about more creative perspectives. These types of prompt questions lower common barriers to creativity. E.g. asking people to think about how someone else might solve the problem and / or parking the idea of consequences. Many people hold back on ideas as they think they’ll get laughed at or that the idea is too risky. These types of questions remove those fears.

So use this preparation time to make people feel more comfortable with the idea of being creative. You’ll get a much broader and more diverse set of ideas on the day. 

Ideation planning - time on the day

As per our 5Ws of idea generation article, most ideation sessions are run in a different location to your usual workplace. In a hotel meeting room. At a sports venue. At your agency’s offices.

A change of scene usually gets people into a more creative frame of mind. 

However, there are 3 key time factors you’ll need to build into the day itself :-

  • when to start.
  • time breaks.
  • when to finish.

When to start

What time to start any group activity is always a challenge because of chronobiology.

Workshop post its generic contents

This is the idea that we all have biological clocks inside us. These circadian rhythms govern what time we prefer to go to bed and to get up, and when our peaks and troughs of energy are during the day. 

Chronobiology is driven by the suprachiasmatic nucleus part of our brain – a cluster of 20k cells in our hypothalamus. (See our article on how to use emotions for more on the hypothalamus). This regulates our body temperature and hormones, which help us fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning. This in turn affects our mood and performance throughout the day.

3 types of chronobiology

Dan Pink’s When shows there are 3 main chronobiology types :- 

  • larks (around 15% of people) – rise early and go to bed early.
  • owls (around 20% of people) – rise late and go to bed late. 
  • third birds (around 65% of people) — somewhere in between larks and owls.

You work out which type you are by answering these 3 questions about your usual sleeping routine :-

  1. What time do you usually go to sleep?
  2. What time do you usually wake up?
  3. What is the middle of those two times?

The key is how you answer question 3. 

Larks answer between midnight and 3.30am. Third birds answer between 3.30am and 6am. And owls answer between 6am and 10am.

Most 9-5 working hours are built to suit “third birds” as these are the most common group. 

Setting the start time

What this means for your ideation session start time is you should use what time your attendees normally start their working day as your starting point.

They’ll already be disrupted from their routine by having to travel to a different location. So you want the starting time to be as “un” disruptive as you can make it. 

Given that they’ll be travelling to an unfamiliar location, and either battling traffic and parking or using public transport, it’s usually better to allow some extra time for this.

Woman holding blanket over bottom half of her face to show fear

An “arrive from 9 for a 9.30 start” for an ideation session is very common. 

This also gives people (especially larks) some time at the start of the day to deal with any pressing emails and tasks which may have come in overnight. You want to allow people time to park those so they’re fully concentrating on the goal of generating ideas.

Time breaks

Those who’ve never been to an ideation session sometimes see them as a bit of a “jolly”. You get to go somewhere different. Eat snacks and drink coffee. Talk a lot. Write stuff on coloured Post-its. Where’s the hard work in that, they think.

However, the reality is, that you’re asking participants to have their brains fully engaged for longer than they probably would on an average day.

You’re also removing the autonomy they normally have in their day-to-day job to choose which tasks to focus on.

Woman wearing smart business suit in front of a laptop looking bored

Plus, you’re asking them to use the creative parts of their brains which they may only rarely get to use back in the office.

What this all means, is that it’s hard work for people’s brains. It’s easy for participants to lose energy and enthusiasm quickly. So you must schedule regular and long enough (15-20 minute) breaks during the day, to give their brains time to recharge. To let them check messages and deal with any side issues. Give them at least an hour for lunch to re-energise.

You should also make sure there’s enough variety in the creative exercises. Give people the chance to move around and work in different groups. A good facilitator keeps an eye on body language and energy levels and knows when breaks or energy refreshers are needed. 

When to finish

The finishing time depends on how much ground you need to cover, and how quickly you achieve the quantity and quality of ideas you wanted from the session.

However, because of flagging energy levels, it’s usually better to finish earlier than later. People rarely wish these sessions went on longer. You can lose lots of goodwill from attendees if you don’t finish on time or earlier. This also gives them time to get away to deal with personal matters (e.g. school pickups) and any work-related stuff that’s come up while they were ideating. 

The better you manage the time in the session, the better the ideas the team will come up with. You’ll also make it more likely you’ll get the same high level of participation and engagement from them in your next ideation session.

Ideation planning - time after

It’s tempting once the session’s over to think you’re finished. However, you’ll need to allow time the next day to review and organise the session’s outputs. Ideas which the team chose to prioritise and those they decided to park. 

You should also let the team’s Zeigarnik brains continue to work to see if it improves the ideas from the day. So share the session outputs when you’re happy with them. Ask the team if any more thoughts came to them after the session had finished.

Man writing blue shirt

It’s also worth booking a wrap-up session a few days later. Run it like the briefing session in reverse. Keep it short. The goal is to close the thinking and move on. Re-present the goal of the session. Share the top ideas and key actions which were decided on the day. Thank the team for their efforts and engagement.

You can then ask 2 quick questions to help close everyone’s thinking. 

First, what was their most positive memory from the day, i.e. which idea or activity is still stuck in their heads a few days later?

Then, if you were to run a similar session again, what one thing would they change about the session to make it better next time?

Conclusion - How to use time wisely in ideation planning

If coming up with ideas were easy, we’d all do it and the world would be full of brilliant ideas. But that’s clearly not the case.

Idea generation takes time and effort. But if you plan your time wisely, you can take out much of the effort involved in coming up with ideas. 

For example, giving attendees advanced notice of the session’s goal and some simple creative thought-starters. This lets their Zeigarnik subconscious brains do some of the idea work to prepare them to be more creative on the day. 

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

Having a clear structure to the day, including the start and finish times and regular breaks helps maintain energy levels and enthusiasm for the process. 

Finally, having a clear and quick wrap-up session a few days later to debrief and catch any remaining ideas which didn’t make it out on the day, helps you refine your idea outputs even further. 

Check out our creative thinking guide and our 5Ws of idea generation article for more on this. Or contact us if you need help with how to use your time wisely in ideation planning.

Photo credits

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Light bulb : Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

Business meeting : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Multicoloured parachute (adapted) : Photo by Chad Walton on Unsplash

Man looking at ceiling (adapted) : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

Woman covering face under blanket : Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Bored in front of computer : Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Man in blue shirt writing : Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

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