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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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Why read this? : We look at how asking 5W questions improves your idea generation process. Learn how asking why, what, who, where and when helps you identify better ideas. Read this to learn more about the 5Ws of idea generation.

We all like the idea of idea generation, right? 

Why? Because we like ideas. Good ideas give us a sense of joy and purpose.

We need them.

But, actually doing idea generation, hmmm, not so much. That means doing some work. Usually in workshops. Urgh. 

We don’t like the idea of those so much, do we?

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

But without the work, there are no ideas. So this week we look at how to make the ideas process easier, by applying the 5Ws model to idea generation. We’ll break the process into why, what, who, where and when so you can manage it in easier chunks. (See our design psychology article for more on chunking).

Idea Generation - Why?

Let’s start with why. This is pretty simple. You need idea generation because your business needs ideas to grow.

Ideas fuel your business. Without them, your business stalls. Idea generation is like pulling into the petrol station to fuel your business’s engine.

Fully fuelled, your business has energy and momentum. Ideas move you towards your goals. They drive your business forward. 

Man filling up his car with petrol at a petrol station

But not every business journey follows the same route. You can use something like the Ansoff matrix (often used in marketing innovation) to map out different directions for growth.

There are 4 main growth directions based on choosing existing or new products and markets. Market penetration, market development, product development and diversification. 

Ideas for existing products or markets focus on improvements. Ideas for new products or markets focus on innovation.

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

Improvement ideas

Improvement ideas come from customer experience gaps, or weaknesses with existing products or markets. These ideas close gaps. They turn weaknesses into strengths.

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

It’s an evolutionary approach. It’s based on efficiency via certainty, predictability and routine. (See our marketing evolution article for more on this).

Creative thinking - operational efficiency

These ideas are common in big brand marketing plans. These review the 4Ps marketing mix and show how to improve product, price, place and promotion.

Raise the product quality. A more attractive price point. Better distribution. Sharper comms. All adaptive improvements to grow your existing business.

Innovation ideas

For new products and markets, you need more innovative ideas. You do something different to grow your business. 

You use the marketing innovation process to plan out these new directions and stay on track.

It starts with idea generation. This stage creates many small and rough ideas. You then refine these through the process until only the best 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 areas (diversification). These can come out of market research, or even just what’s trending on Google.

All these options are fuelled by idea generation.

Inspiring ideas

If ideas are fuel for your business, then your team is the engine which uses them to drive the business forward. You grow your business when your team’s engine is well-fuelled with ideas.

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. To commit to action. People thrive on ideas. And thriving people make your business thrive.

Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc. about Pixar talks about how ideas and creativity drive their people and culture. Inspired idea-driven teams are at the heart of their success.

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

So 3 clear reasons we need idea generation. To improve. To innovate. And to inspire. Now, 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 have 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 easiest way to express an idea.

A few written or spoken words or sentences which 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 a 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. They need to be simple enough to understand and remember, but also interesting and original enough to inspire people.

Not easy to do well.

In an idea statement, as Strunk and White might put it, you must omit unnecessary words with eagerness and relish. (See our 5 writing habits article for more on this).

Examples of where you use idea statements include :-

  • Brand identity creation – to refine brand assets like your essence, values and personality.
  • New product research – to describe an innovation feature or benefit when testing it with customers.
  • Advertising idea research – to share an advertising idea to evaluate its impact on customers.

Idea design

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

Sketches, images and illustrations help people visualise what an idea looks like. That makes it easier for people to understand and remember.

Graphic design skills drive this visualisation. For example, using tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to create visual idea designs. Examples of where idea designs are common include :-

Notepad showing design sketch of an outdoor cafe / garden
  • Advertising development – to draw a storyboard for a TV advert or 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 – 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. They want to see a detailed idea plan.

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

These need detail that goes beyond what’s in the idea statement and design (which are often part of the introduction to the idea plan). 

White piece of paper on a desk saying "Marketing Strategy" surrounded by office stationery, plants and other marketing books

These longer documents make sure the idea has been fully thought through. They give everyone specific clarity on how the idea works. The clarity comes from the actionable detail in the plan. You use storytelling skills to bring the idea plan to life in an engaging, compelling way.

Idea Generation - Who?

In terms of creative ideas, it’s clear that culture influences how creativity works in your business.

And it’s the people in the business who create that culture in the first place.

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

Creativity’s not an on-off switch. You have 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 creative personality types article showed how differently people approach creativity. For example, it shared how :- 

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

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

  • Introvert Thinkers like to analyse and reflect. They’re thoughtful and measured. 
Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

You need a mix of different idea generation approaches to get the best out of each type.

For example, interactive workshops and brainstorming sessions work well for Extrovert Feelers. 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 other people. 

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

Combine these personality types, and you get a broader range of ideas. Pull in some Introvert Feelers too. They think people first. And they’re also good at bringing harmony to diverse thinking teams. 

Roles and responsibilities

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

You should assign roles and responsibilities to set expectations and improve decision-making. (See also our creative thinking ideas article).

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 focused. They also deal with difficult people and manage group dynamics. (See our easy creative ideas article for more on this). 

Everyone else involved is a subject matter expert / contributor. They bring knowledge and technical skills to help generate better ideas. Typical 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 forecast and profit and loss.

Idea inspire people

Going back to our earlier point of ideas for inspiration, inspiration works differently for “who” is involved. 

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


There are 2 types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic. 

Extrinsic motivation uses rewards and punishments to motivate people. As Dan Pink’s 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. Extrinsic motivation can work in short bursts. But it doesn’t work well for longer-term idea generation. 

Intrinsic motivation factors on the other hand are self-driven. It’s where people can 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. 

These are better for long-term idea generation. You get better ideas if people feel they can work on their ideas, improve their skills and see the impact it’ll 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. We like how Pixar call these initial ideas “ugly babies”. You need to nurture these, not kill them off too early

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 easy creative ideas article, location also plays a role in idea generation.

Location can trigger people to be more creative. That’s why so many creative sessions take place away from the normal workplace. 

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

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

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

A change of location helps signal this different “mode”. (See our generating creative ideas article for more on this). To improve idea generation, take people away from routine operational work into an environment which signals creativity. That environment can be anywhere. At your marketing agency offices. At a hotel or bar. 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 5Ws, it’s the one which compels people to action. Saying “when” commits people to doing the work.

When helps manage people’s energy

Idea generation uses 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 which flow through the axons and dendrites in our brains.

The energy for 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 do you think there’s always plenty of coffee and snacks in idea workshops?

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

So you make sure when you do idea generation is when people have the most energy for it. And you manage their energy levels during the process. You give them time to recover afterwards.

Think about how long you want people to spend on idea generation, for example. 20 minutes? An hour? All day? The longer spent coming up with ideas, the more energy it takes. So, you need to build in more breaks to let people 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 start sooner. “What” the idea needs to look like – statement, design or plan – influences how long it takes to produce.

When you decide who’s in the idea generation team, you work around their availability. Most people have “normal” jobs to do. You have to fit idea generation into their schedule. This takes time to set up. Most people are busy, not sitting waiting for your invite. 

Finally, with external locations for idea generation, you need to book the venue. You need to match when people can make it to when it’s available.

When turns ideas into actions

Deciding when idea generation is happening, creates urgency and momentum.

It makes it real.

It moves idea generation from a thought to a commitment to act. You want action. Ideas need to drive actions. 

This commitment is the driving force which turns ideas into actions. And it’s only when ideas happen that you see them fuel growth 

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

Check out our creative thinking guide for more on the idea process. Or get in touch 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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