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Innovation and Social Ideation: In Sync, Not Synonyms

For all of the many dialects of industries today, there’s at least one word that’s equally as misunderstood in theory as it is in practice. The one that sticks out for me is “ideation” — technically, it has something to do with the ‘formation of mental objects’, a vague enough explanation that, when misinterpreted into something to be done, can cause the business equivalent of a nasty hangover.

In other words, it can leave companies regretting those last two ideas, wondering what they were thinking at the time, and stuck with a handful of easily preventable consequences that will long outlast the initial headache.

Ideation: Not Usually a Thing (But it Can Be)

Practically, of course, ideation is absolutely a thing, and can be defined more palatably than the above — a lot of companies think of it as the process of coming up with new ideas, or turning ideas into reality. This is where the whole thing gets muddled, though; many organizations have already established turning ideas into action as the simple definition of innovation, even with an expanded interpretation centered on function (bringing change to established systems). Start throwing in terms like brainstorming and conceptualization and inspiration, and despite important differences in application, it all starts to sound the same.

Homogenous descriptions aren’t the only problem, or even the most damaging ones. Not unexpectedly, the biggest dangers lurk in processes that lack a focused strategy. “Making ideation and idea management the starting point of the innovation process, although common, turns innovation into a guessing game,” notes Strategyn, a consulting firm devoted to outcome-driven innovation. “It is nearly impossible to have a big idea before knowing what customer, job-to-be-done, segment, unmet needs, and price the idea has to address.”

Everything’s Coming Up Social

Let’s back up a bit. Ideation is by no means a new concept, but it is making the rounds again as something businesses think they need to be doing, and so, they’re coupling not-altogether-solidified ideation processes with things like social collaboration and enterprise social networking. The result is ‘social ideation’, which takes into account the act of collaborating socially within organizations and its importance in modern business (good), but, by calling for the unstructured, directionless solicitation of ideas, fails to implement the appropriate use of tools (bad).

“One of the traditional justifications for introducing social collaboration is to get the whole organization engaged in thinking about better ways to do business,” says InformationWeek’s David F. Carr. “Well, it ain’t necessarily so — not without a strategy that goes beyond software.” Ideation and the tools that foster it can be exceptionally useful within the framework of a sharp strategy, but using a totally open-ended approach (or failing to recognize the purposes behind ideation versus innovation) can be a bust. If the goal of a business is, essentially, to identify market needs and problems and generate great ideas (ideation) that will lead to cutting-edge solutions for those problems (innovation), it’s pretty clear that they’re not the same thing. They’re mutually inclusive, yes, but having an idea doesn’t guarantee that it’ll solve a problem; that can only happen by tying concrete ideas to business objectives. Bonus points if you have a process in place for measuring what does and doesn’t work.

And On That Note…

Here at Mindjet HQ, we spend an enormous amount of time developing an innovation philosophy. Our latest brainchild is Mindjet ProjectDirector, a project management suite specifically designed for teams. We know how dependent today’s teams are on effective collaboration, strategic ideation and task management, and we think ProjectDirector truly helps today’s agile teams stay on track.

Check out the product SlideShare, or head straight on over to our online shop for the free trial and pricing details.

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