innovation skills training

How to Develop Innovative Ideas

The funny thing about ideas is that organizations seem obsessed with asking for ideas. Yet little thought goes into how to develop innovative ideas.

How to develop innovative ideas

To answer the question “how to develop innovative ideas,” let’s clarify what we mean by innovative ideas. Let’s deconstruct the term. 

innovative ideas how to


“An idea is our imagination’s way of responding to a gap. A gap might be created by a question that doesn’t have an answer or a problem that doesn’t have a solution. We bridge the gap by forming a new association or connection. That’s an idea. 

People often confuse ideas with solutions. A solution is an idea that has already been evaluated, refined, and developed, so you’re very close to bringing it to the world. An idea, by contrast, is closer to the wellspring of the imagination. The process is more immediate to the initial insight – the ‘aha’ moment.” [1] 


Now, what comes to mind when you hear the word innovative? New, different, original? And finally – what about when you hear the phrase “innovative ideas”? 

Innovative Ideas

Innovative ideas are new, different, original, and valuable in some way.  

If ideas are truly innovative, they’re likely to make you uncomfortable because they step outside the boundaries of what you’re used to – they might even feel risky. 

organization develop ideas

This cartoon brilliantly reflects what typically happens with ideas in organizations that focus on getting ideas without a deliberate process also to develop them. The opportunity to create ideas is lost when ideas are quickly judged and dismissed.  

We teach people how to develop innovative ideas and run productive brainstorming sessions. When I describe the process of generating and developing ideas, I like to use the analogy that ideas are raw materials like trees in a forest.

If you’re building wooden furniture, having abundant trees available is excellent. However, those trees aren’t good for you sitting in the woods. You need to get them through a manufacturing process to use them.

Similarly, raw ideas must go through a development process before they can be helpful in your business. 

So, how do you develop innovative ideas?

Here’s a simple three-step process:

  1. Clarify the challenge you’re tackling
  2. Use creative thinking guidelines and tools
  3. Make it safe for people to contribute

1Clarify the challenge you're tackling

First, you need a focal point: a challenge phrased as an open-ended question that allows people to focus on possibilities. And it would help if you gave people the following: 

  • Some context around why you need to resolve the problem 
  • Background highlighting the “who, what, where, when, and how” information associated with the problem, and 
  • An inkling of what you’d consider an ideal outcome and success criteria.

2Use creative thinking, guidelines and tools

Next you need to think creatively. But to get to innovative ideas, you also need some rules and tools. Wait, did you say you need rules to develop innovative ideas? Yes, rules.

Creative thinking is a two-step process that separates the steps of generating ideas from that of evaluating them. First you generate ideas focusing on making a long list of options – it’s called Divergent thinking. All ideas are welcome in this phase, and people are encouraged to go beyond the obvious ideas and push toward more novel options.

Second, you evaluate the ideas, focusing on finding the ones that move you toward your goal in a novel and innovative way. This is called Convergent thinking.

When I learned about this process for creative thinking I was gobsmacked. It’s a simple thing that makes all the difference.

Here’s why.

Most people generate and evaluate ideas simultaneously, which explains why they get ordinary and not extraordinary or innovative ideas. It also explains why people aren’t always willing to share their ideas – it’s no fun having them immediately shot down or evaluated.

Having rules around creative thinking creates the psychological safety necessary for people to feel comfortable sticking their neck out and coming up with innovative ideas.

Here are the rules:

Divergent Thinking Guidelines

To do a broad search for innovative ideas:  

  1. Defer judgment 
  2. Go for quantity 
  3. Seek wild options 
  4. Combine and build on options 

Convergent Thinking Guidelines

To sift through, evaluate and develop innovative ideas:  

  1. Use affirmative judgment 
  2. Be deliberate 
  3. Check your objectives 
  4. Consider novelty 
  5. Improve options 


Now, let’s talk about tools.

When it comes to generating and developing ideas, there are many tools you can use. It’s best to choose tools based on your context and goals.  

