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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? : Idea generation is the process that supplies the ideas you need to fuel your business growth. Applying the 5Ws – why, what, who, where and when – can make that process work better. Read this to learn the 5W questions you need to answer to generate more and better ideas. 

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

Why? Because we like ideas. Good ideas bring us joy. Clarity. A sense of purpose.

We need them.

But, idea generation, well that’s more than an idea. It’s an action. And actions need processes, plans and hard work. And 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 them, there’s no ideas. So this week we try to make it a bit easier. We show how to generate ideas using the 5Ws model – why, what, who, where and when. 

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

Idea Generation - Why?

The 5Ws starts with why. If you’re clear on why you need idea generation, you’re more motivated to do it. Put simply, you need idea generation because you need ideas.

Ideas are like fuel for your business. Without them, your business doesn’t move. Idea generation is like a pit stop, an ideas petrol 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. 

Man filling up his car with petrol at a petrol station

It sets you up for the next leg of your business growth journey. It moves your business forward. 

But not every business growth journey follows the same route. We can use the Ansoff matrix (often used in marketing innovation) to map out different sources of growth.

Like the 4 points of the compass, growth comes from 4 different directions.

Market penetration, market development, product development and diversification. 

Ideas for existing customers or markets focus on improvements. Ideas for new customers 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 customers or markets. These ideas close gaps and 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. You make small but regular upgrades.

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

Creative thinking - operational efficiency

You often find these ideas in bigger brand marketing plans. These plans often review your 4Ps marketing mixproduct, price, place and promotion, then show how to improve them. 

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

Innovation ideas

For new customers and markets, you need more innovative ideas. You do something different to find growth for your business. 

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

It starts with idea generation.

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

All these growth journeys are fuelled by idea generation.

You need a process to inspire ideas

If ideas are fuel for your business, then your team is the engine that uses them to drive the business forward. You grow your business when your team’s engine is well fuel 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 and commit to action. People thrive on ideas, and thriving people makes your business 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.

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 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 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 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 it also needs to be 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 you often find idea statements include :-

  • Brand identity creation – to test brand identity elements like your essence, values and personality.
  • New product research – to describe an innovation feature or benefit to test 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, 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 make 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 – 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). 

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

They take longer to do and they cover more ground. But they give people specific clarity on how the idea actually works. Plans make sure the idea has been fully thought through.  

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.

Idea Generation - Who?

As per this previous creative ideas article, your culture influences how creative people in your business 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 there are different approaches to creativity. Each type brings something different to the idea generation process. :- 

  • 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

Adding these different types together generates more and better ideas.

Interactive 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. 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 finding a way to bring harmony to diverse thinking teams. 

Roles and responsibilities

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

You need to assign 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. They also plan how to deal with difficult people and how to manage group dynamics (see our article on easy creative ideas for more on this). 

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 forecast and profit and loss of business opportunities. 

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, 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 their 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 babies”. You need to nurture these, not kill them off too early. (see our creative approvals article 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 flow 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 workshops?

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. 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 you spend coming up with ideas, the more energy you use up. So, you need to build in more breaks 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. You have to fit idea generation into their schedule. This can take time to do. Most people are busy, not sitting waiting for your invite. 

And finally, with external locations for idea generation, you need to book the venue. You need to match up when people can make it, and when the location can be booked.

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. You want action.  Ideas need to drive actions. 

This commitment Is the driving force that 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’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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