The tools & templates used in a 3 day ideation brainstorm


Recently I guided a 3 day ideation brainstorm for Zellis (former NGA HR) at their HQ in London. This is the first 3-day workshop of 2 sessions to explore & develop new opportunities for this global HR service provider. (+8500 employees, +$850M turnover). In this post I’ll describe what tools we used to end up with a first selection of 13 concepts. Of course I can’t share anything confidential on the actual content of these business ideas, but I can be open on our own process.

The goal of the exploration session was to inspire their assembled innovation team. Based on a variety of triggers we aimed to generate hundreds of high-level opportunities.

Theme day 1: Long term vision

We suggested to start the first day with several future thinking exercises. What will the world look like decades from now. How would future generations look at their “job” (assuming there would still be jobs & careers). A lot of questions to investigate! This blogpost zooms in on some of the tools used during this first day.

Tool (warm-up energizer): sketch

To get in the right mindset we asked people to sketch their neighbour. For many, sketching is out of their comfort zone. This intro can be used to frame the importance of exploring new (uncomfortable) territory. At the same time everyone has a very informal way to introduce themselves.


Tool (scope): market vs offer mix

In order to get everyone on the same page we initiated a discussion with the following template. What type of innovations are we looking for? Close to our current offering or should we explore areas far away from our existing product portfolio? On the other axis we ask people to evaluate ideas based on the client segment they would address. Do we aim at the existing market or could concepts be developed that would target a new type of customer?

On this framework everyone is asked to describe 9 ideas that would fit in every square. Everyone does this exercise individually. Afterwards we exchange thoughts and why one or the other assumes an idea would fit in a different zone. To end this discussion we agree as a group on the expectations of new opportunities. How radical can the new innovation be? A very valuable discussion to have a the start of any type of innovation program.

A last exercise part of the introduction session is to share bottlenecks in the existing innovation program of the company. What is holding us back today to launch and sustain innovations? Typical topics in such a discussion refer to the internal culture, access to specific resources or failed projects in the past. By having this discussion upfront we (and all participants) will have a better view on the internal challenges that need to be addressed. Ideas will need to fit within the constraints of the existing corporate structure.

Unless we would move into launching a separate venture. But even in that (unlikely) scenario, we need to have support from the mother organisation that would fund such an initiative.

Tool (brainstorm): futurescan poster

When we would just ask people what the future could look like, it’s very unlikely that they instantly look further than the latest hollywood movie. To get their brains thinking, we present the Futurescan (Download PDF). This poster has +200 triggers to get people started. Each trigger looks at the new normal years or decades ahead of us.

During the first part of this exercise, 3 or 4 people per poster will carefully read all the triggers. They will notice there are 9 blank spots. For each blank spot they need to look for a complementary future predictions. 


Tool: killer or booster round

What type of behaviour do we like to kill? Or the other way around, is there a specific kind of behaviour we like to boost? We can approach this challenge in different ways. During this workshop we decided to focus on role someone ‘job or carreer’ has in someones life. E.g. A job could be a form of recognition, an symbol that you achieved something as an individual. How could you emphasise this?  For others a job becomes a chore, a dull routine. How could you kill this negative aspect?

During this exercise every brainstorm team had to list a set of role or function that a job has. During the next step they are asked to write down killers or boosters to either reduce or to emphasise this aspect. 

Tool: weak signals

The last tool of this day was a fast paced brainstorm round where we presented the group a series of weak signals. These signals are potential emerging trends that show an extreme example how the market could evolve in the coming years.

The brainstorm exercise goes like this:

  • 2 minutes all teams get to see 2-3 slides. E.g. topic: No more separation between work & life context. (workations, doing laundry at work, infinite holidays, virtual mini-trips via goggles,…)
  • During the next 10 min every team has a short discussion on this domain end looks for new opportunities in this future world. All ideas are capture on post-its.
  • We repeated this cycle 5 times. There is no time to go in depth on each topic so it’s important as a facilitator that you halt detailed discussions. Quantity of ideas if far mor important than quality.

Conclusion day 1

The first day was mainly focused on challenging the group. To stir around and shake business. At the end we managed to generate tons of ideas, but many of them are too futuristic to launch on the short term. But that’s no problem at this stage. There were 2 more days left to zoom in on specific topics. At the end of day 3 we managed to select 13 concepts.

More info & tools will be explained in a follow up post. 


I’m Nick De Mey, founder Board of Innovation and foresight analyst at Venturesight – foresight-backed venture design. Let’s talk!

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