We teach Stick ’em Up Brainstorming and Forced Connections as standard, all-purpose go-to tools in our courses. Other tools, such as SCAMPER, Brainwriting and Excursions, can be helpful depending on your situation.

To evaluate your ideas, you’ll need a written list of criteria to guide your decisions in the convergent thinking step. Think of criteria this way: what makes an idea good in your context?  

To develop your ideas, consider using an evaluation matrix, a risk assessment tool, or any other means that will guide you in choosing the more promising ideas and improving them.  

3Make it safe for people to contribute

It would be best if you had more than rules to make it safe for people to contribute and develop innovative ideas. You can do this by setting the conditions for creativity to emerge and by actively encouraging creative behaviours.

A research study conducted by Göran Ekvall, a Swedish organizational psychologist, provides excellent insight into the conditions necessary to foster creative behaviour and performance in an organization. While he identified ten specific requirements, four are particularly relevant to answering the question, “How to develop innovative ideas?” 

safe to contribute ideas

Build Trust and Be Open 

It takes courage to share ideas. And only when we feel there is psychological safety in doing so are we willing to take the risk.  When people know and deliberately engage in productive norms for behaviour, like the Creative Thinking Guidelines outlined above, building emotional safety in relationships and trusting each other becomes possible. 

In this environment, people know that all ideas are welcome, and there are transparency and openness around how ideas are evaluated and used. Communication is open and straightforward, and everyone learns to focus on what’s possible in building ideas rather than tearing them down. 

Give Ideas Time 

Idea time is the amount of time people can and do, use for elaborating new ideas. Think of it this way. As ideas emerge, possibilities exist to discuss and test impulses and unique suggestions that should have been planned for or included in the initial effort. Idea time occurs by setting aside specific times to generate and develop ideas and using incubation periods to let ideas bubble up.  

Give Ideas Support 

People faced with criticism of their ideas stop telling people about them. Idea support is about being open to and accepting of ideas. 

An environment that encourages creativity receives ideas and suggestions attentively and kindly. People engage in active listening and encourage ideas by focusing on possibilities, making connections to the broader context of their work, and addressing concerns as questions that encourage new and expanded thinking. The atmosphere is refreshing, constructive and positive.

Encourage Debate 

Creativity thrives on a diversity of thinking. Debate is welcome in a creative environment when we make room for differing viewpoints, experiences, ideas, and knowledge. When developing innovative ideas, it’s the convergent thinking phase where debates become essential. It’s what makes it possible to think through and analyze alternatives as we work to improve options. 

Debate in a creative climate isn’t the kind of debate you experienced in your high school or college debate club, where you argue for your point of view and do everything possible to discredit someone else’s. It’s a “yes, and…” process of accepting, appreciating, acknowledging and working with someone else’s contribution so that you and the others involved can rise to a new level of understanding. 

In his seminal work on learning organizations shared in the book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge found that learning organizations were innovative. The nature of innovation is that in addition to being a creative process, it is a learning process. It pushes us to new places, many of which we need to go to without prior experience. We experiment, learn as we go, and through continuous learning and improvement, truly develop our skills.

We’ve found it helpful in developing innovation skills to have the discipline to use a thinking tool called the learning cycle to regularly capture lessons learned so you can build and share knowledge amongst your team. With the learning cycle, you mindfully do an activity (do), reflect on what happened, learn from it and adapt your next attempt, taking into account what you’ve learned. You learn, grow, and improve by repeating the learning cycle as you progress. It’s a practice that allows you to gain mastery of innovation skills truly. 

Three Steps to Developing Innovative Ideas

To wrap up this post, innovative ideas don’t magically happen. They come from a concerted effort to generate novel ideas and evaluate and develop them to achieve your goals. The three steps I’ve outlined, aren’t nice to have; they’re essential for developing innovative ideas.   

If you want to avoid the letdown that comes from obvious, lack-lustre ideas, use this process to develop innovative ideas and avoid the common mistakes people make in brainstorming:

  1. Clarify the challenge you’re tackling  
  2. Use creative thinking guidelines and tools  
  3. Make it safe for people to contribute 

Need help developing innovative ideas?

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