Your idea is worthless, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 . If you haven’t read the first part, please start here.


Ideating is all about generating ideas. Duh!

Until I started the course, my primary go to method to generate ideas was brainstorming. I was to discover, that brainstorming is just one of many techniques to generate ideas.

In my experience, the traditional brainstorming process is not ideal. Some participants don’t fully understand the problem being discussed (not their fault, it wasn’t explained to them except as a Subject line in their calendar invite). And others may feel shy or fearful to speak up. Some may have a fundamental question, but don’t want to interrupt the flow. We’ve all been there. The environment in the room is dull and you are afraid to speak your mind.

Since brainstorming is an important technique, let’s fix this problem. There is a simple prescription to avoid all this:

Be playful!

Be like a 5 year old chasing a butterfly. How do you know you’ve got it right? When you hear a lot of laughter in the room.

Yes, laughter in the room!

With the environment taken care of (be Playful), start with writing down your challenge on a board, gather your team around, and have them dish out ideas.

Write each idea on a post-it note, and stick it on board. Generate as many ideas as you possibly can, don’t think about eliminating yet, go for quantity. Don’t judge anyone’s ideas yet, just keep generating them.

IDEO recommends a list of 7 rules of brainstorming, my favorite ones are:

Defer judgement: so that people can openly share their ideas, lots of laughing, otherwise the team is too careful
Go for quantity — central to ideation, most important rule of all

(7 Rules:

An example of ideation using post-it notes.

Brainstorming example using post-it notes. (Note: this is not related to dishwashing)

Let’s talk about a couple other interesting ideation methods I used, Mashups and E-storming!

When doing a Mashup, you take two different categories of things, list out features of each category and mash them up.

For my Mashup, I chose a carwash and a dishwasher. I listed out many features of a carwash, followed by listing out features of a dishwasher and tired mashing them up. For example, how about dishes moving in an assembly line, similar to a cars in carwash? Similarly, you can mashup a smartphone and a dishwasher, e.g. a dishwasher can have a touch screen display, bluetooth connectivity, a notification system and so on. As I write this, a new refrigerator that Samsung came out with does exactly that. The opportunities are endless.

My Brainstorm and Mashup for the dishwashing challenge.
A perfect Mashup of a smartphone refrigerator by Samsung called Samsung Family Hub.

(A handy Mashup worksheet:

The second interesting method I used is called E-storming.

As the name suggests, you create an email storm! Not unlike the ‘replyall’ abyss we all inadvertently fall into every now and then, but with the benevolent purpose of generating ideas. You send an email to colleagues, neighbors or friends, and ask them to quickly respond back over email. Here is an example email I had sent:

Hello Neighbors
I’m doing a course from IDEO called ‘From Ideas to Action’. The course is about design thinking.
Everyone has to choose a challenge, generate ideas on how to solve the challenge, prototype and build something rapidly.
I’ve chosen the following challenge ‘How might we take the drudgery out of dishwashing?’.
So I’m using one of the many ideation methods here, called e-storming. This is a shout out over email.
Please send me your ideas for how you may solve this challenge. Any number of ideas, wild or crazy are all fine.
Don’t think much, or limit your ideas by what is feasible. Just reply right now to the email from your smartphone.
If you can, ask your friends, that is fine too.
You can reply all to keep it fun, or respond directly to me.

I received many responses within a span of a few hours.

What do we do with so many ideas?

Since the goal of ideation is to generate a ton of ideas, you are likely to end up with many good ones. And some outrageous ones I hope! I ended up with forty odd ideas.

There is an art to whittling down so many diverging ideas — and it has a name , converging!

Converging is not that different from the myriad choices we face in our day to day life; which restaurant to eat at, movie to catch, Netflix series to binge watch, clothes to wear… In a way, our modern world has trained us well in the art of converging.

Voting is a simple method to converge effectively, give everyone a vote, and have the team vote on the ideas.

How innovative, right? 😃

Another technique is to group similar ideas together, which reduces the raw count of ideas, while capturing the essence of the idea.

Once a list of converged ideas is ready, the team has to get together and decide which ones to take to the next step: prototyping.

Remember the 3 lenses? Now is a good time to see if the ideas fit the Desirability, Viability and Feasibility criteria.

Returning to my dishwashing example , I narrowed down my list to 4 ideas.

1. UberDish: Uber for dishwashing, call a person on demand who can do your dishes. (There has to be an Uber for everything after all.)

2. EatIt: Create edible cutlery out of edible flours. Like

3. DishDaddy: An end to end dishwashing system like a car wash, dishes go in from one side, come out all cleaned up and arranged in a closet from the other side.

4. NanoTile: Use nanotechnology to create utensils that self clean.

As you can tell, I like naming things, its fun. Good names make for a common vocabulary and help with recall.

While each idea is worthy of prototyping. I ranked the ideas on a scale of 5 in a small table while applying the 3 lenses. As you can see, sometimes ideas can have the same weight and at this time a team would chime in an decide which one to go forward with. I chose to go with DishDaddy.

Applying the 3 lenses to prioritize ideas for the prototyping step.


At the core of ‘Ideas to Action’, is the philosophy of learning by doing. In other words, learning by experimenting. And rapid prototyping is how you do these experiments.

