When Creative Is the Wrong Tool! The Ideative Process: A Better Tool for Our Constrained World

By Robert S. Siegel August 01, 2009

The exercise was simple and, best of all, fun. The facilitator asked us to ignore the barriers and think creatively, freely, outside the box; pretend for a little while that there were no problems with order-entry systems, billing systems, or state and federal regulators. We were free to brainstorm. Our goal was to generate as many ideas as possible. No idea was a bad idea.

The result? Our team of more than 20 product and project managers, information technologists, systems engineers, marketing pros, pricing specialists, and service and support managers created a list of more than 120 ideas. We left that day energized, euphoric, and full of the future.

The revenue ultimately produced from the ideas generated that day? $0. Products launched? 0. The cost for the brainstorming session and all the follow-up work to evaluate the ideas must have been staggering. More than 20 expensive people spent the entire day in a fancy meeting room with facilitators and catered meals. When you throw in the research and development time and money spent over the next few months on the 30-40 ideas that weren’t immediately tossed out afterward as “too silly,” you can only conclude that we threw a lot of money and time into a sort of touchy-feely black hole.

The brainstorming methodology we used that day would have been fine had we needed a “creative” session. The problem we faced, however, was not one that could be solved by freeing our minds and souls from reality. The problems were real, and we needed ideas founded within the constraints of a real technology business in a competitive world of limited resources and unlimited demands.
Too bad we spent the day trying to be creative. We should have been learning to be “ideative” instead; a skill that would have given each of us the lifelong ability to generate innovative, realistic ideas by using our constraints, not ignoring them.

Ideative is often better than creative

When I ask a person if he or she is “creative,” the common response from product and marketing managers, engineers, financial managers, and just about everyone else in a business discipline is “No!” And that negative answer is often quite forceful. Yet when I describe ideative—the ability to proactively and regularly produce unique and valuable ideas for new products, services, and solutions— I often get a positive, confident “Yes!” response.

In fact, most of the feedback from my publications and talks about the ideative approach has been from people telling me that by simply making them aware of their ideative abilities and showing them the tools to expand those abilities, they have become far more ideative. I sometimes wish it were more complex than that!

Throughout the business world, just about every one of us is looking for viable ideas to build into new products, services, and solutions. Creative, the standard term for ability in these areas, has a connotation that is often associated with painters, poets, and writers—not the typical manager worried about ROI, pricing, launch plans, and sales objectives. In fact, the word “creative” is often associated with the kind of people that have no ability to face real business challenges.

You may not be creative but you are already ideative...

While creativity is a skill few people are born with, ideative skills can be used by anyone willing to grow their knowledge and experience by exploring and having fun.

The ideative process begins with a deliberate effort to increase your Knowledge (K) and Experience (E) of the subject for which you want to develop ideas.

Remember LEGOS? Try this simple thought experiment. Think about the variety of constructions you can build from just 25 LEGO blocks. The options are incredible. Now imagine what you can do with a set of more than 5,000 blocks of varying colors, sizes, and shapes. What if you add other brands of building toys: ROBOTIX or Erector, for example? The connectors won’t match, but that’s okay; variety is better. Now stretch yourself beyond building toys to include completely unrelated items. Add Hot Wheels cars, a piece of fruit, a stapler, and a toy space suit. Now consider all the things you can do by combining these items. You can develop an endless variety of stuff if you are willing to collect and combine anything and everything.

Ideative people collect their life’s learning, travels, education, business, family, and social experiences. They combine these “building blocks” in unique configurations, just as you did in the preceding experiment. Your objective—to become ideative for life—means that you will stretch yourself, explore, and have fun as you work intensely to add new blocks of K and E.

By now, you probably realize that you already have the foundation to be ideative with just the building blocks that are already part of your life. Think about all of your experiences and your education—not just college but all the way back to elementary school and before. Every block stored in your brain can be utilized in idea assembly. Add in all the things you’ve done, from the mundane to the dramatic, and you will find that you already possess a rich store of ideative building blocks.

