Innovation isn’t simple. Coming up with new ideas when you’ve already been doing something for a long time can feel daunting, especially if everyone on your team is well-entrenched in the processes you’ve set up and the brand/voice/tone/identity you’ve spent years establishing. That’s why the ideation workshop exists – it is a powerful tool to help you get out of the stale modes of thought that can start to dull even the sharpest minds over time.

It’d be hard to find a successful CEO who doesn’t agree that innovation is the key factor for growth, so that means without it, there’s a good chance you’re either going to be spinning your wheels – or closing your doors.

The purpose of an ideation workshop featuring organized idea generation exercises is to get you and your team innovating — whether you want to change up a service you offer or totally revamp the way you market yourself. Ideation workshops are the holy grail of creative thinking and unique perspectives. And after you read this article you’ll be ready to hold your very own.

What Is an Ideation Workshop?

Ideation is the creative process of generating, developing and communicating new ideas – they can be ideas for starting a new business, a new product, new content, or even just inventive ways of talking about or marketing an existing product or service. You may have been to some brainstorming meetings yourself. The difference is, at ideation workshops, people aren’t just sitting around in a dimly lit boardroom waiting for the next round of snacks — instead, they’re pushing themselves to think differently.

Lateral thinking dominates ideation sessions and cultivates the ability to let go of old patterns in order to deliver new ideas. Ideation workshops, which include a myriad of idea generation exercises, are updated, superior versions of what we used to call brainstorming and they involve an organized, methodical process of getting together and dreaming up new ideas.

It’s helpful to point out “the process” to people who may feel intimidated by an “ideation workshop” because they don’t consider themselves “creative.” While creativity certainly can be a part of many ideation techniques, it isn’t actually what ideation is about. Ideation itself is a skill that can be learned and practiced, rather than the daunting (and arguably more innate) trait of creativity.

So, Why Can’t We Just Brainstorm?

The word brainstorming even sounds dubious. It sounds like going inside your head, pulling everything out of your brian-closet, blowing up a few things, maybe a tornado or a hurricane and finally, by some magic, a few gems shine from beneath the dust. Behold your ideas, which you can then pick up and share with your team. That chaos factor is one of the reasons that brainstorming has fallen out of fashion and more importantly, why the thinking has been expanded.

Bryan Mattimore, an expert on ideation techniques and co-founder of the Growth Engine Company — explained that brainstorming, 

“invented by Alex Osborn back in the 1940s, was based on the principles of withholding judgment and quantity over quality when it came to idea sessions. It’s still an important technique, and there will always be a time and a place for it – but since that time, there have been hundreds of other ideation techniques invented.”

An ideation workshop can help clarify a new company visionThe crucial difference between ideation and brainstorming is that in an ideation session “you introduce new stimuli to excite people’s brains in a new way. That’s where new ideas come from,” explains Mattimore.

In his latest book, 21 Days to a Big Idea!, he talks about ideation workshops he conducted with brands like Oreo and Chips Ahoy! to come up with new products and ideas for marketing campaigns.

“These companies have been around for 100 years,” he said, “how do you get people to start thinking about something differently when all these smart people have been thinking about it for a century already?”

His solution?

Avoid traditional brainstorming where people throw ideas to a whiteboard – and use triggers instead.

Mattimore’s team brought in exotic menus from restaurants all over the world as well as menus from the late 1800s. They also introduced different ingredients, spices, scents – a whole new set of stimuli to get people to start seeing and sensing different things. Instead of just thinking and talking, they were physically experiencing new things and ideating in new ways. This is what makes an ideation workshop an ideation workshop.

Mattimore is not alone in overhauling and expanding upon traditional brainstorming. Robert S. Siegel, ideator, innovator and founder of The Ideative Process said in an interview 

“brainstorming is just not a very effective method. Years ago, major magazines and newspapers began carrying stories debunking the brainstorming myth because, well…it really doesn’t work. Brainstorming isn’t about developing a lifelong skill like ideation. What we need is an approach that teaches lateral thinking, not just how to spout out a bunch of ideas in an afternoon session.”

The Value of the Ideation Workshop Setting

green plant on brown round coins
Photo by Visual Stories || Micheile

Of course, people can use idea generation exercises on their own. In fact, creative people are notorious for adorning “their working environment with sketches, pictures, models, and music, in order to ‘immerse’ themselves into their problem matter,” according to a Delft University study on visual ideation. However, getting people together in one room for a workshop setting focused on ideation training can produce noticeably better results.

