81 Creativity Triggers To Energize Your Ideation Process

Credit : Tony Ulwick


Creativity, as defined in the context of ideation, is the mental process by which an idea for a new product, service or feature concept is triggered and conceived. More specifically, it requires that you make a mental connection between the technologies, systems, methods and processes that are possible or available, and how these might be employed to address unmet customer needs. This can be a daunting task given the multitude of solution combinations and permutations that are possible.

This issue can be tackled by taking two very important steps. First, uncover and quantify the unmet needs that represent the biggest market opportunities in advance of an ideation session. This way you’ll know the ideation team is focused on solving known, unmet needs. See Outcome-Driven Ideation: Brainstorming With The End In Mind for more details on this approach.

Second, we’ve created a set of powerful creativity triggers that fuel an ideation session. Over the years, we’ve successfully translated the creativity principles of several popular methods, along with all the TRIZ principles, into 3 sets of actionable, context-specific creativity triggers:

Product platform creativity triggers; for conceptualizing altogether new product and service platformsBusiness model creativity triggers; for business model ideationFeature set creativity triggers; for conceptualizing features for products

These 81 creativity triggers are based on proven principles and have been used to generate high-caliber, breakthrough, and often patentable ideas. The triggers are in a context and in a language that people can understand and apply. They are unique to Strategyn’s Outcome-Driven Ideation process. The complete set of triggers (in their raw form) is documented in the table at the end of this article.

In the following sections, we share the refined triggers with you and explain how they can be applied to conceptualize solutions that address underserved desired outcomes as identified through ODI-based market research. The triggers are certain to jump-start and fuel your next ideation session.

Generating platform-level ideas

The first set of creativity triggers is aimed at the conceptualization of new product platforms. The term “platform level” does not refer to a product family platform (such as a frame for a family of automobiles); it describes the value delivery platform — a new term — which is defined as the subsystems that deliver the core product or service function enabling the customer to get the job of interest done, along with the infrastructure that enables the subsystems to work together. The value delivery platform is the system into which features are integrated and is the glue that holds those features in place.

For a product, the system infrastructure may consist of the materials the product employs, the subsystem interconnects, its energy source, and its size and shape; the core mechanical, electrical, chemical, and/or software components are considered subsystems. For a service, the system infrastructure may include core physical assets — trucks and buildings — as well as other resources such as people, information, organizational structure, software, communication systems, and the like. In practice, the description of a value delivery platform must be detailed enough to explain how the available system infrastructure and subsystems enable the customer to get the job of interest done, but should not include all the features necessary to satisfy the customer’s desired outcomes.

For example, several value delivery platforms exist today to help people perform the job of removing food particles from their teeth. The most obvious and common platform consists of a set of fixed bristles on a plastic handle. A platform made popular by Oral-B and Sonicare consists of a motorized round brush head that contains rotating or oscillating bristles which remove food particles mechanically. WaterPik, another dominant player in the space, unveiled a product that became a consumer favorite; their oral irrigator consists of a pressurized stream of water that is directed toward food particles, dislodging them from their location. A future platform may be a chewable gum that contains a chemical that dissolves any lingering food particles.

When generating ideas for new-to-the-world products and services, the initial concepts are often defined at this level. Ideas for specific product or service features should be added only after management has approved the value delivery platform.

The creativity triggers listed in Table 1 are designed to stimulate the conceptualization of a variety of creative and potentially breakthrough value delivery platforms. All the triggers can be used to ignite idea creation for a brand-new platform, and a subset (triggers 8–26) can be employed to improve an existing product or service platform without impacting its subsystems or the business model.

Triggers that have the most applicability are often selected in advance of an ideation session, and at the appropriate time, are introduced to the team. Next, teams are shown how to incorporate them into their creative process.

For example, consider trigger 15, “construct the platform so that it allows third parties to add features or content over time.” A team might note that companies such as Facebook and YouTube as well as television stations and even the Harvard Business Review have all applied this thinking in the construction of their value delivery platforms. This might trigger a company such as WebMD, which helps customers execute the job of diagnosing and treating medical conditions, to modify its Web-based platform to allow users to rate the effectiveness of treatments presented on its site. WebMD could potentially enhance user engagement by allowing viewers to quickly locate the most highly rated treatments for a specific condition.