Now, grow even more ideative

Ideative Chart

To build on top of your ideative foundation, you need to more intensely live and learn. You could decide to begin by sharpening the definition of some of those blocks you already have. Visit the playground where you played when you were nine, pick up a book on biology and relearn the basics of cell structure that you forgot immediately after high school finals, or spend a couple of hours with your parents and siblings going through photos from way back when.

I actually like to help my kids with their homework. I have re-learned history and science, and recalled some of the books I read as a child. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must point out that I will suddenly discover an emergency causing me to rush to the office if either child ever needs help diagramming sentences.)

You will probably find that adding new blocks to your store of K and E is the most fun and exciting part of growing your ideative abilities. You have a business degree...so why not take an art class? You’ve traveled to Europe...now try Southeast Asia. You’re a beer drinker...so take a wine course or a wine tasting tour.

Live innovatively, and routinely break routines. Just follow these three steps to assemble fascinating, unique ideas:

  1. Saturate your brain with K and E in your ideative area. Then add more K and E. Know everything possible about your ideative subject, its history, successes and failures, how your ideative subject works and doesn’t work, its future possibilities and risks. Think, eat, and sleep on your subject until it follows you into your dreams.

    Study everything you can find. Talk to the subject matter experts. Ask questions; then ask unusual, even bizarre questions that require explanation. The more people explain the problem from different aspects or viewpoints, the greater the depth of your understanding. Make sure each block of K and E you add is as vivid as possible.

  2. Live life, learn, and grow beyond your ideative subject. Applying solutions from one discipline, product, or industry to another seems like a fundamental approach to almost any challenge. It’s a shame we don’t do it more often.

    Think broadly about the problem you are trying to solve. Grow your knowledge and experience in areas not directly related to your discipline, and beyond.

    Learn and experience things that are different for you. By routinely breaking routines, you’ll learn to take “blocks” from one field or discipline and use them in other fields to develop ideas. These universal blocks will stimulate your ideative constructions the way unique blocks enable a child to build distinctive structures with building blocks.

    You also need to go beyond subjects related to work. You have a life outside work. There is no reason you can’t apply those blocks of K and E to your work. The more information stored in your brain, and the more vivid that information, the more neurons impacted. That means that even seemingly unrelated blocks of K and E can be assembled in ways that connect and create value. The unrelated information stimulates your neurons; and, when your neurons fire, they trigger chain reactions. It’s been proven that a dynamic mind will grow more dynamic as you challenge yourself.

  3. Craft ideas in your mind’s idea workshop. Your brain can be thought of as an idea workshop where you build ideas the way children build with building blocks.

    Begin with a list of your constraints, like the inventory of materials for a construction project. Nothing helps to break a problem down into individual building blocks more than staring at all of them at once. From there, you can break the constraints down into individual blocks and build with and around them. Combine related and unrelated constraints in different ways. Keep anything that looks like an idea.

The corollary to each of these three steps is: Find time to relax and allow your K and E to ferment. Don’t forget to let your mind wander. Some of your best ideas will appear to you during down time, a car ride, a shower, or while relaxing to music. Saturate your brain and the ideas will burst out. You’ll find the process is like a star that has sucked in all the surrounding matter causing a massive explosion—in other words, an ideative super nova.

Focus on vivid K and E: ideative’s most potent variable


To take full advantage of the ideative process, you need to more vividly live and learn. Vivid K and E—the most potent component in the ideative concept—is about using your five senses and your emotions with as great a depth and breadth as possible.

The more vivid your K & E, the more connections your brain creates, which brings more areas of your brain into play in the form of larger neural circuits. Thanks to phenomenal advances in neuroscience, we know that storage and retrieval of memories occurs in multiple areas of your brain. The information gathered through our sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste is stored in different locations depending on the sense, the type of sense, and also the emotions that are attached to that information.

