The 5Ws of idea generation

Two post it notes - one with a light bulb sketch and one with 5Ws - why? what? who? where? when?

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Snapshot : Great ideas fuel business growth. But how do you encourage idea generation so your business has a regular supply? In this article, we use the 5Ws model – why, what, who, where and when – to refine idea generation into actionable chunks. Learn how answering the 5Ws of idea generation keeps your business topped up with great ideas.

We all like the idea of idea generation, don’t we? 

Why? Because we like ideas. Good ideas bring us joy, clarity and a sense of purpose.

We need them.

But, idea generation, well that’s more than an idea. It’s an action. And actions need plans, hard work and commitment. 

The idea of those things we like a lot less.

Two post it notes - one with a light bulb sketch and one with 5Ws - why? what? who? where? when?

But without them, there’s no ideas. So, this week we’re going to outline the actions you need for idea generation using the 5Ws model – why, what, who, where and when. 

The 5Ws model chunks down a big topic like idea generation into more actionable steps. (see our design psychology article for more on chunking).

Idea Generation - Why?

The 5Ws starts with why. A clearer understanding of why you need idea generation makes you more motivated to do it. 

You need idea generation because you need ideas. Ideas are like fuel for your business. Without a fuel tank of ideas, your business doesn’t move. 

Idea generation, that’s where ideas come from. Think of it like a pit stop. An ideas petrol / gas station where you fuel up your business. 

Fully fuelled, your business has energy and momentum. Ideas drive you towards your goals. Idea generation refreshes and re-energises. It makes sure you’re all set for the next leg of your business growth journey.

But not every business growth journey follows the same route. We can use the Ansoff matrix (which we discuss more in our guide to marketing innovation) to map out different routes for growth.

Like the four points of the compass, growth comes in four different directions.

Market penetration, market development, product development and diversification. 

Ideas for existing customers or markets focus on improvements, and ideas for new customers or markets focus on innovation.

Ansoff matrix - Marketing innovation options - 2 x2 matrix of new/existing products and markets

Ideas for improvement

These ideas for improvements come from gaps or weaknesses in the customer experience for existing customers or markets. They close gaps and turn weaknesses into strengths.

As per our article on creativity in business, improvements are an adaptive approach to innovation. You adapt what you already have to make it better. You make small but regular upgrades.

It’s an evolutionary approach that drives efficiencies through certainty, predictability and routine.

Creative thinking - operational efficiency

(see our article on marketing evolution versus market revolution for more on adaptive innovation).  

You see this adaptive approach in marketing plans for well-established brands. These plans review what you currently do with the 4Ps marketing mixproduct, price, place and promotion – and propose ideas on how to adapt and improve them. 

Improve product quality. A better price deal. More accessible distribution. Improved communications. All adaptive improvements fuelled by ideas that come out of marketing planning idea generation. 

Ideas for innovation

For new customers and markets, you need ideas for innovation. Innovation ideas take your business in new directions to look for growth. 

The marketing innovation process helps you plan out these new directions and keeps you on track.

It starts with idea generation.

The idea generation stage creates many small and rough ideas. You then refine these ideas though the process until only the highest quality ideas remain.

These are the ideas you launch.

Marketing innovation process - formal approach to screening and approval

You solve new problems for existing customers (product development). You find new markets for your product (market development). And sometimes, you jump into completely new product – market combinations (diversification). 

All these growth journeys are fuelled by idea generation.

Ideas for inspiration

If ideas are the fuel for your business, then your team is the engine that uses up that fuel and drives the business forward. You improve your business performance when you use ideas to help that team “engine” work better. 

As we’ve said, everyone likes ideas. We need them. 

Idea generation inspires people to come up with ideas. It motivates them to think creatively and commit to action. That helps people thrive, which in turn is what makes businesses thrive.

In Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc. about Pixar, he talks about how ideas and creativity drive their people and culture. Inspired idea-driven teams are central to their success.

Inspired teams can transform a mediocre idea. But if a great idea hits a mediocre uninspired team, that idea’s going nowhere.

Now we’re clear why we need idea generation – improvements, innovation and inspiration, let’s move on to what an idea actually is.

Toy doll Woody from Toy Story lying on the floor

Idea Generation – What?

Ideas exist as intangible thoughts in our heads. But they need to be expressed in some sort of tangible form so we can share and spread them.

This tangible form of an idea is usually a statement, design or plan :- 

Idea statement

A statement is the simplest way to express an idea.

A few written or spoken words or sentences that bring the idea to life.

For example :- 

  • This car does 50 more miles to the gallon than its nearest competitor. 
  • The only mobile phone with a 64 megapixel camera. 
  • For pregnant women, a membership program that gives access to their own personal health coach. 
Person wring at a table - close up of their arm with a coffee mug in front of them

It takes strong writing skills to craft idea statements. In a few words you want to write an idea that inspires people, but which is also easy to understand and remember.  