Or consider trigger 8, “borrow available resources (energy, materials, information, dimensionality, waste, objects, people, etc.) and make them part of the platform.” In analyzing that trigger, a team might note that this is the path that Pilkington took when it incorporated a photocatalytic exterior surface in its Activ® glass; the sun’s UV light activates the coating which gradually breaks down, loosens, and dissolves dirt and soil that builds up on exterior-facing windows. This example may help trigger ideas that apply to the situation at hand.

A circular saw manufacturer might use trigger 1, “change the platform into another state of matter to get the job done,” to stimulate conception of a number of new platforms — for example, a water jet, a plasma (ionized gas), a laser, or ultrasound — each with the potential to replace the traditional cutting-blade technology.

As in any discipline, with practice and experience, it becomes easier to select and use these triggers to stimulate ideas that address underserved customer needs.

Table 1: Creativity Triggers for Platform-Level Ideation

Considering some of the triggers in reverse may provide a would-be inventor with additional insight and fresh ideas. For example, one might reverse trigger 24, “reduce the weight of the platform,” and consider increasing its weight.

Generating ideas for a basic business model

New-platform innovation requires the creation of a new value delivery platform, but the need for creativity does not stop there. After a company formulates a clever concept for a value delivery platform, it tyically hits the pause button.

Before it commits to spending the resources necessary to flesh out the concept with a complete set of product or service features and building a comprehensive business case, management typically wants to know, “Can the concept make money?” To ensure that it can, the concept must be supported, at this stage of the idea generation process, by a basic business model.

A basic business model is defined as the method by which a company will generate revenue from its offering and control costs through its operations. The model demonstrates how the concept can be implemented profitably. For example, the company that conceives the idea of a chewable gum that contains a chemical to dissolve food particles may decide to minimize costs by insisting that its chemical supplier provide the essential ingredients in a directly processable form, thus avoiding additional processing costs and an investment in capital equipment. They may decide to maximize revenue by selling the gum to restaurants as an eloquent alternative to the toothpick, in addition to selling to consumers through typical channels. These cost and revenue decisions are two vital elements of the company’s basic business model and explain how this product can create a robust revenue stream.

If senior managers conclude, at this early stage of the innovation process, that a concept can make money, they will deem it worthy of pursuit and release it to the next stage. At this juncture, workers can identify the product features that should be included on the platform.

Management does not yet need to know exactly how much the product will cost or how profitable it will be; that calculation can only be made after pricing information and decisions regarding the supply chain, distribution, marketing, and sales have been transacted and the business case is completed. Consequently, it is important to distinguish a basic business model from both the comprehensive business model and the revenue model.

A comprehensive business model factors in considerations related to pricing, distribution, marketing, sales, and advertising. In contrast, the basic business model is only focused on product cost and revenue generation opportunities that relate directly to the product and on the contributors to the cost of production.

Conversely, the revenue model, on the other hand, is not only concerned with the cost and revenue generation opportunities, but also with the issues that affect cash flow; it must explain how and when revenues are collected. In effect, the basic business model is a subset of the revenue model, and both are subsets of the comprehensive business model.

As one would expect, the revenue and comprehensive business models are formulated after the product has entered the product development process. Considering the basic business model at this point in the process has the effect of drastically reducing R&D costs by assuring that only valued and profitable ideas are considered for further work.

The basic-business-model creativity triggers listed in Table 2 will help innovation teams create an inventive cost and revenue equation. To achieve optimal results, first identify the biggest contributors to variable cost and use the variable-cost-reduction triggers to devise ways of reducing those costs. Then use the revenue generation triggers to devise ways of increasing revenue. Finally, use the fixed-cost-reduction triggers to minimize fixed costs associated with production. The resulting equation defines the basic business model.

These triggers are equally useful whether the company is creating an altogether new business model, as is the case when developing a new value delivery platform, or when it is improving an existing business model. For example, to improve its existing business model, manufacturers of multiunit housing developments such as Centex, Toll Brothers, or Lennar Corporation might use variable-cost-reduction trigger 17, “eliminate a cost through the use of barter.” Builders could ask contractors to provide free landscaping for model homes in exchange for publicity. They might then use revenue generation trigger 27, “divert a revenue source from someone else in the value chain,” to conceive the idea to start a mortgage lending subsidiary. (This worked in the automotive industry: both GM and Ford derived more profits from their finance arms than they did from actual car sales.) Finally, fixed-cost-reduction trigger 26, “make a fixed cost variable,” might serve as a springboard, leading to the idea of leasing instead of purchasing construction equipment. These improvements could be considered for inclusion in their current business models.