The vivid aspect of the ideative process tells us that idea creation can be vastly improved if we get out into the field with our products and services and meet with customers and our frontline personnel. Working with our products, literally touching them—and hearing and seeing customers use them—draws on our senses and emotions in ways that simply cannot be done from our desks and conference rooms.

In my experience, many product and marketing managers are weak at vivid K and E because they lack the time, resources, and financial justification to conduct vivid-boosting activities. The reports, presentations, and business cases we use for K, and the work that develops E, provide what we need to perform well at our jobs. Besides, what can you do at work to increase the depth of the emotional and sensory components of your K and E?

Answer: A lot.

First, I can’t say enough about the need to enjoy the ideative process and the development of ideas. The most fundamental component of ideative skill is to immerse yourself into your ideative subject; and, to do that thoroughly, you have to enjoy what you’re doing. So even if you’re stuck reading a report, find vivid ways to read that report. Listen to music while you read, find a buddy and discuss the report as you go along, or draw charts and work through the data.

Whenever possible, get closer to the data by getting out in the field to work with customers, your sales reps, and your support team. Expose yourself to your customers’ problems and opportunities. Be the one to meet your customer face-to-face to say “No” to something you wish you could offer. Or, you try to fix a couple of little problems that irritate customers, but are too small to be prioritized and fixed. That’s emotional. Don’t forget to enjoy the success when you exceed customer expectations and the customer expresses delight.

But how will an ideative approach help with barriers and constraints?

Barriers and constraints can help you develop better products and services. This statement may be tough to accept, because we normally think of barriers and constraints in terms of their ability to disrupt, even to destroy, product development work—or at least to make our lives very tough.
I always like to point out to product managers that if our jobs were easy, the companies we work for wouldn’t need us. Because of that simple fact, barriers and constraints are our friends.


Barriers and constraints challenge your ability to succeed. If you succeed despite the constraints, you and your product will be stronger—much like an athlete improves his or her game by competing against tougher and tougher opponents. For example, if you are forced to cut your product development budget due to budget constraints, you will look for more efficient methods to achieve your objectives. The increased efficiencies you develop may not be equal to the results you would have obtained if you were fully funded; but, because you were forced into more efficient spending, you are now in position to obtain more per dollar.

Use constraints to isolate and define the problem—and to filter out distractions. Then break the constraint down into individual building blocks and build with them. Think of constraints as a set of blocks with strange, even defective connectors. They’re tough to play with unless you think like a kid and improvise. By better understanding the constraint, you better understand the possibilities. Respect the constraint, knowing you will develop a solution.

Ten Ways to Routinely Break Your Routine—in Vivid Fashion

  1. Hold a conversation with a new person every day. Expand your world beyond people who are similar to you. Talk with people from other countries, other cultures, or other job functions. You’ll learn about ways of life and outlooks on life that are incredibly different from your own.

  2. Avoid wasting time; you have far too little. Don’t watch television. Yeah, I know, you mostly watch the history and science channels. People tell me that all the time. Turn it off and go do something else. Anything else.

  3. Waste time. Relaxation frees the subconscious to connect the blocks of your knowledge and experiences. When you free your mind, your subconscious has more power to bring in random thoughts or connect items that are not necessarily related to each other. Just don’t waste your time watching TV.

  4. Use your lunch—not just to eat with friends or to run errands. Go to museums, new restaurants, new parks, try new foods. So many people waste lunch time (this writer could certainly do better) working at their desks or going to the same restaurant with the same people and eating the same food. New friends, foods, and activities are vivid.

  5. Read books from the Dummies series on subjects for which you have no current use. Even better, read children’s books; they’re faster. There are millions of subjects which you can experience with just a few minutes each day.

  6. Play with LEGOS and Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs. The building challenges, the quick creation of something is both a puzzle-solving exercise and an expansion of visualization skills. In addition, anything that triggers childhood memories is good.