If you are familiar with software A/B testing, you can relate to the method; when web companies launch features on a website, they launch two versions of the same feature with different characteristics (variants A and B), for the same type of users, at the same time. The one that works better ( on a predefined metric like conversion rate) is kept and the other option is discarded. In essence, they are prototyping and learning from user feedback through experimentation.

Prototyping has three goals:

1. Build to think
2. Gather feedback from stakeholders
3. Fail early so that we succeed in the long term

Personally, I am lethargic when it comes to prototypes. Unless you are a doer by nature, it is difficult even to just get started! How do I build this? What materials do I use? How good does it have to be? And do I have to throw it all away when I’m done! Waa Waa Waa…

I discovered that two human traits get in the way of rapid prototyping, first, our fear or failure. The purpose of a prototype is to provide early feedback, and that feedback will allow you to fail early. You are deliberately setting yourself up for failure! Nobody likes to fail.

Second, prototypes are essentially throwaways, and we don’t like spending energy to just throw things away, do we? Let‘s remember that time spent here will save a lot of effort later.

I used my favorite app Paper (thanks FiftyThree) for my prototypes — my throwaways were all digital drawings. You can prototype using simple materials :paper, pencil, cardboard, sharpies, play-do, whatever you can lay your hands on!

And keep this mantra in your mind:

I’m building to think.

Remember, you are building the prototype to think!

Some Examples Prototypes

A prototype doesn’t have to be physical. You can enact a script, tell a story or make a mini movie. As long as the prototype conveys your idea, helps you learn and get good feedback, it works.

A colleague of mine used Legos to illustrate a drive-in farmer’s market for her chosen challenge ‘How might we inspire households to adopt healthier eating habits?’. Isn’t it cool?

My IDEO colleagues’ prototype using Legos.

Another cool one from IDEO, make with a plastic clip and EXPO marker, compare it to the final product.

IDEO’s initial prototype, and final finished product.

My prototype for DishDaddy, drawn with iPad app ‘Paper’.

My DishDaddy prototype.

And here is one about a human powered airplane, no telling where this one will end up :)

A human powered airplane prototype!

Feedback and The Power of Active Listening

When you convert your grand idea into a nice looking prototype, it’s natural to get attached to it, it’s your baby after all. Which means, it’s also easy to get into ‘selling mode’ while gathering feedback. My own prototype was just a drawing, but I started selling DishDaddy to everyone. :)

Your really have to suppress the urge to sell or defend your idea. It is too early in the process, and this helps you stay objective.

Don’t defend your idea. Just listen.

And there is an art to listening well: listen without the intent to respond. Most of the time, we listen to respond, and start framing our response as soon as we’ve processed enough information from the speaker. When gathering feedback however, we listen to listen.

Non verbals cues are often more telling than what is being said. Body movement, nuances of voice and facial expressions — convey a wealth of information.

I received my best feedback when someone would start a sentence with ‘but’…

Pay attention when someone is says ‘but’, this is the nugget you are looking for.

Pay attention to buts.

So far so good? Time for another recap.

  • We defined a good challenge, listed out our assumptions (Part 1 of post)
  • Used one or more methods of ideation
  • Created an initial prototype and gathered feedback.

What next?

Well, congratulations, your first iteration is over!

Now is the perfect time to take a breather. Use this time to reflect.

Sit down with your team, and note down all feedback. You can post it on your whiteboard, or use post-it notes. As we start the next iteration, this feedback will form the basis for asking the next set of relevant questions.


Ok, now that we’ve completed one iteration of the Ideate and Prototype cycle, we are ready to repeat the process and start our next iteration.

To draw a parallel, let me quickly demonstrate how iteration works in software development. Iteration is a fundamental step of the Scrum methodology and is called Sprint (yes, like the wireless company!). During a Sprint you write code, test it, and get feedback from users. You learn from this feedback and repeat. Instead of writing a heavy specification upfront, with tons of assumptions and then proceeding with writing the software, you work in sprints, validating assumptions as you go along. You fail early and learn. The diagram below illustrates this concept.

Scrum methodology in software development. Iterations are typically between 2 and 4 weeks long.

Ok, back to the design thinking process.

Where do you start your next iteration? Good question.

You start with a more refined set of questions generated from the first iteration. These questions will naturally arise as the team discusses feedback gathered during the iteration.

Again, you can generate a ton of questions.

Some of my questions for DishDaddy:

  1. Do you need different type of dishes?
  2. How would the machine sort all the dishes and arrange them?
  3. Does it need new type of detergent?
  4. Will it fit in existing kitchen space.
  5. Will the plumbing have to change?

If you have many questions, just as we did during the ideation step, the 3 lenses are your friend , and can help prioritize which ones to explore first.

Pick up a question — frame it as a challenge — generate ideas again, converge and shortlist ideas, prototype and learn.

As you continue with the iterations, the following happens:

  1. You learn a whole lot more about the problem itself
  2. You eliminate and test out many assumptions by direct user feedback
  3. The solution gets closer and closer to something that solves a real problem and that users will love in the end

My second iteration resulted in a slightly different prototype:

Second prototype for DishDaddy.

Clearly, I was nowhere close to being done, we had time for 2 iterations during the course. But I did get closer to my goal.

And that’s it. Do we need to call the genie again. I sure hope not.

Your turn now, pull out your most creative ideas, and GO!