Part of the benefit of ideation workshops is bouncing ideas off of other people and building on the ones that work. Mattimore says there is a real value to group thought. Naturally, he prefers the term “team ideation,” which he perceives as less pejorative, probably because it doesn’t have all the apocalyptic and soul destroying connotations of “group think.”

“It’s great to use the group to stimulate when you’re stuck – then break off into individual assignments when the time is right,” he says. “Bringing people together when they haven’t had success on their own is a fantastic way to get out of a thinking rut.”

Siegel agrees with this sentiment.

“It is this idea of an assembly, where groups become valuable,” he told us. “My brain holds certain information and your brain holds some of the same but also quite a bit of different info. If we network our brains via communication techniques; talking, writing, drawing; we enable much broader and much more complete thought.”

How to Run a Successful Ideation Workshop

So you’re ready to set up an ideation workshop and inspire your team to adopt new mindsets that can lead to enormous positive change? Right? Here’s what to do.

Decide Who’s Invited

Mattimore says it’s crucial to invite anyone who is going to have a hand in working on the project.

“If they’re going to work on the content, they should feel like they have part-ownership of the ideas – the best work always comes out of that feeling,”

but your invite list goes beyond that too.

Who needs to be there?

  • All content creators

Who will add unexpected value?

How to cultivate a productive dynamic for your ideation workshop?

Don’t shy away from curating conflict. You want to create an environment for ideation training where people feel comfortable piping up, aren’t afraid to look a little silly and feel listened to and rewarded for good ideas.

Choose a Gathering Place

Remember that your goal with the ideation workshop is to create a shift and change in the way people think things. So, taking them out of their environment during idea generation exercises can be a big help. When choosing a venue, keep the following ideas in mind:

  • Comfort is key, so look for a big space with comfortable seating.
  • Consider going off-site and out of the office environment to a co-working space, someone’s house or a public space like a park or a college campus.
  • Don’t choose a place where you will be limited by unexpected time constraints, inclement weather or other interruptions.

Mattimore initially didn’t feel that environment was particularly important, but he now thinks it is.

“The bottom line is, no matter how small of a budget you have, you want to make sure you pick a space that’s not going to impede your session.”

That means stay away from a big board room with a huge conference table in the middle where you won’t be able to break up into smaller groups or rooms with poor lighting, bad acoustics, etc.

Some of Mattimore’s most successful workshops have been in places and environments that trigger new ideas like Children’s Museums, at Culinary Institutes – even at the Disney Motor Speedway.

Pick Up Some Food and Beverages.

This one is pretty cut and Dark chocolate is the perfect ideation workshop snack. Make sure people have snacks, lunch or dinner and enough water, coffee and other beverages to keep them satiated throughout the day. People need to have energy and fuel to make sure their brains are functioning at their best. It’s best to take food and snack breaks to keep energy levels up.

Siegel likes to start a meeting with dark chocolate.

“Seriously, dark chocolate lifts peoples moods which improves their thinking – creative and analytic thinking.”

Devise a Workshop Schedule.

Now that you’ve decided to hold an ideation workshop and the small details are taken care of, you can get into the nitty-gritty of how the day will play out.

Start with a Warm-Up.

It is imperative to begin the workshop with a warm-up activity. Countless studies have found that the most creative moments happen when the mind is at rest and relaxed.

You need to make sure that people feel comfortable and at ease by getting them to interact and eliminating any tension or anxieties that might prevent them from making creative leaps and thinking on their toes. You want everyone there to be 100% present and engaged, not worried about what other people think.

Set Your Objectives.

Everyone knows that you’re there to come up with ideas, but it’s important to frame the problem correctly and articulate it clearly. Sometimes when we’re thinking about problems, we get the challenge all wrong. For instance, if the problem is that you need to install a bookshelf on your wall, the objective isn’t to get a ¼-inch drill, it’s to have ¼-inch drill holes in your wall so you can install the shelf.

Clarifying end deliverables.

How many ideas do you want to produce? How actionable should the ideas be? Make sure that each ideation workshop has a razor-sharp focus – you can always hold more for other topics. Wandering in different directions and trying to find focus is what eats up the most time in many ideation workshops and reduces the number of ideas you come up with.

Draw Boundaries.

The nature of ideation workshops calls for a little wandering of the mind – but too much can be a creativity killer. Along with clearly stating your objectives, be sure to set boundaries when you are framing the problem to be solved. You want to contain the play space so that no one wanders off into the traffic surrounding the playground.

Appoint someone or multiple people to guide (aka police) the conversation – that way when someone inevitably wanders away from the topic at hand, they can gently guide the discussion back to the focal point.

Split Into Teams.

