Ideation and Design Thinking Process

One of the biggest challenges facing modern business leaders is generating new, creative and yet, realistic ideas. In most industries, prevailing management strategies have limited employees' creative thinking: Follow the process we teach you; handle exceptions but do not step outside your box.

So when we want our teams to behave differently – to actually be creative and come up with lots of ideas – it’s no surprise that this is a challenge.

The secret to solving this conundrum can be found in your ideation and design thinking process. If you understand how to get this right you’ll have a surplus of great ideas that solve genuine customer problems… which as a result, will help you sell more too.

In this chapter, you’ll learn about the best ideation and design thinking processes, including where to look for new ideas, how to structure an ideation workshop, the process and concepts behind design thinking and the lingo you need to know as an intrapreneur.

But before we start, let’s get clear about why ideation and design thinking are important, and what sets them apart from one another.

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The Difference Between Ideation and Design Thinking

Great ideas are always the goal right? But what exactly makes a great idea anyway? And who’s to say what is, or isn’t a good idea?

The first step is to understand the difference between ideation and design thinking. These are both techniques for generating ideas and solutions to problems. They have some similarities but they are fundamentally different approaches. So, which is better? Well, it depends on the situation.

Ideation is the process of generating as many ideas as possible, often in a short amount of time. There’s no one technique for ideation. Instead there a whole load of brainstorming techniques that encourage free thinking and avoid judgment. In any ideation session you might use several of these techniques in sequence to generate the widest assortment of ideas.

Design thinking, on the other hand, is a structured approach to problem-solving that places the customer at the centre of the process. It involves empathizing with the customer, defining the problem, ideating potential solutions, prototyping, and testing.

You can think of design thinking like a fishing rod that is carefully crafted to catch a specific type of fish.

Wall of ideas at IDEO

Wall of Ideas

So, when should you use ideation versus design thinking? Ideation is great for generating a large quantity of ideas quickly, without being constrained by any particular solution. It’s useful in situations where you need to come up with a wide range of ideas, such as when you’re developing a marketing campaign or brainstorming potential business ideas.

In contrast, design thinking is better suited for situations where you need to solve a specific problem and create a solution that meets the needs of the user. It’s useful when you need to design a new product or service, or when you’re trying to improve an existing one. Design thinking takes a more focused and structured approach that is specifically tailored to the problem at hand.

Both ideation and design thinking have their place in the problem-solving process. Knowing when to use one versus the other is key to achieving the best results. In other words, take time to select the right tool for the job.

Where Ideas Come From – Top 3 Sources of Ideas

How do you get started generating good ideas? Where do those good ideas come from?

There are 3 main places to look: your customers, your competitors and your industry.

No one source is necessarily better than the others. In fact, mixing elements from all three can often yield the most interesting and high-potential ideas.

Let’s take a look at each in more detail.

1. Customer Needs

The first source of ideas is your customers. By understanding their needs and pain points, you can create products and services that solve real-world problems. To get started, talk to your customers and listen to their feedback. Conduct surveys, interviews, and most importantly observe their behaviours to gain insights into their experience. Then, use those insights as the foundation for your ideation process.

Think of your customers as the fertile soil that produces the germs of great ideas.

But, a word of warning… Be careful not to ask customers what they want, or what you should build. If you do this, you will only get small iterative improvements on your current product. To get the big, profitable ideas, focus on understanding the customers pains, and then use those insights to spawn new ideas for yourself.

2. Competitor Analysis

Another source of ideas is your competitors. By studying their products and services, you can identify areas where you can innovate and differentiate yourself. To get started, conduct a competitive analysis that compares your offerings to those of your competitors. Look for areas where they are falling short and brainstorm ways that you can do better.

One of the best ways to do this is to find a customer segment that your competitor serves with their product, but people in that segment are dissatisfied with the product. Focus on solving these customers’ problems REALLY well and you will find yourself with an entry point into a new market and a sure-fire way to disrupt a competitor’s market.

Think of your competitors as the river from which you siphon off a flow for your own unique stream.

3. Industry Trends

The third source of ideas is industry trends. By keeping an eye on the latest trends in your industry (and in adjacent industries too), you can develop new ideas that lead the market. To get started, read industry publications, attend conferences, and network with other professionals in your field. Look for emerging technologies and trends that have the potential to disrupt the status quo. Read about other industries and their business models and challenge yourself: what would happen if we did something similar in our sector?

Combining customer pains, with competitor gaps and creating a solution that also taps into industry trends is the ultimate sweet-spot. Think of industry trends as the winds that can carry your ideas to new heights.

Okay, that gives you some great places to find inspiration for new ideas. Next we’ll dig into the methods and processes to use to execute a winning ideation and design thinking plan.

The 5 Elements of a High-Performing Ideation Workshop

Let’s look at ideation first, and how you can run an ideation workshop at your company to generate new ideas.

What exactly is an ideation workshop? It’s a group session in which a diverse set of people come together to generate new ideas and solutions to a problem. Crucially there is a structure and a collaborative ideation process to ensure everyone is involved and all perspectives are considered.

When done well, an ideation workshop is a powerful way to spark innovation and creativity. Here are five elements you should build into your ideation workshop to get the best results from it.