  7. Create a piece of art and enter it into an art exhibit. My guess, call it an educated guess, is that most of my readers cannot even take this suggestion seriously. But listen: Product and marketing managers who have survived more than two years in their jobs, share a combination of tenacity and courage; without those traits you wouldn’t have survived. So how about taking some of that tenacity and courage and give art a try? Carry a camera with you and capture some interesting scenes. Try drawing and see what you get.

  8. Try writing a short story. You don’t have to be Hemingway. Trouble coming up with an idea? Write the story about a character doing what you do, at work, home, having fun, whatever. Two thousand words are all you need.

  9. Expose yourself to a wide variety of music. Thanks to the Internet you can now listen to anything imaginable and more. Search for Native American songs or folk Indian music. If you normally listen to american pop, try some jazz or classical.

  10. Change your schedule: If you normally arrive at work at 8 a.m. try 9 a.m. and 7 a.m. You’ll see your world differently, you’ll sense different emotions in the people you meet, and you’ll even hear different sounds. Try getting up with the sun and going outside to listen to the birds and feel the early morning breeze. It’s wonderful.

A final challenge


When you finish this article, don’t move on to something else right away. Stop. Experience what you have just read—in a vivid way. Notice the type, the ink, the texture of the paper. Notice the shapes of the letters, their serifs, colors, and the background. Think about the colors of the page. Think about how you would encourage someone who has not read this article to expand his or her ideative skills. To whom would you send this article, and what do you hope he or she would gain? How can you encourage the people around you to become more ideative?

Remember, the ideative process is a powerful tool for creating new products, services, opportunities, and solutions. You already have ideative abilities—so now go out and put them to work for you.

Ideative Construction Tools

  1. The Pragmatic Institute Framework is an excellent example of a tool for pulling your K and E blocks into a bill-of-materials to create your blocks for idea assembly.

    Imagine you are a product manager for an accounting software product, and are facing a scenario where the IRS issues an assessment on fuel use as part of the new President’s energy independence program. The assessment comes just weeks before your next release. Your product has to handle the new IRS assessment, you cannot miss the release date due to Wall Street expectations, nor can you expect to make your product comply in the short timeframe.

    Use the Framework to focus your mind on the specific work functions cited within each box. (Forget about that silly cliché “think outside the box”—there are too many opportunities inside the box!)

    Next, integrate the boxes and seek solutions. For example, begin with the Distinctive Competence block: Say your accounting software’s Distinctive Competence is the capability to analyze components of cost across international divisions and currencies. Next, look at Positioning: Maybe you highlight flexibility. Then you analyze your Sales Process and find that the sales cycle and adoption timeframe is longer than a month. Your Distinctive Competence of cost analysis allows your product’s users to meet the IRS requirements through a manual work-around for a short time. You find that you can get the update out a month after the scheduled time, as long as you inform your customers about the manual work-around. Problem solved.

  2. I work extensively with a model called the Customer Learning Curve. The Customer Learning Curve teaches you to manage your marketing according to your customer’s state of mind relative to your product. This tool guides you toward solutions based on your customer’s Awareness of your product, their ability to Access the product, whether they Learn to Use the product, and other steps. By isolating marketing problems according to the customer’s state of mind, you develop better problem definition, enabling tighter focus on solution development.

  3. Tools like mind maps, pyramid diagrams, branch diagrams, and two-by-two boxes are also great tools to help you set your blocks up like a list of materials for ideative assembly.

Categories: Strategy
Robert S. Siegel

Robert S. Siegel

Robert S. Siegel is a senior Product Manager for EarthLink, an ISP. He spent ten years as a senior Product Manager at BellSouth, now AT&T. He has an MBA from Georgia State University's Mack Robinson College of Business, a BA in Journalism/Public Relations from The Ohio State University, and is in The Wharton School's Executive Education Certificate of Professional Development program. He has lectured on Product Management, and is working on his book, Ideative; Purple Hair People with Nose Rings Need Not Apply, and a book with two partners, The Marketing Epiphany. Siegel writes on business, political satire, and fiction. Contact Robert at robertsiegel@earthlink.net.

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