The executive vice president of HR wanted new, breakthrough ideas for the department and asked one of her directors to develop them. The department needed more visibility in the organization and had become complacent. It was time for “big” ideas. The director invited 10 of his best managers for a day of brainstorming. The team started with a series of crazy exercises to warm up their creativity before they really got down to business. For hours they had great fun. They threw ideas on flip charts, picked the best, and started developing them in a second round. Before long they had over 50 good ideas to improve not only the HR department but also the rest of the organization. They presented their favorite five to the EVP. Her response was disappointing. She liked the ideas, and she even said some were very creative, but not one matched her definition of “breakthrough ideas.”

The opening story describes one of the biggest mistakes in any innovation initiative. The HR director bypassed the framework and issue redefinition steps1 and worked with the team on a fuzzy problem without the proper preparation.

The traditional underlying belief about idea generation is that if you let people think long enough without constraints and criticisms, they will eventually come up with new and useful ideas. However, developing the “right” answer to a fuzzy problem would have been sheer luck for this group, as they did not have a clear idea about what the vice ...

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