What “strategic ideation” is and isn’t

Having ideas is easy. Having ideas that have impact and change lives is hard. Putting such ideas into practice — if you can have the right ideas — is harder still.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

  • Ideation is defined as “the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas”.
  • Strategy is defined in multiple ways, of which the most appropriate, in the current context, is “the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal”.

There is no explicit definition of strategic ideation.

If you look up the combinations of the words “strategy + ideation” and “strategic + ideation” using your favorite search engine, you will find all sorts of different commentaries about what this is and how it “should” be done. However, …

If there is one thing that we are absolutely sure about, it’s that there is no one “right” way to do this. It depends, to an extraordinary extent, on understanding what an organization (or an individual) is seeking to achieve and how much it, he, or she can or is willing to invest in it.

It is also not true that strategic ideation is only about “big” ideas. Some of the most effective ideas can be very small ones — but their impact can be huge.

And it would be a mistake to equate “ideation” and “innovation”. But it is certainly true that strategic ideation is one way to stimulate and encourage the process of innovation.

So here are Ex Archa’s “principles” for strategic ideation:

  • Be crystal clear about the objective
  • Make sure you’ve accurately mapped the terrain
  • Know your audience(s)
  • Create concepts (“ideas”)
  • Plan for success (and for the possibility of failure)
  • Test selected concepts and refine them

Whether this is done by two people sitting in Starbucks trying to come up with a promotional slogan for a new business or by a team of 40 creative IT engineers trying to re-think how a piece of software should work is obviously important, but the principles remain the same.

Not so long ago, I used to tell new people who came to work with me that I wanted them to make mistakes. Why? Because we always tend to learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. If we reward people only for their “successes”, then as managers we make it clear that mistakes are a problem. But mistakes are a huge learning opportunity. If people are told that it is okay to make mistakes, then then they will know it is okay to try the previously untried.

Of course I also told people that there was another side to that particular coin, and that if they made the same mistake twice there was a cost involved!

The skill involved in strategic ideation is not about having ideas at all. It is about having the right idea for a very specific situation and being comfortable that it does indeed look and smell like the right idea — but don’t be surprised if sometimes it isn’t!

Seen from this perspective, “strategic ideation” is a core component of “business design”, and can be utilized to come up with anything from a completely new product or service to the right message for the right audience on the right day — delivered via the right medium.

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