  1. A Clearly Defined Problem
    The first and most important element of an ideation workshop is a clearly defined problem statement. The problem statement should be specific, measurable, and actionable. It should clearly articulate the challenge that the team is trying to solve. Sometimes there are situations where the primary problem to solve is not yet clear. In that case the first exercise in the session should be to collaboratively define the problem statement.
  2. A Diverse Team
    The second component that makes a truly high-performing ideation workshop is a diverse team. We can’t stress this enough. A diverse team brings together people with different perspectives, skills, and backgrounds. This diversity can help to generate a wide range of ideas and approaches. We’ve frequently seen great (and straightforward!) ideas generated simply because people from a different team or department were invited to join an ideation session. That different world-view and set of experiences helps them see problems from a different angle and come up with something innovative.
  3. Proven Ideation Techniques
    Third on the list for a high-performing ideation workshop is a solid set of ideation exercises. Ideation exercises are structured methods for generating ideas. Examples of ideation techniques include fire-starters, the creative grid, impossible wishes and SCAMPER. By using a variety of ideation techniques, the team can generate a large quantity of ideas and avoid getting stuck in a rut.
  4. Time Management
    Ideation workshops can be intense and draining, so it's important to manage time effectively. This includes setting a clear agenda, sticking to a schedule, and taking breaks as needed. A good facilitator will watch the room carefully, tracking energy levels and enthusiasm. If things start to flag it’s often better to take a break or come back another day rather than trying to soldier on.
  5. Idea Selection
    Once the team has generated a large quantity of ideas, it's important to select the best ones to move forward with. This step involves evaluating the ideas against a set of criteria and choosing the ones that the group are most likely to succeed. As with #3, you need a solid set of tools for this to make sure you avoid bias and select ideas on merit, rather than by how influential or powerful the idea’s originator is.

There’s a lot to think about if you’re new to leading ideation workshops, so if you’d like some help to set-up or run an ideation workshop in your company, pop over to the Creative Ideation Workshop page to learn more about how we can help.

The Key Concepts of Design Thinking

We’ve established that ideation and design thinking are complementary techniques for coming up with new ideas. And that Design Thinking is a more structured approach to solving a specific problem.

What makes Design Thinking special is that it is a human-centred approach to problem-solving that focusses on empathy, creativity, and experimentation. Rather than a rigorous process, design thinking is a mindset that values iteration, collaboration, and a willingness to take risks.

Let’s dive deeper into design thinking now to look at the key concepts that make it so useful...

  • Human-Centredness
    At the heart of design thinking is a focus on the needs and experiences of the end user. This human-centred approach means that the team takes the time to empathize with the user, understand their needs, and create solutions that meet those needs. This approach puts the user at the centre of the design process and ensures that the solutions created are relevant and meaningful.
  • Iteration
    Another key concept of design thinking is iteration. Rather than looking for the perfect solution from the outset, design thinking encourages teams to create and test prototypes, make mistakes, and learn from them. This iterative approach means that the team can refine and improve their solution over time, leading to better outcomes
  • Collaboration
    Design thinking is a collaborative process that brings together people from different disciplines and backgrounds. By working together, the team can bring a diverse range of perspectives and skills to the problem at hand. This collaborative approach means that the team can generate a wide range of ideas and approaches.
  • Creativity
    Design thinking is a creative process that values innovation and imagination. By encouraging free thinking and avoiding judgment, design thinking allows teams to explore a wide range of ideas and approaches. This creative approach can lead to breakthrough solutions that might not have been possible with a more traditional approach.
  • Double Diamond Model
    The double diamond model is a design thinking framework that consists of four stages: discover, define, develop, and deliver. This framework helps teams to focus their efforts and ensures that they are following a structured approach to problem-solving. The double diamond model emphasizes the importance of both divergent thinking (generating a wide range of ideas) and convergent thinking (selecting the best ideas to move forward with).
Double diamond model for design thinking

Double Diamond Model

The specific process you follow in Design Thinking is much less important than getting the mindset right. After all, the clue is in the name: Design Thinking.

That said, in the next section we’ll look at a typical design thinking process you can use.

The Design Thinking Process: Solving a Problem with Design Thinking

Every problem you face, whatever the type, can be tackled in a systematic way. Design Thinking provides the framework for you to do that. It’s particularly useful for complex problems where there are potentially many solutions that could be viable.

In Design Thinking there are 5 key steps to follow.

