Startups

How to Find Balance Between Process and True Ideation

October 9, 2018

Success in business (especially when it comes to startups) is all about balance. Working 20 hour days and requiring your employees to work similar hours will lead to a team that is completely burnt out. On the other side, working only an hour a day will not get your product to market before competitors. Just as every company needs an engrained work-life balance, there needs to be a balance between rigid process and true ideation. After all, companies need some structure to be able to hold employees accountable, move forward, and achieve goals.

To state it plainly, designers, marketers, engineers, salespeople, and all other professionals need some kind of process to be able to succeed in their jobs. Process involves setting expectations and providing a framework for employees to use in their everyday tasks. These processes are honed over time to make routine tasks standard in order to save time and move forward with product development.

Ideation in its simplest form is the creation of new ideas (and it also happens to be a key step in design thinking). A definition that helps illuminate the concept further comes from author and writer Bill Donius. He explains: “Ideation is a technique that involves both the left and right sides of the brain to allow breakthroughs from entrenched habits of thought and persistent difficult problems.”

This is an important way of viewing the difference between process and true ideation. Just as processes help us streamline projects, they can also place us in a box. That is why ideation must be paired with process to keep creativity alive.

Taking this concept a bit further, d.school, An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE states: “Mentally [ideation] represents a process of ‘going wide’ in terms of concepts and outcomes. Ideation provides both the fuel and also the source material for building prototypes and getting innovative solutions into the hands of your users.”

Women in a meeting discussing new customer journey ideas.
Six heads are definitely better than one.

While process may help us focus and get ahead, ideation takes the opposite approach and widens our point of view to be able to see a different way forward. Just because your company has always gone through the prototyping phase the same way, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way. Encouraging change and radical thinking is the only way to ensure your company reaches its true potential.

The question we’re going to dive into today is: how can companies and teams find and maintain a balance between process and true ideation to get ahead?

Know What Parts of the Process Can Be Flexible

There are many parts of a company that must be strict, such as adherence to local labor laws. But, at the same time, there are a number of facets that can change. For example, how does your company collect and execute on new product feature ideas? Is there a spreadsheet? Are they logged and managed in Jira? No matter how you choose to keep track of these ideas, the bottom line is that employees with access to customers and prospects need to be able to suggest features that can have an immediate impact on revenue.

To take a different angle, over time you may realize that the way your team prioritizes projects for design sprints simply isn’t working anymore. This isn’t time for an existential crisis, but instead an opportunity to dive into your methods to learn what is and isn’t working. Process can evolve over time to meet you team’s needs. The first version doesn’t have to pigeonhole your team into a singular way of doing things for the entire lifespan of your company.

In fact, we would argue that vital processes need to be reviewed periodically. That way your team can determine whether or not the current way of doing things is helping the larger company achieve goals. If it turns out that the process in question is holding your team back, learning what can be salvaged and what needs to be gutted can be fruitful. Have the wisdom to change company norms before they start to have a significant negative impact.

A light bulb that has a crack in it and is burning out.
Don’t let your team burn out. Get feedback and recalibrate to find balance.

Don’t Let Process Get in the Way of Good Ideas

A healthy dose of optimized process is required to keep any company moving along smoothly. But true ideation needs room to grow and operate outside of the status quo. That’s why we recommend fostering an idea driven company. If given a platform, it’s very likely that many of your employees would offer up game-changing product and process suggestions. So give them the time and the space to do so by making it part of your company values.

Process Gets Things Done

Any entrepreneur is goal-oriented by definition. When it’s time to start hiring employees to bring your ideas to life, it’s only natural to want to let employees know what is expected of them and what processes exist to help them exceed those expectations.

Would Facebook be so successful if they had been singularly focused on building their ad business, instead of also paying attention to potential acquisition opportunities? Would Apple own so much market share if they stuck with computers and didn’t branch out to other product lines? While it’s true that processes helped these companies get to where they are today, if they hadn’t taken a risk and given employees the freedom to practice their own version of true ideation, they wouldn’t be the household names they are today.

For companies of all sizes this requires dual vision: both visualizing what needs to be done in the short term to meet production and revenue goals and long term to be able to sustain business and grow. The point of process is to create enough structure to get things done, but also to avoid being so rigid that it stifles employee creativity.

Two people writing out a user flow on a whiteboard.
When in doubt, write it out!

Putting True Ideation to Work

Once a business can transition out of survival mode with solid processes in place, it’s time to move to ingraining ideation into your workplace. It’s important to not leave this up to chance. In any company, some employees will be more outgoing in meetings than others. But, just because some may speak louder than others, this doesn’t mean their ideas will be higher quality. True ideation is inclusive of all relevant teams and stakeholders. Anyone who builds or interacts with a product might have a good idea that will improve it, so give them all a chance to have their voice heard.

To make sure the best ideas become reality, encourage employees to submit their ideas in multiple ways. Maybe aggregate them in a portal or invite team members to email the head of the department that their idea most directly impacts. The key here is to give your employees more agency over the processes that affect them and the company at-large. True ideation goes beyond simple brainstorming or group thinking activities that can squander the best ideas in favor of the most popular ones.

Making ideation inclusive means that the depth and breadth of ideas will increase substantially. Once all stakeholders have generated many ideas, it’s time to develop the most promising ones further. Make it a company-wide process that encourages all to participate and vote on the best ideas to give everyone a say. This could be based on revenue potential, how many customers have asked for the feature, or something else that fits better with your business model.

Four people standing outdoors with signs with green check marks over their faces.
Voting doesn’t have to be boring—make it interactive and take it outside!

Closing Thoughts

There is no particular right way to run a company, as each product and team call for different processes. But there needs to be a balance between getting things done and building the foundation for a sustainable future. The best case scenario is when process and true ideation can inspire one another. Processes must be based on innovative ways of approaching challenges and ideation requires some sort of structure to elevate it beyond just an idea. Finding this balance is unique for each company and takes a certain amount of trial and error to get right.

How do you create balance in your own company between process and true ideation? Let us know by joining in the conversation and tweeting us @Protoio.

Proto.io lets anyone build mobile app prototypes that feel real. No coding or design skills required. Bring your ideas to life quickly! Sign up for a free 15-day trial of Proto.io today and get started on your next mobile app design.

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