Don’t Brainstorm — Ideate

December 17, 2021

It’s hard to overstate this simple fact: the beginning of an innovation process is where the opportunity lives or dies. If you don’t set the stage for innovation with the proper context, you won’t achieve the kind of outcomes that can transform your business.

Ray Tilkens

Given that fact, it’s amazing that most companies start the process not at the beginning, but at the end. They brainstorm for solutions without even knowing what the problem is, usually in response to someone’s short-term need to improve metrics. That’s why when you bring up the topic of innovation to corporate leaders, you often get a visceral negative reaction because they equate innovation with brainstorming, which doesn’t work. I’m a veteran of the innovation world, and I don’t even use the word “brainstorming” at all—it makes my head hurt.

Let’s talk instead about what you really need for ideation on the front end. I recommend sticking to these principles:

1) Spend the time. The front end isn’t about speed. It’s about framing the problem correctly: exploring, understanding, and defining it based on evidence, not impulse. Don’t rush this part of the process.

2) Follow a framework for decision-making. It may seem counterintuitive, but innovation is a process that can be defined and understood…and won’t kill your creativity. Quite the opposite, actually. Having a process simply gives you a guiderope so that you can always come back to the relevant problem no matter where your thought process takes you. It can also get your scientists and engineers and other logic-oriented folks to explore their creativity in a way that feels safe to them.

You have to tap your inner curiosity and keep asking “why?” rather than settling for the first answer you hear.

3) Dig, dig, dig until you make a discovery. Research. Do surveys. Start conversations. Ask questions. Your customers and employees won’t always tell you what their real problems are—not without probing. You have to tap your inner curiosity and keep asking “why?” rather than settling for the first answer you hear, or the second, or the third. Only then will you be able to identify the problem you’re actually supposed to be solving, not the surface problem that first grabs your attention. For example, so many companies are trying to figure out how to return to the office post-pandemic without even asking themselves, “What problem are we trying to solve by returning to the office?” And that’s a topic well worth investigating.

4) Explore analogues. There’s a chance someone else may have solved a problem that’s analogous to your own. Have you looked at nature, for example? Have you looked at how other industries—or your own competitors—have defined and solved similar challenges? Do you understand why they took the path they did? Does it make you see your problems in a different light, or give you a new understanding of potential opportunities?

The only way to get the results you want is to put significant effort into discovery and definition.

5) Explore white spaces. Companies compete in markets based on levels of competition. These levels are often viewed as gospel and followed by others that are in or want to be in the market. But what if instead you viewed these as opportunities rather than rules? What if you broke down each competitive component, ranked them, and then questioned why to uncover insights that could lead to richer discovery?

It’s tempting to skip these steps, I know, especially if COVID has exposed weaknesses in your approach and you feel you have to move fast to stay alive. But innovation really is “junk in, junk out.” The only way to get the results you want is to put significant effort into discovery and definition. Your solutions will be richer and deeper—and most importantly, they’ll solve the right problems.


Ray Tilkens is a corporate innovation leader and a faculty member of Innovation Academy at Notre Dame’s IDEA Center. He teaches tools for front-end ideation as part of InnovationAction Boot Camp, a program that immerses mid-level leaders and project teams in the principles, tools, and techniques of innovation. To learn more, visit