A recipe for idea generation


Ideation for us is the process of generating possible solutions to problems and challenges.  We find the most innovative and transformation ideas come when we work as a team. There are lots of tools and activities we use for ideation, but the challenge is bringing the process together. I am using a recipe analogy in this blog post, as you get different cake recipes, all design to make a cake but the ingredients and methods can be very different, as can be the outputs.

We recently had our first face to face meeting since lock down started in March 2020. Since then, we have adapted to online working, acquired a few more members and the sector has some new challenges post-pandemic. Here is our recipe and some reflections on the process

The ingredients

I have borrowed a lot from colleagues and various sources, I want to acknowledge the Board of Innovation, for the training and resources they share and Cennydd Bowles whose workshop I attended in Jan 2020 and continue to use his ideas.

I will assume you have the essentials such as workspace, pens, paper, lots of post-its etc. but here were my other ingredients:

  • 4 rules
  • 2 future trends activities
  • 4 sets of Serious Lego
  • 6 ideation activities

4 Rules of Ideation

Rule #1: There are no bad ideas
Rule #2: Capture everything
Rule #3: Go for hybrid brainstorming
Rule #4: Quantity over quality (yes, really)

Always start by reminding people of these rules, then keeping reminding them. Write down an ideas, even if it seems crazy. The hybrid brainstorming refers to the approach of individuals writing down ideas first and then sharing as a team, this avoids one person dominating and generates more ideas. Most teams fail on Rule #4, discussing ideas too much, not writing everything down (Rule #2) and stopping when they feel they have one good idea.

2 future trends activities

We use the futures cone activity to get people thinking about longer term challenges. It is also called the cone of plausibility, so it also gets people thinking about futures that are less plausible or extremely unlikely.

Individuals then pick a future and consider what might be the consequences. We use the futures wheel activity to complete as individuals and then discuss in groups (Rule #3).

4 sets of Serious Lego

We had four teams, one set per team. The Lego is used when we get to the ideation stage to build metaphors of the solution. People may also sketch ideas or build them using other paper, playdoh, whatever.

6 ideation activities

For this workshop “recipe” I chose three activities designed to take a “How might we…” statement and generate lots of ideas. Then three activities that take ideas and create more ideas. Each team would ideally do one of each activity with a target of 50-60 ideas.

The six activities I chose were

  • Round Robin – an idea is passed from person to person, the first witing a reason it will fail, the next how it could be resolved. The idea can grow and change in unexpected ways to uncover some amazing and original concepts.
  • Association – where the task is to use a random word or image to help generate ideas.
  • Revolution exercise/ Opposite thinking – where you flip an idea and see what new ideas it will generate.
  • Mission Impossible – where the task is to pick ideas and try to make them into ambitious ideas by considering (near) impossible missions.
  • Scamper – where ideas are generated by applying a set of rules
  • Heuristic ideation technique –  where you combine ideas with attributes in a matrix to create new ideas.

You can download the Ideation Activity Cards that include full instructions.

The method

Here is a brief overview of the process we used.

1. Use the futures cone activity to generate themes for teams to explore. We came up with

  • Team1: Better teaching tools
  • Team 2: Campus of the future
  • Team 3: Vocational education
  • Team 4: Immersive learning

2. Each team spends time generating “How might we…” statements relating to their theme, target 15-20.

3. Using two of the six activities above to generate ideas and then voting to select a best idea

4. Each team then constructed models/metaphors of their idea using Lego, a comic strip story and a poster to explain the idea.

5. Pitch back to group for feedback, laughter and praise.

The outputs

I will share some of the outputs however the focus was never on the products but learning from the process.

The team enjoyed working on an open-ended problem rather than designing for a specific product and solution.

People work and think at different speeds, some found it an intense and exhausting process, where some would like to move faster. Ideation should initially be a fast process, generating lots of ideas, being more confident to write it down and discuss it later when there are more ideas on the board.

However, there is a time once you have a board full of ideas to sit back and reflect and discuss. Teams often jump to what they think is the best idea too soon. Having time to reflect and consider ideas is useful, leave it a day or overnight.

The timing of the workshop allows for one idea to be built by each team. Why not give them time to build more than one idea in depth. Another approach is to have all teams working on the same theme so they can pitch ideas against each other.

The teams found that some of the combinations of activities worked better than others. Team 2 found the Round Robin activity particularly useful, followed by Mission Impossible. Team 1 found that using Association followed by the Heuristic Ideation Technique was too similar. Scamper has seven different rules that can be applied, and teams found that too many.  Some of this will change with familiarity of the activities and confidence in applying them. We used a variety of activities to gain experience of using them. However, it may be preferable to select the same activities for everyone to use.

The use of Lego to build artefacts worked well for all the teams. It helped them to build the story around their idea and consider dimensions. The process also encouraged discussion between the team members.

Ideas that emerge from any workshop always need further development, validation and exploration. In our case they will be used to inform our future work and thinking around the challenges we explored.

What are you doing?

Do you have techniques to share? We’d love to hear them. Or are you working on ideation on the topic of using technology to improve your university or college? If you have something to share or are interested in our codesign approaches please contact


By Paul Bailey

Head of co-design, part of a research and development team

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