Robust Techniques for Delicate Ideas

Andrew Sinclair, product development manager of Motovated Design & Analysis in Christchurch, on how to develop your smaller, simpler, more delicate ideas.

Like me, you may have had the experience of presenting a finished product to a client or customer, and smiling as they say; ‘Oh, that looks nice and simple.’ The smile is because, simple though it may be, the process that got you there was anything but.

As designers and engineers we create three-dimensional products. They exist as real objects; things that sit on our desk and may be exposed to any number of wet, muddy or cold environments during their normal life cycle. So products need to be robust by necessity – some more so than others depending on their purpose. But regardless of how robust they look now they all start out as something much less robust indeed – they start out as ideas.

I’ve lost count of the number of times my brain has gone off on a tangent just as a potentially great idea began to form. Only moments later I’ve tried to return to my Big Idea only to find that it is not where I’ve left it. Unlike the finished products, the idea’s which come together to help make them are fragile at best.

And it seems that speaking ideas aloud is no guarantee of their survival either. Jonathan Ive has some interesting things to say about ideas;

‘Steve [Jobs] used to say to me — and he used to say this a lot — “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.” And sometimes they were. Really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet simple ones, which in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound. And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful
reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished
. (Source: Apple Inc. Oct. 19 2011)

Ive says that ideas are fragile, barely formed thoughts, which can be so easily missed. Even though our ideas can eventually go on to become robust products - hopefully well designed and engineered, they begin as something that can easily be ignored and lost. I had this experience a number of years ago when I was helping with the design and development of a medical product for some pretty tough environments. Its normal lifecycle involved bouncing around in the back of a Land Rover and being
exposed to high ambient temperatures. Inside the product some wiz-bang technology radiated cool air to refrigerate a precious payload of vaccine. Our problem was achieving even temperature distribution. It occurred to me that making the product cylindrical rather than oblong, with the cool air in the center core rather than at one end, would help significantly. The team thought this was a good idea until a respected colleague pointed out that a cylindrical product may then tip over and roll around the boot of a Land Cruiser. And that was it. An innovative idea gone. We moved on and continued developing the
oblong design and three months later concluded it wouldn’t work. We then realized that what we needed was a cylindrical device which would have better temperature distribution.

In hind sight I should have stood my ground in the first place and insisted the idea had merit, but I was inexperienced and the naysayer was my senior. But it might have saved a lot of time and money if I had.

At Motovated D&A we realize that ideas are fragile, which is why we take a different approach to brainstorming. Although brainstorming is a mainstay of most ideation, it’s generally not very effective. Doug Hall, in his book Jump Start Your Business Brain, makes an interesting observation about brainstorming. He says;

“The classic approach most humans take when looking for solutions to problems is a procedure I call Braindraining. It works like this: Humans sit in a room. One of them says, “Ready, set, create”. With that, they desperately try to suck solutions from their heads. This SUCK method of creativity will shrivel your brain like a prune in the desert sun. It’s not good for you.”

It’s also not necessarily a good recipe for innovation. Within every group there is an ‘alpha’ man or women who, by virtue of seniority, experience, salary or volume, is able to dominate. Idea’s get filtered through them and therefore all the ideas conform to their perception of how it ought to be. And removing the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) doesn’t necessarily help. Even without a dominant individual we still default to group thinking; one idea playing off the next and therefore all heading mostly in the same direction.

General George Patton once said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking”.

To get around this problem we use a process often called Brainstorming 2.0, which may also be a creation of Doug Hall, although we’re not sure. Either way - it’s very effective. The process works like this;

A space is chosen to brainstorm. Even if most of us don’t care to admit it, we are all sensory creatures – environment matters. A pleasantly lit, open and preferably stimulating environment is best. So outdoors under a tree would be preferable to acoustic tiles and fluorescent tubes. Secondly, invite a wide range of people from your company and include outsiders if possible. The idea is to leverage people’s differences and their diverse backgrounds. The person who looks after returned faulty goods will have insights which the sales manager probably won’t. If you can, leverage an outside resource (such as a design consultancy), which hasn’t been conformed to your company’s particular way of doing things.

Next; make sure everyone understands why they are there, what the goal is, and that what they are doing is important.

Then it’s time to get thinking. However unlike typical brainstorming (or braindraining), this time everyone separates to give themselves a bit of space and then they put their own idea’s down on paper using words, stick figures or any other means. Unlike typical brainstorming, these ideas are private – no one has to see them so there’s no reason to reel in your creativity for fear of rejection. At the end of a pre-determined period of time each person shares their two best ideas with the group. It’s not a sales pitch, but we record these ideas on a whiteboard or pad. Next, each team member votes secretly so there’s no need to feel any pressure to conform. The votes are tallied and the best two or three ideas are put forward for further development.         

There are variations on this method which we use depending on who we’re working with and the diversity of participants. However its remarkable how varied and innovative many ideas are - if they’re given the chance to grow.

From this point new concepts begin to develop. Rather than being lost before they have a chance to germinate, fragile ideas get the chance to grow and from this process we have seen some brilliant ideas immerge. Once a product begins to take form as a drawing or a prototype it has a better chance of surviving inevitable economic and practical criticism.