How 'Ideation' Can Power Innovation

It means looking in four directions for creative solutions to pressing problems. Innovation delivery teams in several cities are pioneering the process.
by , | October 11, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

The innovation delivery teams that five cities across the country have launched are part of an effort, supported by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, to produce smarter, more informed, big-picture solutions to significant policy and service-delivery challenges. At the core of their efforts is a concept known as "ideation."

In the context of local-government innovation, "ideation" means directly examining a problem in a systematic way, amassing many possible solutions culled from many places, and then probing and testing those ideas to see which are most likely to work.

This post, the fourth in a series on the topic of innovation delivery teams, offers something of a beginner's guide for cities interested in using ideation to help them set better policy; a full report on the subject can be found here.

A good ideation process can be thought of as one that encompasses four perspectives and entails looking in four "directions": A city must look:

Outward at the national and even international landscape, scanning the horizon for ideas.

Inward, at the issue or problem as it is manifested within the city, and at what the city is doing, or can do, about it.

Backward, by speaking with stakeholders and insiders about how things have been.

• And then forward, by collaborating with stakeholders, agency staff and those who will use or benefit from the services to generate and examine ideas and hone them into a plan of action.

The work done by the cities that are part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies effort--Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis and New Orleans--helps to illustrate the four-direction concept.

For example, New Orleans's innovation delivery team looked outward when it brought a group of peer-experts from other cities to the Big Easy for an interactive seminar and discussion. The Atlanta team's members did the traveling themselves, making visits to view some of the nation's best practices up close.

When Chicago's team looked inward at the city's existing policies and processes, one of the things it learned was that the city's 100-page guide to starting a restaurant was impenetrable to most who tried to read it. This led Chicago to embark upon a process of prototyping and testing new ideas until its team had produced a much clearer and shorter publication--one that aspiring restaurateurs could really use.

In Memphis, the innovation delivery team's members looked backward and forward at once by convening what they called "co-creation studios," at which they encouraged local business owners both to describe the challenges they had faced in the past and to talk about what they would like to see happen to their businesses and to the area in the future.

Louisville took a totally different approach to looking forward, holding an all-agency competition seeking grand-yet-feasible ideas from every corner of municipal government. By engaging with agency staff from the very earliest, conceptual stages of the process, the team laid the groundwork for policy initiatives informed and supported by those who would ultimately help implement them.

In addition to ensuring that it adopts each of these perspectives, a city should adhere throughout the ideation process to three core principles. First, an effective process requires an authorizing environment, in which a mayor or agency chief advocates strongly for the work and for those charged with spearheading it. Everyone should understand the role and mandate of the team leading the effort, with honesty and openness embraced at every level, starting at the top.

Second, a good process will balance openness with discipline. The process should be free enough to produce a wealth of new ideas and feedback, yet clearly time-limited. Ideation is about being creative and thoughtful, but it should not be mistaken for--or allowed to devolve into--random wish-making. The work should be rigorous, but also vigorous.

Third, cities should design with people, not for them. This means bringing not only those who are making and executing policy but also those who will be affected by it into the process and getting their perspectives and feedback. This helps ensure that the end product both reaches and serves the target audience.

If a city looks in all four directions in the course of its efforts and follows the guiding principles outlined above, it should wind up with a comprehensive view of the problem and a shortlist of the most promising potential solutions.