A similar approach is used to propose a basic business model in support of a new value delivery platform. For example, when constructing the iPod/iTunes offering, Apple leveraged variable-cost-reduction trigger 15, “own the infrastructure, not the content,” when it established its proprietary file format, and later created iTunes to enable content distribution. It leveraged revenue generation trigger 39, “collect revenue at a different point in time or at a different frequency,” when it allowed buyers to purchase individual songs. And it leveraged fixed-cost-reduction trigger 24, “leverage a capital investment made by somebody else,” when it signed deals to sell music produced by record companies.

This approach supports the creation of a basic business model, enabling management to conclude whether or not the platform concept will be profitable.

Table 2: Creativity Triggers for Business Model Ideation

Generating product and service features

When it comes to both current-platform and new-platform innovation, companies must generate ideas at the feature level. A feature is defined here as something tangible or intangible that performs a function that allows customers to better satisfy a desired outcome. A feature is integrated into a value delivery platform and may take many forms — it may be a piece of information, an action, or, of course, a component, a material, or a part of a physical object.

For example, a value delivery platform for a device used to remove food particles from your teeth may consist of bristles and a plastic handle. Yet, the final product may also include a rubberized grip (a feature) to minimize the likelihood of the brush slipping while in use (a desired outcome) and an angled head (a feature) to minimize the likelihood that hard-to-reach teeth can be cleaned (a desired outcome). The value delivery platform is constructed to help get the job done, while features are added to the platform to better satisfy specific desired outcomes.

Creativity can be triggered to generate valuable features using the creativity triggers listed in Table 3. The first step is to understand the specific desired outcome the customer wants satisfied when getting the job done, and to focus on one underserved outcome at a time.

For example, the Robert Bosch Power Tool company’s goal was to design a circular saw that would minimize the likelihood that visibility of the cut line is lost due to the buildup of sawdust (a highly underserved desired outcome). Bosch leveraged trigger 5, “use available resources that are not being used, e.g., by-products, outputs, energy.” It is the same trigger the developers of the Cassini space explorer leveraged when they used the waste heat from the probe’s onboard computers to keep its fuel cells at the proper operating temperature. Bosch leveraged this trigger to conceive the idea of redirecting the air blown out of the side of a circular saw motor to the front, pointed down toward the cut line. This ensured the air would blow the sawdust away from the cut line and make the line visible from start to finish. The Bosch design team incorporated this feature into the CS20 circular saw.

During the ideation process, Bosch was also seeking to find a way to minimize the cost of cut cords and to minimize downtime due to cut cords (two additional underserved outcomes).

Here, they leveraged trigger 1, “make the platform execute part or all of a required function without adding a new feature.” It is the same trigger cell phone manufacturers applied when they removed the antenna from the external casing of the device and built it into the internal function of the platform. In addition to hiding it from view, it also helped prevent breakage. Bosch leveraged this trigger when they conceived the idea of removing the cord from the circular saw and building the necessary function into the value delivery platform. The patented Direct Connect® feature offered an elegant method of ensuring the extension cord, now plugged directly into the circular saw, was secured. What made this idea even more attractive was the fact that it appreciably reduced product cost — an added bonus.

Table 3: Creativity Triggers for Feature Ideation

Solution pathways and triggers

Before we transformed all the above creativity triggers into something that was more usable for platform, business model and feature set ideation, we first created a complete set of generic creativity triggers compiled from all known sources and refined for them applicability in any system. We defined more than 100 triggers.

As we began to categorize them, we realized that they logically fell into 8 distinct categories — each focused on a different part of an overall system. We call these categories “solution pathways”. We hypothesize that the 8 solution pathways are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, as they incorporate all the creativity triggers that had been created.

As an innovator or inventor, or as someone focused on a certain aspect of an overall system, this classification of the creativity triggers may prove more useful than those customized above for the 3 different applications.

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