Design Thinking Process Steps

The 5-step Design Thinking Process

  1. Empathize
    The first stage of the design thinking process is all about getting insight and understanding. The Empathize stage involves researching and understanding the problem, as well as the needs and experiences of the end user. During this stage, the team will conduct interviews, surveys, and research to gain insights into the problem. For example, if the problem is how to reduce food waste in a cafeteria, the team might interview the cafeteria staff and customers to learn more about their behaviours and attitudes towards waste.
  2. Define
    The second stage of the design thinking process is definition. This involves synthesizing the information gathered during the discovery stage and creating a problem statement. The problem statement should be specific, actionable, and human-centred. For example, the problem statement for the cafeteria problem might be: "How might we reduce food waste in the cafeteria while improving the dining experience for customers?" During this stage the team will also research what others have done to solve this problem and how similar problems are solved in other sectors.
  3. Ideate
    The Ideate stage of Design Thinking involves brainstorming potential solutions to the problem. During this stage, the team will generate a wide range of ideas and approaches. They will then go on to choose the idea they think has most potential to take on to the next stage. In our food waste example, the team might ideate potential solutions such as changing the menu to reduce waste, offering smaller portions, or creating a composting program.
  4. Prototype
    In the prototype stage the team will create low-fidelity prototypes of the best ideas generated during the development stage. These prototypes can be physical or digital and should be quick and inexpensive to produce. Prototypes can be as simple as a sketch or a brochure. For example, the food waste team might create a cardboard model of a redesigned food tray that reduces waste.
  5. Test
    The fifth and final stage of the design thinking process is testing. This involves getting feedback from the end user and refining the solution. During this stage, the team will test the prototypes with customers and gather feedback. Based on this feedback, they will refine and improve the solution. For example, the team might test the redesigned food tray with customers and gather feedback on its usability and effectiveness in reducing waste.

The whole process is focussed on testing and iteratively improving ideas with real users in the simplest, quickest, lowest-cost way possible.

How to Spot a Great Idea

A key question we are often asked is how to spot the good ideas and filter out the bad ones before you spend lots of money on them.

Well, when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship, there's no guaranteed formula for success. While it's important to generate a wide range of ideas, it's impossible to spot the great ideas in advance or predict which ideas will be a hit with customers. So, what can you do to improve your hit-rate and move forward with confidence?

  • Idea Voting
    One technique for selecting the best ideas is idea voting. This involves giving everyone in the group a set number of votes (e.g. ten) and having them vote for their favourite ideas. By limiting the number of votes, the team is forced to prioritize the ideas that they think are the strongest. This technique helps to avoid confirmation bias and ensures that everyone's opinions are heard.
  • Idea Scoring
    Another technique for selecting the best ideas is idea scoring. This involves creating a set of criteria (e.g. feasibility, desirability, viability) and scoring each idea based on those criteria. By using a structured scoring system, the team can evaluate each idea objectively and avoid being influenced by personal biases. This technique also helps to ensure that the ideas selected are aligned with the goals of the project.
  • Random Selection
    Sometimes, the best way to spot a great idea is to simply pick one at random. This might sound counterintuitive, but it can be an effective way to avoid bias and ensure that everyone's ideas are considered. By selecting an idea at random, the team can evaluate it objectively and avoid being influenced by an "expert" in the group or simple selecting the boss's favourite idea.
  • Idea Combination
    Finally, another technique for selecting the best ideas is to combine them. This involves taking the best parts of multiple ideas and combining them into a new, stronger idea. By combining ideas, the team can create a more innovative and effective solution. This technique also helps to avoid bias and ensure that everyone's ideas are heard and considered.
Dot voting example

Dot Voting

The Lingo: The Language of Ideation and Design Thinking

What are the terms you need to know as an intrapreneur and design thinker?


One of the most important concepts in design thinking is the need to understand and empathize with the people you are designing for. Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of your customers, listening to their needs, and gaining a deep understanding of their challenges and goals.


Ideation is the process of generating ideas and solutions to a problem. Design thinking encourages divergent thinking, which means generating a wide range of ideas without judgment, and then convergent thinking, which involves selecting the best ideas to move forward with.


A prototype is a preliminary version of a product or service that allows you to test and refine your ideas. Design thinking emphasizes rapid prototyping, which means quickly creating rudimentary prototypes to get feedback and iterate on your designs.

User Journey

A user journey is a visualization of the steps a user takes to achieve a goal or complete a task. Mapping out the user journey helps you understand the user’s experience and identify pain points and opportunities for improvement.

Design Sprint

A design sprint is a structured process for rapidly prototyping and testing new ideas. Design sprints typically last five days and involve a cross-functional team working together to solve a specific problem.

Human-Centred Design

Human-centred design is a design approach that prioritizes the needs, behaviours, and preferences of the people who will use the product or service. It involves a deep understanding of the user and an iterative design process that focuses on solving real-world problems.

Summing Up

Ideation and Design Thinking are a critical part of the intrapreneur’s skillset because they give you the tools to solve customer problems and create viable, desirable solutions.

To succeed though, you need to explore the problem space broadly, casting your net wide and considering all possible solutions, before systematically narrowing in on a potential solution and then rigorously and iteratively testing it with customers.

Only once you have done this are you ready to move to the next step: to create an MVP and test it in the market. And that’s exactly what we’ll cover in the next chapter.

Train Your Team in the Art of Ideation

Innovation starts with ideation. But coming up with good ideas is hard. And it's especially hard in a work environment!

In this combined training & workshop we'll guide your team through a structured set of ideation exercises that will gradually warm up their creative brains, then increasingly challenge them to go further and think bigger.

By the end of the session you'll walk away with dozens (if not hundreds) of uniquely interesting ideas. Each one of those could become the fuel for future company growth.

Click here to learn more: Creative Ideation Workshop.

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