What happens when you put a bunch of chefs, marketing people, food scientists and salespeople all in the same room and tell them to come up with some new spring-time LTO (limited-time offer) menu concepts? You will probably get about 10 flip charts worth of creative and innovative ideas all detailed out in various sharpie colors. Most companies refer to this as a “brainstorming” or an “ideation” session, and it’s a great way to create a reserve pool of “ready-to-launch” ideas like new products, recipes, promotions or marketing materials.

But how do you actually assemble and compile the ideas and concepts that emerged from your session? As it turns out, there is an actual method to the madness, and if you follow the methods, you are more likely to end up with products on the shelf than product ideas that are just going to be “shelved.”

But what is this process, and how does it all happen?

A few weeks ago, I took a 1-day class in ideation training with Susan Howe, founder of the Intrinsic Group and a graduate of the Creative Problem Solving Institute & Synectics for Advanced Ideation Facilitation. I learned that brainstorming is the process of spontaneously sharing ideas, but ideation is a process that starts with a task headline, includes the spontaneous brainstorming and leads to a client selecting concepts, which can then ultimately lead to possible solutions, prototypes and finished products. An ideation session can be anywhere from 40 minutes to 3 days, and while my summary will not duplicate the real experience, it can provide you with some guidelines the next time you get your group together for an impromptu “brainstorming session.”

The Other Players. There are four key players in the ideation game: the client, the scribe, the facilitator and the other idea-generating participants. The client is the one who needs the results to move their business forward, the scribe writes all those ideas on flip charts and sticks them all over the walls, and a facilitator or moderator keeps the group moving along, encourages participation and divergence, breaks barriers, coaches and—in general—makes things easy. The facilitator should not participate in the idea generation themselves; they have to remain objective and keep the group focused.

Set the Objective. Before you even begin to generate ideas, you need to have an objective, which should be presented in such a way that it invites actionable ideas. For example, your objective could be to introduce five new flavors of potato chips to the market that no one else is doing in retail. The objective is usually set by one person, aka, “the client.”

Pick Your Team. Once the objective is determined, pick a team of 6 to 10 people who are specialists in that particular field, some generalists in the field and a few wild cards, including a non-expert who can contribute unexpected ideas.

Pre-Investigation. Make sure the team knows what the objective is and encourage them to go out and explore that concept. Visit supermarkets, read up on the latest flavor trends, or whatever they need to bring inspiration and ideas to the session. A culinary tour could be part of this pre-investigation session, which can inspire the team by viewing specific examples of the latest on-trend items in the marketplace.

Idea Generation. There are numerous ways to stimulate creative ideas. Springboards such as having everyone in the room saying what they wish for is a great way to start. “I wish for flavors that remind me of my childhood in West Africa,” or “I wish for flavors that bring me back to the ranch in Texas,” etc. Other techniques include the stimulus response, pulling random objects out of a bag and having the participants describe what ideas they generate from it. The generation can also include an excursion, which can take place before the actual ideation or used as a break in the middle of the session. The main goal is to get people talking and exploring untapped ideas. The participants can divide into smaller teams to generate more lists, and then share with the other teams.

Group Selection. After the ideation is over and the walls are covered with flip chart pages covered with ideas, it’s time to narrow it down. Give everyone stickers to place by their favorite ideas. The client does not participate in the group selection.

Client Selection. The client then picks their favorite concepts and ideas.

Congratulations! You now have a list of 10 to 15 great ideas that are based on the group’s brainstorming process, which was lead by a facilitator, and finalized by voting and the client’s final word. That way, if the product that comes out of the ideation fails, no one will personally be blamed since it was, after all, a group effort!

A few other important details on ideation session planning include having lots of snacks around (both healthy and unhealthy, like peanut M&Ms, hummus, whole-wheat crackers, cheese popcorn, etc. ) and making sure everyone is comfortable and in a setting that inspires creativity (like a hotel resort or a conference room that is designed specifically to generate ideas—you know what I am referring to, those “dream rooms” or “creative rooms” that companies have to help stimulate new concepts you always see in big corporations because they want to create a stark contrast to the conservative environment that the employees usually have to work in!). Make sure everyone is relaxed and there are toys around to play with, like Play-Doh and Beanie toys. Give everyone a goody bag at the end, too, because everyone loves goody bags!

After all that, the next steps involve taking the ideas, making prototypes, doing scale-up, pilot runs, production runs, shelf-life studies, market tests and so forth, but that’s the easy stuff. Coming up with ideas is the challenge, and using ideation techniques as described here can help you in the journey from confusion to resolution.

About Rachel Zemser