Ideation during COVID-19

Ideation during COVID-19

At the time of writing this, like you, I’m confined to working from home. I feel very fortunate and privileged to be working for a company that makes this possible, and in a role where this can still be valuable.

But I must confess to having some trepidation, aside from the understandable angst about living in a time of pandemic. I was worried about how I could do my job effectively, given that I spend most of it working directly with people, rather than code: I’m more a post-it note person rather than a keyboard warrior. Also, as an extravert, I do like to be around people and do my best thinking in small groups.

I was asked to design and facilitate a session and approach to come up with some credible ideas for how we could optimally partner with and support our government customers during this time. These ideas were then put to select ministers and senior civil servants to offer my company’s  support to the Government – and we’re already starting to implement some of them.

We’ve all found this experience to be really productive and were able to turn around some cracking ideas in a short space of time, so I thought I’d share this approach with you. With the pandemic fundamentally impacting all facets of life at the moment – this could be a good opportunity to look for ways to help your organisation look at the possible opportunities to make things better.

Part One – Setup
One stark lesson I suspect we’re all learning is how far meeting preparation standards have fallen. Before the pandemic, how many meetings do you observe where people rush in (late) from another meeting, having not prepared for this one? Holding meetings online requires incredible focus and purpose. So:

  1. Keep a tight agenda and stick to it ruthlessly
  2. Demand full engagement from the “room” (having everyone with video switched on helps)
  3. Insist that anyone who comes to the meeting does the required research or pre-reading
  4. Start on time – refuse to recap for latecomers (they won’t be late next time)
  5. Banter in small doses only. We all need some levity to lighten the mood in these unsettled times, but I found that a productive meeting where everyone felt valuable and spent their time well did wonders for morale.
  6. Encourage people to contribute if you sense they’re not speaking up
  7. Seek help from a scribe so that you can focus on keeping engagement up


Part Two – Sample Agenda 

The point of this agenda is broad ideation, then to progressively refine ideas until we had ideas grouped, prioritised and concretely understood (ready to take forward to further rapid offline development). Here’s a sample 90-minute agenda you can try out. You’ll see how gradually the ideas progress through each step:

It’s worth noting that the agenda has a 10-minute contingency built into it. 5 minutes is for real usable contingency; 5 minutes is for people to stretch their legs and gather themselves before their next call.

We used Microsoft Planner (a bit like Trello) as the “board” on which people wrote their ideas and were able to vote for good candidates. We created columns on the board to allow the team to capture ideas, group, and prioritise.

For the prioritisation part of the session, we use a 2×2 grid (of course!). “Easy” is relative, but basically means, “Can we do it entirely ourselves or with minimal external help?” Hard means, “Significant external help needed, policy change or other huge dependency would slow this down too much”.

One lovely little facilitation tip, shared with me by a brilliant colleague, is that at the start of a larger session like this it’s important to ensure that everyone has introduced themselves to the group. Why? By doing so, you’ve engaged those who might ordinarily remain a silent lurker on your call, and you’re likely to get more engagement from them.

Part 3 – Offline Refinement 

After prioritising, we took some time offline to refine the propositions within a template (based on our Problem statement approach that forced us to think about the problem, a hypothesis with valuable measurable outcomes we could observe, timescales, dependencies etc. These formed the basis of the proposals we were able to put in front of our clients.

Time from ideation session starting to proposals sent = approx. 1 day. 


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