A month after I joined Texas Instruments in 2002 I flew to Dallas to meet my boss for the first time. We had a pleasant conversation, at the end of which I asked a potentially career-limiting question (warning--don't try that at home...): "We don't really have a long-term strategy in our business unit, do we?" You see, our business unit was making Wi-Fi components for PCs and access points, a market that was already saturated, highly competitive, with cut-throat profit margins.

There were many ways in which he could take my question, but his reply was "I agree. We don't. What do you propose we do?" I was hired as the Director for Strategy in the business unit, so it was my job to come up with an answer. I didn't have one off the top of my head. "Give me until Monday, and I'll send you a proposal," I said.

I didn't need those 3 days. By the time I landed back in Silicon Valley, after a 3-hour flight, I had drafted a 4-page proposal for conducting a Scenario Planning workshop. The only question was whether he was going to let me facilitate it, or insist on hiring an external facilitator. Maybe it was for cost reasons, but he allowed me to facilitate it. In a hindsight it was a good decision, as throughout the workshop I noticed something that, without the insider knowledge I had of the business, would have caused us to miss an important driving force that eventually led to the direction that came out of the workshop.

As a result of the workshop, we identified a tiny, yet promising opportunity in adding Wi-Fi to mobile phones. Sounds trivial today, but I assure you it wasn't in 2002. In fact, no mobile phone had embedded Wi-Fi then. The first-generation iPhone was not released until 5 years later, and RIM/Blackberry was our first customer.

My first meeting with my boss was in June, 2002. We held the workshop in November. By 2005 our business unit held 60% market share in mobile Wi-Fi, and by 2007 it had generated more than $500 million.

Generating ideas in a company (or a team within the company) is part of a four-step process. First--Introspection. You must assess corporate culture, team dynamics, and individual creativity. Second--Intervention. You must fix what needs fixing in order to maximize those three areas. Third--Ideation. The intentional generation of great ideas. Fourth--Implementation. Great ideas are worthless if not implemented. This article focuses on six ideation processes that I facilitated (two of which I created) to generate ideas.

1. Design Thinking

Design Thinking is also known as Human-Centered Design. It was created by David and Tom Kelley of IDEO. The concepts were featured in TED videos, and in the book Creative Confidence , written by the Kelley brothers. The concepts of Design Thinking are used by Stanford University in its d.school, and are available online. The process goes through 5 stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. It is a problem solving technique, focused on finding better ways for users to use existing products and services. The time horizon is immediate. It provides very specific and highly-detailed outcomes. A later article will describe an app idea that resulted from the application of Design Thinking.

2. Scenario Planning

Scenario Planning is a method used to envision the long-term future and allow the company to plan for it and be competitive when it arrives. The resulting ideas are high level, and mostly in the form of direction, rather than specific products or services. Shell Oil uses this strategic tool often. Giving its industry, it cannot change direction quickly, and therefore must "see" the future as far and as accurately as possible. Scenario Planning was described in Peter Schwartz's book The Art of The Long View . In Scenario Planning, you go through the following steps: developing a focusing question, brainstorming driving forces, identifying the top critical uncertainties, defining 4 plausible scenarios, developing "winning" narrative for each, and consolidating them into a single strategy. The time horizon for Scenario Planning is long, typically more than 10 years, and sometimes up to 50 years. Scenario Planning is responsible for TI's entry into mobile Wi-Fi.

3. War Games

A business war game is more tactical than Scenario Planning. Its goal is to help position the company better in its immediately competitive environment. Companies tend to underestimate their competitors and their motivation to win. The competitors are assumed to always be one step behind you. Other companies, albeit the minority, tend to overestimate their competitors and avoid trying to beat them. Most importantly--they don't really know their competitors, and as a result, develop strategies in a vacuum. A good source on this process is Benjamin Gilad's book Business War Games. The steps of a War-Game are: Define "winning," competitors, and judges; create teams that "become" the competitors; play rounds of the games (typically 3-4); determine the winner; and create a winning strategy. The time horizon is typically 1-5 years. The outcomes are moderately specific. I used War-Games at TI to forecast industry changes that later occurred, and modified strategy accordingly.

4. TRIZ

TRIZ is a unique problem-solving technique. It was created by Genrich Altshuler in Russia in 1946. The Russian acronym stands for "Theory of Inventive Problem Solving." The basic premise of TRIZ is that history repeats itself, and therefore the problem in front of you was already solved in another time, another place, and another industry. All you must do is find how it was solved there , and apply that solution here. TRIZ development took decades of reviewing millions of patents, extracting the generic problems that they solved and their generic solutions. The process is highly prescriptive, and includes 4 steps: identify the specific problem, find a generic TRIZ problem that "suffers" from the same contradiction, find the generic TRIZ solution (using a table), and apply it to create a specific solution to your problem. The time horizon is immediate, and the ideas resulting from the process are very specific. In fact, they are typically not a complete product or service ideas, but rather only solutions to problems in those.

5. Bowling with a Crystal Ball

Based on my book, Bowling with a Crystal Ball, the foundation for this technique includes the forecasting of the fastest-paced technologies, taking an outsider's view of different markets they may disrupt, and identifying the new value they could bring to those markets through the introduction of new products, services, processes, or business models that couldn't be implemented with today's technologies. The process begins with technology forecasting and shifts to markets. Not the other way around. Participants are required to find combinations of two (or more) technology trends (e.g., storage capacity, communication speeds), with one (or more) general trends (e.g., desk-top everything), to identify a potential product, service, process, or business model that can only be feasible 3 to 7 years from now. The time horizon for this process is intermediate (3-7 years), and the outcome is specific. The Bowling with a Crystal Ball process is responsible for the creation of USB 3.0 (the story is covered in the second edition of Bowling with a Crystal Ball).

6. IDEA

The purpose of the IDEA workshop is to find the next product or service for your company, but unlike some of the other processes described here--it is based on core capabilities and technologies your company already owns, and things you already know. The results are typically more incremental than the other processes, but would still allow for some disruptive innovation to occur. The process begins with research done by different subject matter experts in the company, and also through conducting research of adjacent technologies, applications, and capabilities.

On one hand this process brings knowledge of three "Tiers" of applications. Tier 1 includes the applications currently used in the industry, and that the company is involved with. Like with Bowling with a Crystal Ball, participants are asked to forecast trends in those. Tier 2 includes adjacent applications. For example, if the focus is on wireless communications, then adjacent applications may include non-wireless communications and their evolution trends. Tier 3 would include somewhat remote applications, for which it gets harder to see a relationship between those and the core applications that the company is currently involved with. In the example of communications, these could be non-communication electronics, processors, etc.

On the other hand, those trends are contrasted with 4 "disrupting forces": core technologies, core capabilities, accidental discoveries, and "no restriction" ideas. During the workshop, participants are required to contrast the 3 application tiers with the 4 disrupting forces to identify opportunities. The outcome of the IDEA workshop is moderately specific, and is meant to provide a general strategic direction for the company. It is typically required when a company or business units start "running out of ideas."

The six processes described above are adapted from my latest book Un-Kill Creativity: How Corporate America can out-innovate startups.

Published on: Nov 29, 2016