Every successful endeavor starts as an idea.
So in today’s unpredictable, often-chaotic, innovation-driven marketplace, where consumers expect something new (and better) every day, the ability to generate a continuous supply of ideas is critical. Whether you develop products, deliver services or streamline processes, these days if you’re not continually rethinking and redoing, you risk slipping into irrelevance.
But if generating ideas is sometimes a challenging undertaking, evaluating and selecting the best ones to implement can be even more so.
Well planned and skillfully led idea generation sessions can easily result in dozens, if not hundreds, of new ideas. Of course, only a handful might successfully address your challenge, and even fewer will be “great ideas.” So it’s up to you and your team to confidently separate the wheat from the chaff, identify the diamonds in the rough, and discern between the false glitter of fool’s gold and a genuine goldmine of an idea.
Before we go any further, it is worth examining some of the issues and dynamics that can make the evaluation and selection process so challenging.
Idea overwhelm—Inevitably, once the freewheeling, whirlwind idea-generation phase has ended, a brainstorming group will find itself staring at a sprawling paper jungle of ideas—a sea of concepts hastily scribbled down on flipchart paper, sticky notes, or whiteboards.
The prospect of sorting through, deciphering, and evaluating such a large volume of ideas can seem daunting and unmanageable. Unfortunately, in many instances, that proves to be the case.
Subjectivity and dominating personalities—Without an objective evaluation process in place before the selection process begins, the task can devolve into an ego-based battle of wills, where promising ideas live or die based on the subjective assertions of dominating personalities or the “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” whims of executive privilege. A surprising number of brainstorming sessions conclude when the boss (or the most senior-ranking group member) unilaterally selects the ideas he or she determines to be “the best” (which more often than not translates into “the ones I like most”).
Lack of selection criteria—The importance of establishing a set of selection criteria before beginning a brainstorming session cannot be overemphasized. Just what will a “good idea” look like? What qualities or attributes will it possess? What goals will it need to accomplish or benefits must it deliver? Objective criteria provide the essential benchmarks necessary for a fair and orderly evaluation process, by establishing a set of common reference points for all participants to use when considering the merits of each idea.
Aversion to selecting risky ideas—While most organizations tout the importance they place on bold, innovative thinking, in reality, not every executive or manager possesses the courage and strength of character required to champion risky new ideas. This kind of risk-averse mind-set can cause groups to shrink away from radically new or different solutions, or to search for ways to water down concepts that push the organization’s culture outside its comfort zone. Risk-averse organizations find it extremely difficult to innovate.
Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to help avoid these kinds of pitfalls and provide you with the skills and techniques you’ll need to navigate a smooth-running idea evaluation and select process.
5 Tips for More Effective Idea Evaluation and Selection
- Predetermine a set of objective selection criteria for evaluating the merits of ideas. Your selection criteria will serve as the objective benchmarks a group needs to help identify those specific characteristics, attributes, or benefits a winning idea must possess in order to successfully address the challenge at hand.In his best-seller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Steven Covey writes that a key principle for achieving success with any goal is to “begin with the end in mind.” This same principle applies to determining the set of criteria you will use to evaluate and select your group’s best ideas. Try to visualize as clearly as possible what the “perfect” solution or end result would look like.
Keep your criteria list short, simple, and to the point. For example:
Innovative—distinctly new, different, or better than anything in the market.
Simple—easy to understand, communicate, and implement.
Efficient—saves time, effort, money, material, and resources.
Try to limit the number of selection criteria to a manageable, easy-to-remember short list of five or six items. Too many criteria can bog down your selection process and make it feel unwieldy. Then before you begin your selection process, post a large copy of the selection criteria in the room where all can clearly read it.
- Harvest the most valuable ideas as you go. The simplest, most effective way to avoid the dilemma of “idea overwhelm” (the prospect of facing an overwhelming number of ideas to evaluate at the end of an ideation process) is to cull out the most valuable ideas after each round of idea generation. These harvested ideas are extremely valuable, so be sure to have them transferred to a separate sheet of paper. At the end of your idea-generation process, you will have an easy-to-manage short list of the most valuable ideas—rather than an overwhelming volume of ideas to sift through and evaluate.
- Narrow down the total list of ideas using your selection criteria as a yardstick. Once the group has completed its rounds of generating ideas and harvesting the most promising ones, the time has come for the final selection process. Review your selection criteria before starting the evaluation process, to ensure everyone is on the same page and understands the benchmarks for evaluating the merits of ideas.
- Keep discussions unconditionally constructive and free of conflicts. An important part of shepherding a group through the evaluation process is fostering an atmosphere that is collegial and focused on the task of narrowing down the number of ideas. A skillful leader continually monitors the room to make sure the group is working collaboratively through the selection process. Whenever participants disagree (or become argumentative), shift the conversation away from the area of disagreement and toward other aspects of the idea they can agree on.
- Establish rules for the idea selection process. Establishing a few, simple rules before the evaluation and selection process begins will help foster a more positive, collaborative experience. Here are some suggested rules you might want to have the group agree to:Respect differences in opinion. All points of view are valuable. If differences of opinion arise, focus upon those points the group does agree on.
Radical-sounding ideas should not be quickly dismissed. Even the wildest, most audacious idea might contain the seeds of an innovative, game-changing idea within it.
Select ideas first, improve ideas later. Don’t stop the selection process to “fix” ideas. Select them now; then schedule time to improve ideas later.
Combine ideas where possible. Eliminate redundancy; look for ways to combine ideas that share similar themes, approaches, traits, or attributes.
The boss votes last. When an authority figure participates in the selection process, his or her opinions can often sway a group’s evaluation of ideas. Ask the boss to hold comments until all others have weighed in.
Idea generation should be an enjoyable process—possibly the most fun we can have in the workplace. Think of generating ideas as “play, with purpose.” Then, when it’s time to evaluate and select your very best thinking, remember to apply these proven tips to ensure that part of the process is just as enjoyable and productive.