Not easy to do well.

In a short idea statement, as Strunk and White might put it, you need to omit unnecessary words with eagerness and relish. (see our article on 5 writing habits for more on this).

Examples areas where idea statements are common include :-

  • Brand identity development – to test key elements of your brand identity like your essence, values and personality with customers.
  • New product development research – to describe an innovation feature or benefit to see if customers understand / value it.
  • Advertising idea research – to share an advertising idea to evaluate its impact on customers.

Idea design

Idea statements are easy to share and remember, but an idea design brings an idea to life more than words alone can. 

Sketches, images and illustrations help people visualise what an idea looks like.

Visuals are easier than words for people to understand and remember.

Graphic design skills maker visual ideas better. For example, you can use tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to bring ideas to life visually.

Notepad showing design sketch of an outdoor cafe / garden

Example areas where idea designs are common include :-

  • Advertising development – to draw a storyboard for a TV advert or a mock up a printed advert for creative approval before you make it.
  • Packaging development – to research potential packaging changes in colours, typography and logos to understand their impact on customers. 
  • Customer experience improvements – to sketch a website page or email layout to test with customers.

Idea Plan

Sometimes people need more detail about an idea than a statement or design covers. That detail comes out when you express your idea as a plan.  

This mostly happens when sharing ideas inside your business. For example, with creative approvals or business cases in marketing innovation.

Those sort of ideas usually need a plan. 

Plans are longer versions of the idea statement and design (which are often part of the introduction to the idea plan). 

They’re harder to understand and remember, but they give people specific clarity on how the idea works.

This clarity comes from the actionable detail that sits under the big idea. To organise this detail in an engaging, compelling way, you need storytelling skills to bring the idea plan to life for the audience.

Idea Generation - Who?

As per our article on ways to generate more creative ideas, your business culture influences how creative people are. But it’s also people who create the culture in your business in the first place.

To encourage idea generation, you need to consider “who” gets involved, and what drives their creativity. 

Creativity’s not an on-off switch. You need to understand what makes different people tick, and how to use that for better idea generation. 

Light switch on a wall, labelled Creativity on and off

Personality types

Our article on creative personality types showed how there are different approaches to creativity. 

Extrovert Feelers need to socialise and work with others to come up with ideas. They’re full of energy and enthusiasm.

Extrovert Thinker types like to focus on the task and making progress. They’re competitive and driven.

And Introvert Thinkers like to analyse and reflect to find better ideas. They’re thoughtful and measured. 

Each type brings something different to the idea generation process. Adding these different types together generates more and better ideas.

Interactive group workshops and brainstorming sessions work well for Extrovert Feelers for example. Their energy for new ideas grows as they work with others. 

Setting clear targets and milestones works well for Extrovert Thinkers. Challenge them to hit a target number of ideas by a specific deadline, or to generate better ideas than competitors. 

Play to the natural strengths of Introvert Thinkers and ask them to focus on research, analysis and stimulus preparation. These all improve the idea generation process.

Combine these personality types (and throw in some Introvert Feelers to pull them together as a team) and you get a much broader range of ideas. 

Roles and responsibilities

It’s not just who does idea generation, but also who does what. 

You need to assign some roles and responsibilities to set expectations and improve decision-making. (see also our article on creative thinking ideas).

For example, assign a single opportunity owner (rather than a committee).

This role is accountable for what happens to the ideas and has the power to make decisions. 

Next, assign a facilitator.

As summary of the three key roles in idea generation - Opportunity owner, facilitator and contributor

The facilitator is accountable for the idea generation process. They make sure the process stays on track and the team stay focussed and motivated. 

Everyone else in the idea generation process is then a subject matter expert / contributor. This role brings specific knowledge and technical skills to help the team generate better ideas. 

Examples of subject matter expert areas include :- 

  • Customer understanding market researchers and customer service teams who understand customer needs, and salespeople who understand retailer needs. 
  • Operational capability – Operations and supply chain people who understand how products are made and delivered to customers.
  • Business planning – Finance teams and business leaders who review the projected sales, costs and profits of business opportunities. 

Idea inspire people

Going back to our earlier point of ideas for inspiration, we should cover how that inspiration works for “who” is involved. 

The more ideas inspire people, the more motivated those people feel. They work harder, feel happier and keep going when things get tough. 


There are two key types of motivation in business – extrinsic and intrinsic. 

Extrinsic motivation uses rewards and punishments to motivate people. As Dan Pink in his book Drive describes them, these are typically “if … then …” motivators. If you come up with this many ideas, then you’ll get a bonus (or won’t be fired). They’re carrots and sticks. 

