Idea Engineering Research

A Study of 100 Creativity Techniques

In 2004, we started to study more than 100 methods for idea generation and discovered that there was little or no system to be found; methods went by different names, there was no understanding of how the methods actually worked and there were no guidelines about which methods work best in which situations. Since this situation was highly unsatisfactory, we set out to systematize the task of idea generation. Our goal was to be able to generate ideas as reliably as automobiles in a factory. For this reason – and because we are engineers by training – we named our project Idea Engineering.

Our first major finding was that practically all creativity techniques can be reduced to just a handful of principles. The more than 100 methods differed in little more than how they are presented. We realized that anyone who understood the small number of principles could invent their own creativity techniques as needed.

Our second major finding was that the vast majority of creativity techniques that have been published in the last decades are in fact little more than free brainstorming, which was introduced by Alex Osborn in 1954.

Our third realization, which only came after we had gathered some experience with idea projects, was that most of the widely-used ideation methods are almost completely ineffective for tough business problems that occur in real life. If we wanted to help companies develop ideas for patents, product innovations, marketing strategies and other goals, we would need techniques with a much higher performance.

Idea Evaluation and Selection

More recently, we have turned our attention to the evaluation and selection of ideas. Contrary to most people’s expectations, this is a much harder task than idea generation: there are many difficulties – both seen and unseen – that can lead to less-than-optimal results. An inaccurate or incomplete evaluation of ideas will inevitably lead to an incorrect selection – as will unspecific project goals and an unclear definition of criteria.

The most important result of our research into idea evaluation is that the most commonly used method in companies – the so-called scoring matrix – has several serious disadvantages that make its use highly questionable. It leads to misleading evaluations, is easy to manipulate and mixes “apples and oranges” in a way that makes it almost impossible to discover the most promising ideas.