What if you don't have an idea?

All innovation starts with The Idea. But what if you don't have an idea to start with? Or what if you have only an idea or two and are unsure if you have the right idea? Let's help you generate some of the right ideas :).

Step 1: Set the stage

  1. Put your mission on top of a whiteboard or spreadsheet. Please do the one-sentence version :).
  2. List out your assets. Some examples:
    1. Any spaces (classrooms, laboratories, dormitories, etc) that lie unused some of the time.
    2. The time that key employees have on their hands (due to working part-time, summers off, etc).
    3. Know-how your team has developed (excellent systems, processes, curriculum, etc.) to solve your own problems.
    4. Relationships with other people, organizations, government agencies, etc.
  3. List out any loud signals the market has given you lately, for instance:
    1. Long lines of people waiting to purchase/use something you, or someone similar, are currently offering.
    2. People signing up (or asking) for an offering that you haven't even marketed yet!

It should look something like this...

IdeaJam-Part 1-Set the stage-mission assets market

Step 2: Set the criteria

Identify the top five-ish criteria you want to score your ideas on. Jump to a new whiteboard and make some columns. Column 1 is "the idea". The other columns are the criteria. The first few criteria should be the three items we've already discussed: mission alignment, have-the-assets (AKA assets are ready-to-go), and evidence of market demand. Next, you'll need a few additional criteria relevant to your specific needs. Some examples being: easy-to-do, short-term-revenue, long-term-revenue, profitability, meets-strategic-priority-X, etc. Last, add a TOTAL column to the right.

Next, decide if any (1-3) of the criteria should be weighted more heavily. Mark them with a star.

It should look something like this...

IdeaJam-Part 2-Criteria

Step 3: Ideate

Gather some smart mentors with a diverse range of experience, both inside and outside your organization. Walk them through your notes on your mission, assets, proof of market demand, and then your criteria.

Next, have a free-ranging discussion walking through your various assets & market demand evidence to come up with new business ideas. Give each idea its own row.

IdeaJam-Part 3-Ideate

Part 4: Score

Give each person 10 sticky dots (votes) and instruct them to distribute the dots along column 2 (Mission Alignment). You'll notice some ideas score much higher than others.


Repeat for each of the remaining columns.

When you get to the TOTAL column, add up all the dots for an idea. If a column has a star, count those dots double.


Step 5:  Review

Look at the scores. If you have it in a spreadsheet, sort it. You'll most likely find a clear rank-ordering and one or two winners.

And now you have a long list of ideas, a rough sorting, and a clear methodology as to WHY :).


If you would like to go through a process like this with fantastic mentors, an experienced facilitator, and have a blast doing it, sign up for one of the Lean Innovation Institute's upcoming IdeaJams.

Hat tip to the great Stephen Brand, who taught me how to do this much better!