These types of motivations might work in short bursts, but they don’t tend to work well for idea generation longer-term. 

Intrinsic motivation factors on the other hand are self-driven. It’s where people have the ability to act with :-

  • autonomy – they have control over what they do.
  • mastery – they can work on getting better at something.
  • purpose – they know what they do makes a difference. 

This type of motivation is better for idea generation long-term. You’ll get better ideas if people feel they can choose to work on those idea, they can improve their skills and know the impact it will have. 

Motivation matters because it’s easy to get demotivated when your ideas get rejected or changed. But ideas will always evolve. They have to. As the team at Pixar call it, initial ideas are often “ugly”. (see our article on creative approvals for more on this). 

To create beautiful ideas, you need to bring together different personality types with clear roles and responsibilities who are intrinsically well motivated.

Idea Generation - Where?

As per our article on easy creative ideas, location also plays a role in idea generation.

Location can be a trigger for people to act more creatively. That’s why so many creative sessions take place away from the normal work place. 

In the normal work place, people are in “operations” mode. They follow routines, procedures, rules and work with known solutions. 

But you need people to switch to “creative” mode for idea generation. They need to review and reflect, to speculate, to experiment and to develop solutions. 

Creative and operations - diagram showing differences between two different ways of working

A change of location helps signal this different behaviour. (see our article on generating creative ideas for more on this). 

To improve idea generation, take people away from routine operational work into an environment that signals creativity. 

That environment can be anywhere. At your marketing agency offices. At a hotel or hospitality venue. Even in a shared online space. Wherever inspires you. 

Idea Generation – When?

Our final idea generation 5W question is “when?”. When’s important because out of the five questions, it’s the one which compels people to action. Saying “when” commits to people to generating and acting on ideas.

When helps manage people’s energy

Idea generation uses up a lot of energy. You can’t do it all the time. Do it too much or for too long and people feel drained. 

There’s a reason for that. 

Ideas come from thoughts, and thoughts are small charges of electric current that flows though the axons and dendrites in our brains.

The energy to make these thoughts comes from the calories we consume. And it uses a lot of energy. Our brains are 2% of our body weight but account for up to 20% of our daily calorie consumption. 

Ideas and thoughts burn up energy and calories. Why’d you think there’s always plenty of coffee and snacks in idea generation sessions?

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

So choose when to do idea generation to get people when they have the most energy for creating ideas. Manage their energy levels during the process and give them time recover / relax afterwards.

Think about how long you want people to spend on idea generation for example. Twenty minutes? An hour? All day? The longer people spend on idea generation, the more energy it takes and the more breaks they need to recover. 

Why, what, who and where drive when

The answers to why, what, who and where often influence when you do idea generation.

For example, if your “why” is business critical, you’ll want to start sooner. “What” the idea needs to look like – statement, design or plan – influences how long it’ll take to produce. 

When you decide who’s in the team for idea generation, you need to work around their availability. Most people have “normal” jobs to do, and they have to work idea generation into their schedule.

And finally, with external locations for idea generation, you need to schedule the session around the location’s availability.

When turns ideas into actions

When you say “when idea generation” is happening, it creates a sense of urgency and momentum.

It makes it real. 

It moves idea generation from a thought to a commitment to action.

This commitment makes ideas happen. And it’s only when ideas happen that you see them fuel the growth of your business. 

Person holding calendar with 9 days crossed out with the letter x

Conclusion – The 5 Ws of idea generation

Ideas fuel your business. Idea generation makes sure you have a steady supply of good ideas to keep your business moving. 

Ask and answer the 5Ws – why, what, who, where and when – about idea generation, and you’ll have a much clearer idea about how to do it in your business.

You’ll identify the business benefit (the “why”) and “what” format the idea needs to be in – statement, design or plan. It’ll help you think about “who” to involve and how to inspire them. And finally, the 5Ws will help you decide “where” and “when” idea generation happens. 

Check out our article on creative thinking for an overview on the whole idea process. Or contact us if you need help with idea generation in your business. 

Photo credits

Idea Bulb Post it (adapted) : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Petrol Station Fill-up : Photo by Brad Starkey on Unsplash

Toy Story Woody doll : Photo by Melanie THESE on Unsplash

Person writing near mug : Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Sketchpad : Photo by Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash

Marketing Strategy : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Creativity Switch (adapted) : Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

Shout (adapted) : Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Bored in front of computer : Photo by on Unsplash

Calendar (adapted) : Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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Two post it notes - one with a light bulb sketch and one with 5Ws - why? what? who? where? when?

The 5Ws of idea generation

Snapshot : Great ideas fuel business growth. But how do you encourage idea generation so your business has a regular supply? In this article, we use

Share this content
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