Depending on how big your original group is, consider whether it might be beneficial to split into smaller groups of three or four. A more intimate setting will facilitate easier conversation and engage naturally quieter people because they won’t have to talk over others. Take breaks and change the group formations frequently.

Let the Idea Generation Begin!

low angle photography of drop lights
Photo by Skye Studios

Now that your team is all warmed up, objectives are clearly defined and you’ve organized yourselves into smaller groups, it’s time to launch into actual idea generation.

This phase usually involves three or four activities with short breaks in between. You can do more activities for shorter periods throughout the day depending on the nature of ideas you are looking for – for example, if you’re coming up with topics for your website or content marketing efforts, these might flow more easily than coming up with new products to sell the following year.

An ideation workshop could be the key to unlock innovation “I like to start off by stating the problem to be solved and the relevant constraints,” Siegel says.

“I want the subject matter experts to give presentations or discussions of their views on the issue. I want to dig so deeply into the product/service/problem/need/issue that our brains are buzzing.”

He recommends adding a bit more dark chocolate about halfway through the ideation process just to encourage the flow of ideas.

If you want some ideas for ideation techniques, we outlined some on our blog last week – check them out for a few good starter ideas. It might also be helpful to pick up a book like Gamestorming, or Bryan Mattimore’s awesome book Idea Stormers, which is filled with tons of ideation activities. The point of these activities is to figure out a way to view a topic in an unfamiliar way – which can lead to brand new ideas.

Since there are an endless number of ideation techniques, we asked Mattimore to tell us a little more about a few of his favorites.

Role play as your competitor.

“Role playing as your competitor is a great technique but we take it a step further and try role playing as companies that could potentially disrupt our industry,” he said. “For example, if you’re in the insurance business, role play as Amazon or Wal-Mart. What would happen if they came in and took over?”

Use the “A Day in the Life” technique.

“Whether your audience is a five-year-old kid or a retired stockbroker, think about what it’s like to wake up, go through the actual motions of the day and fall asleep at night. What are the problems and challenges they might face? What are the things they would be passionately interested in? Come up with a wish list for your audience – do they wish they could have more affordable medical care? Write an article about that.”

Free associate with “trend triggers.”

“There are dozens of trend sites where you can find out about different topics that are trending,” he told us. “Sites like, Mintel and Cassandra will help you make connections between your work and what’s going on in the world.” Gather topics that are popular in entertainment, the news, and culture, then try to find ways to connect what you’re doing to the topics that people are currently talking about.

Use word triggers from resource books. Ben & Jerry’s once came to Mattimore and said they needed a name for a new ice cream flavor within the next 30 minutes.

“I started scrambling to think about how to trigger people that quickly – I thought cartoons might work or pictures of different things that somehow evoke the company,” he explained. “Then an idea hit me. B&J is anti-authoritarian. I thought that using a slang dictionary to trigger people with actual off-the-cuff words might conjure up some great ideas. So I cut up dictionaries and used the entries as triggers – and we ended up coming up with SNAFU – Strawberries Naturally All Fudged Up. They loved it.”

So, consult resource books like dictionaries and thesauruses, and genius may strike.

Refine Your Ideas.

Okay. Now that you’ve done a bunch of ideation exercises with your team, you’re almost to the finish line. You’ve got a list of ideas, you’re probably tired, and the workshop is winding down.

But this last bit is one of the crucial parts of ideation sessions that you don’t want to skip: the refinement process. You don’t want to shove raw ideas into a filing cabinet or Dropbox file, never to be seen or heard from again, which is why it’s important to refine while you still have everyone in the same room. Siegel recommends taking a break before you start refining your ideas.

“Do something different, bring in a new kind of snack or subtly launch a discussion on something new and different; skip the discussions of sports and movies and talk about a play, painting, or ask everyone to go online and pull up an image of their favorite artwork, read a poem. Then go back to digging in deep. The ideas will keep getting closer to what you’re looking for.”

Once you’re ready to refine, the process involves two steps:

  • Looking at each idea and determining if it is feasible.
  • Stepping back to look at all the ideas as a whole and grouping them into batches.

An ideation workshop hones in on good ideas and excludes nebulous ones.Don’t be disheartened when doing this cuts down on the number of ideas you have. That’s the point. You want the best ideas to rise, and the impossible ones to go on their merry way. You also want to be able to group your ideas into smaller batches so you can assign them and follow up on them.

Siegel emphasized the importance of properly wrapping up ideation workshops.

