James Rudolph, Senior Industrial Designer, Farm Design, Inc.
MEDdesign

Effectively Selecting Ideation Methods for Medical Product Development

By James Rudolph
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James Rudolph, Senior Industrial Designer, Farm Design, Inc.

Ideation sessions can provide an effective platform for creating novel and innovative ideas. With so much material and so many ideation methods available, however, one of the biggest challenges is selecting the most appropriate ideation method. How do you go about selecting a method to ensure you are addressing a problem in the most effective way?

Ideation sessions can provide an effective platform for creating novel and innovative ideas. With so much material and so many ideation methods available, however, one of the biggest challenges lies in selecting the most appropriate ideation method. 

Two factors are critical when selecting an ideation method: one, correctly identifying the type of problem to be solved, and two, deciding on an appropriate degree of transcendence. See Figure 1 for a visual organization of the selection process.

Identifying the problem: The first step in selecting an ideation method is to understand the type of problem you are solving. For example, if the technology is already developed and your task is to design a more efficient process, you might consider starting with a method that has been proven to be effective for workflow problems. Identifying the right problem can be as challenging as developing a solution, so be sure you have a thorough understanding of what it is you are trying to solve before wasting valuable resources. 
Degree of transcendence: Early in the development process, it helps to explore far reaching ideas, but this may not be the case in later phases of development. It’s important to know where you are in the development process, so that you can decide on an appropriate degree of transcendence.  Transcendence is defined as the degree by which you deviate from existing ideas or solutions. There are a number of reasons transcendence might be inhibited in group ideation sessions, including cognitive challenges such as social anxiety. Fortunately, some ideation methods are better suited to tradition, while others are more geared towards transcendence. It is important to decide how far you want to push the ideas so that you set appropriate expectations and enable individuals to focus on the right problem. 
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Key attributes
The two criteria outlined above will not alone ensure successful ideation sessions. In addition, there are key attributes that must be considered before conducting any group ideation session. 
 
Resources available: People are the most valuable resource in an ideation session, so it’s important to ensure you have the right people for the job. Most successful sessions involve an interdisciplinary team of individuals, including people with domain knowledge about the problem. 
 
Degree of structure: Some ideations methods provide more guidelines and/or processes. Research has shown that individuals new to group ideation perform better using more structured methods. Inspiration card workshops, for example, outline three steps to developing ideas, including a period of divergent thinking and a period of convergent thinking.
 
Sources of inspiration: There are countless ways to introduce inspiration to an ideation session, many of which are described within the specific ideation methodologies. Sources of inspiration can be physical, literary, metaphorical, technology based, or purely imaginative. Sources of inspiration can greatly influence the direction of the session, so give thoughtful consideration to the inspiration you provide.
 
Good practices
Applied Imagination author Alex T. Osborn’s original four rules still apply: (1) go for quantity, (2) encourage unexpected ideas, (3) defer judgment, and (4) combine and improve ideas. The initial goal is divergence—to create a lot of ideas. You should evaluate ideas, using specific criteria, later in the process.
 
Provide breaks: Research has shown that brief breaks during an ideation session can lead to increased productivity throughout the session. Breaks allow participants to make novel connections or consider new ideas without actively considering the problem.
 
Create and enforce rules: It almost sounds counterintuitive, but studies have found that providing rules enhances productivity. The rules can be as simple as: (1) stay focused on the problem, (2) do not tell stories, and (3) do not criticize.
 
Getting stuck: It’s inevitable that at some point in the session the group will run out of ideas and/or energy to explain the ideas. Consider using quick, informal methods, such as Provocative Operation or Oblique Strategies, to reignite creative thinking.
 
Positive motivation and incentive: When team members are held accountable for delivering good ideas they make a deliberate effort to better understand the problem and contribute to the overall success of the team.
 
Concluding thoughts
Organizations can increase the likelihood of conducting successful ideation sessions by sharing experiences in an editable database. By documenting the elements of each session (including the process, people involved, and sources of inspiration used), organizations can develop a company-wide knowledge base highlighting successful ideation experiences. Finally, increased productivity during ideation sessions is not enough to ensure innovation. Ideation sessions must be combined with suitable decision making and down-selection tools to ensure creative ideas are appropriately implemented. 

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James Rudolph, Senior Industrial Designer, Farm Design, Inc.

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