Tried and True Tactics for Kick-starting Innovation |

Tried and True Tactics for Kick-starting Innovation

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“To get good ideas, you need lots of ideas.”

This quote by Linus Pauling is a popular one among companies who hope to gain or maintain competitive advantage by continuously innovating. It’s also a concept at the very heart of open source development.

If you’re reading this, I would venture to guess that you could use a few new ideas … especially good ones. Who doesn’t? I’m always looking for new & innovative approaches to design, branding and marketing in my role at Red Hat.

I was pleased when my colleague Rebecca Fernandez reminded me of a timeless post about tactics for effective innovation written in 2007 by Brendan Boyle, a partner at worldwide design and innovation company IDEO and professor at Stanford University. In his article “Ideas Aren't Cheap: Promoting the Serious Business of Play”, Boyle suggests 10 tactics for generating new ideas and spurring innovation in any company or industry.

The following is a quick run-down of just a few of those methods, activities, and practices. I encourage you to think about the one or two tactics you could put into place in your workspace today. 


Make your ideation sessions (or “brainstorms”) more productive.

By setting clear goals at the start of your next ideation session, you will likely see more and better ideas being generated. Boyle advocates shooting for at least 100 ideas in a typical hour-long brainstorming session.

Here at Red Hat, we follow the “no devil's advocate” rule ... meaning, we don't allow fellow brainstormers to stop the ideation and turn a critical eye to anyone's idea. Whether or not the idea is affordable, feasible, or otherwise above reproach is not at all important – quantity is. Boyle recommends numbering the ideas as they are recorded to keep the team focused on its goal.

We love post-it notes here at Red Hat. They are a critical ingredient for any productive ideation session. Why? Because once all of the ideas have been recorded, we give each team member 3-5 sticky notes with which they approach the board and “vote” for the ideas they would like to see discussed further. Boyle refers to this as “informed intuition”, meaning that team members will likely gravitate towards the best ideas based upon their own skills and experience. Based on votes alone (i.e. no qualifying pitches or arguments), the group collectively decides on the ideas that most warrant further consideration.

By following these simple rules, we've seen a marked increase in the quality of ideas as the output of our ideation sessions. How do you run such sessions at your company? 


Look to magazines for outside inspiration.

I have seen this to be a fantastic, though widely underused, practice among marketers. I've observed healthy, vibrant, innovating marketing organizations that regularly have tons of outside inspiration filling up their workspaces. This often takes the form of books, competitors' collateral, and trade show giveaways. But don't overlook magazines.

Why magazines? Magazines are invaluable because they are “of the moment”. They track trends and fads. They have the pulse on what your customers want today and, often, what they'll want tomorrow ... across every aspect of their life.

Want to take your inspiration to the next level? Look to magazines outside of your immediate category, sector, or industry. Technology companies like Red Hat surely benefit from keeping tabs on Wired, Fast Company, Information Week and the like. But what can we as technology marketers learn from Rolling Stone? From Dwell? From Better Homes & Gardens?


Pair off.

The effect of collaboration upon idea generation is exponential. There's a reason why we do brainstorming in groups instead of alone at our desks. But in how many cases does your brainstorming simply stop at the end of the allotted hour, with everyone disbanding and going their separate ways? Probably more often than we'd like.

Boyle's suggestion is to pair team members off into dynamic duos to work on projects together, a technique often practiced in the writing and comedy worlds. One approach would be to assign pairings on a Monday, and have the teams present back their ideas on a Friday. This might be a way to shake things up and provide an alternative to a typical hour-long, in-person brainstorming session.

To build upon Boyle's idea, wouldn't it be interesting if those two people worked in two different departments, on two different functions? The most unexpected combinations might produce the most interesting results.

One of Red Hat's leadership development programs employs this cross-functional perspective to great effect. Our program brings together a handful of associates each year from all different functional areas, backgrounds, and cultures to complete a year-long project to improve the company. The mixing together of ideas, approaches, and perspectives has resulted in both extraordinary solutions to some of Red Hat's most pressing issues as well as an invaluable learning experience for the participants.


Get out of the office.

Where do you do your best thinking? If you answer in your cubicle while staring at your computer screen thinking about the 1,000,001 other things you need to get done, you might be alone.

Marketing is all about understanding your customer, right? So it isn't a stretch to think that a good marketer should be spending a significant amount of time out in the environments in which their customers work, play, shop, etc. to gain better insights. And I would argue that this is a practice that would benefit not just those working in a marketing function.

I love Boyle's idea to “bookend” your business trips with a day or two on either end for some quality immersion, experience, and inspiration time. We often did this when I worked in brand management for a major apparel company. We made it a point to visit large numbers of diverse retail destinations to stay abreast on innovations in the customer's shopping experience. A trip to New York City to meet with our design team was always bookended by shopping days throughout the city.

I was fortunate in that my employer and managers recognized the value of such experiences both for my development as a marketer as well as for the company's ability to generate innovative ideas. As a manager, think about how you can integrate this kind of thinking into your team. In Boyle's words, “if you set the tone that this is valuable and not goofing off, you'll see the payoff with more ideas.”


Make space in your office environment for collaboration.

Think about your current office environment. Does it make you feel inspired? Does it actively foster creativity? Is it a hotbed of new, exciting, and innovative ideas?

Or do you work in a cube farm?

The most innovative companies of today have recognized the important role that office facilites and environments play in the quality of their employees' output, a topic we've addressed here on before.

Boyle attests (and I would agree) that many companies have mistakenly thought that an “idea room” would do the trick. You know what I'm talking about – that space made popular by the dot-coms with beanbag chairs, Nerf guns, scooters and a pinball machine. In my opinion this approach has done more harm than good, as it sets up a divide among associates with some thinking the space trivial, frivolous, silly and completely unnecessary.

A better approach is to integrate creative-friendly impromptu meeting spaces throughout an entire workspace. And by creative, I don't mean foam swords and inflatable furniture. I mean places for people to meet, share, collaborate, and be equipped with the tools (from whiteboards to high-tech solutions) for recording and building upon one another's ideas. Boyle dubs this the “ultimate water cooler.”


Create “war rooms” and labs for prototyping ideas.

Here's another tactic that I've personally employed several times in my career. When your team is about to begin a large project – especially one that requires large amounts of both innovation and research – consider appropriating a dedicated project space for the team. This could be a conference room or any large space big enough for meeting and collaborating. Wallpaper the room with inspiration: photographs, competitors' advertisements, images, post-it notes, charts and graphs. Provide ample whiteboard space. Keep supplies plentiful. Collect items that you've collected in your travels. If your team knows it has a comfortable “home base” in which it can comfortably innovate, you will likely raise the game of your players.


How do you kick-start innovation in your company? Have you had success with any of these methods? Do you think there is one that you will consider implementing in your workplace? If so, we’d love for you to share your stories with our community in the comments below.

Content adapted from “Ideas Aren't Cheap: Promoting the Serious Business of Play” by Brendan Boyle, originally published 28 June 2007.


About the author

John Adams - As Red Hat's resident Brand Manager, John Adams strives to both protect and advance the Red Hat brand every day.