“Here is the key challenge in working with groups. If I need a solution to a vexing problem with the telecommunications network and someone suggests selling mustard to Martians (yes, that was from a real ideation session) we’re not getting far. Instead, apply the real-world constraints in the problem and work through the solution in a directed manner. Don’t simply write a wild idea on a whiteboard and move on; dig into that idea until you can’t go further for lack of information — or find that the idea is not workable. Use the time in your group, with the smart people, to delve into the problem, consider the constraints, and work to solve the problem with the constraints in place. That is the real world.”

Wrap up the workshop.

blue and black pen beside orange sticky notes
Photo by Ravi Palwe

Once you’re down to only the very best ideas that have come out of your workshop, you are ready to close the session. But don’t let everyone go without taking a few final, crucial steps:

Clear outlines: Come up with clear outlines for the ideation that you’ve just accomplished. You’ve boiled down your thoughts to a set of strong ideas. Now, write down step-by-step plans for how these ideas will be put into motion, so you can imagine how to make them a reality.

Deliverables and next steps: Once you’ve outlined a plan for your new ideas, sort out the logistics for who will carry out each task associated with the idea. Who is responsible for each one and each part of the task? How will people follow up to make sure each step is accomplished? Make sure to delineate these steps as clearly as possible.

Growth Innovation experts at Edengene say that 

“It is always a mistake for a company to run a series of ideation workshops without any follow up to further develop the ideas generated for commercial success. Not only will the ideas end up gathering dust in a bottom drawer, but future ideas are then likely to be met with resistance, e.g. “why waste our time – nothing happened after the last workshop.”

Challenges of Ideation Workshops

Okay, so an ideation workshop is clearly an awesome way to innovate. And doing one is pretty simple once you make logistical arrangements and arm yourself with some knowledge about ideation exercises. However – ideation workshops don’t come without their fair share of challenges, so here are a few to be aware of before you get going.

Nebulous Ideas

A lot of the time, you can walk out of an ideation workshop with tons of great ideas only to lose steam and let them all fall by the wayside within a few days. One big problem with ideation workshops is coming up with great ideas that aren’t clearly defined. Most ideas are never brought to life successfully because ideas aren’t explicit enough.

Lack of Participation

If you’re not used to group activities or workshops, it can be hard to get your team to switch gears and get into the activities required at ideation sessions. If people aren’t participating or thinking on their toes and tossing out ideas, you aren’t going to get the most out of your workshop. That’s why it’s important to designate an excellent workshop leader and arm her with the knowledge and tools to maximize engagement.

Old Patterns

One of the biggest impediments to ideation is the tendency to stick to old patterns of thinking. It’s really hard to break down your assumptions and look at a problem or opportunity with new eyes – but a well-run ideation workshop can help you do exactly that.

Personality Clashes

Not all teams are magically hardwired to think well together or get along in situations that require teamwork. You might have team members that work well independently on different stages or steps of a project but go to blows when forced to be in the same room with each other. Great ideation workshops should focus on bringing together personalities that complement each other – even if this means breaking down into smaller group sessions.

Mattimore has had tremendous success leading ideation workshops and getting his clients, many of whom are giant Fortune 500 companies, to think outside of the box and come up with awesome ideas and insights for articles or promotional campaigns. “People today are very open to different idea generation techniques and realize what a valuable process it is,” he told us. “It’s exciting how willing people are to play and just enjoy themselves in these types of workshops– I think this is the reason marketing campaigns keep getting more inventive and interesting.”

Make creative ideation a daily habit.

Having an ideation workshop once in a while is a good strategy for shaking things up and making big changes. However, creative ideation should not just happen at ideation sessions; it can be made more effective by practicing ideation techniques regularly.

Siegel likes to promote the concept of being ideative in your daily life to feed more inspiration into a workshop setting – that is, not to merely come up with some things for a few hours or a day-long session, but to develop skills and a storehouse of information that can serve you forever.

“I use the acronym IDEA for Inundate – Deviate – Enhance – Assemble. You have to go beyond just being knowledgeable in your field. You have to Inundate yourself so deeply into your subject that you, literally, dream about it when you sleep. You also have to Deviate from your routines regularly. This can be as simple as trying a new restaurant for lunch once a week or as extensive as traveling around the world to an exotic location you’ve never visited to sample the local cuisine. While doing these activities, Enhance them by engaging as many of your senses as you can. Don’t just taste the food, take the time to inhale the aromas, study it visually, listen to the sounds of the cooking and the people eating, even touch the food. Think hard about the input coming in from your senses and file that information into your brain. Then, when you Assemble your ideas, you may apply some of this information deliberately, you may apply it indirectly, or you may save it until later. The information will be useful in Ideative thinking for the rest of your life.”

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