Make Ideas Happen

Ideation. It sounds like something that a philosopher would do in a dark room while pondering the mysteries of the universe. In reality, it is an activity that every person engages in almost every day without even realising it. When you’re weighing the options of what to have for dinner or considering which route will get you home quicker, you’re ideating. Cool, right? 

When you’re dealing with data from lots of different interviewees on big issues like family violence, things can get complicated. In our Lightning Lab programmes, our teams are often grappling with big concepts. Over the years with a combination of great tools and a lot of trial and error, we have learnt a few things about this process. Here are some useful ways to get actionable ideas out of a mountain of data. 


Problems before solutions

First things first, you can’t start solving a problem until you have clearly defined it. If you haven’t worked out your problem statement, and written it down, then that’s a good place to start. 

Ideation is where you start matching the insights you have gathered from your customers to the problem you are trying to solve. It is usually a good idea to review your problem statement and your assumption map to make sure that you have gathered the right data and that the problem you started with is still relevant. Maybe it needs a bit of a re-write: that’s a good thing! All of the tools we use are living documents so changing them doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means that you’re really listening to your customers and working towards a solution they actually want. 


Don’t overthink it (because you definitely will)

If you’re a user of Netflix (or some other streaming platform) you’ll be familiar with the concept of analysis paralysis. This is a common human reaction where we feel a profound need to make the ‘right’ decision. We will spend hours scrolling through the many titles we could watch only to end up re-watching the same show we just finished re-watching last week. Sound familiar? If this is an issue for something as trivial as our evening entertainment then it is no surprise that we struggle to solve big issues that have real consequences for real people. 

An exercise that we use to overcome this is one we like to call a “how might we?” This involves getting a wall, a sharpie and a bunch of post-it notes. The team then starts posing questions that begin with the phrase “how might we?” Making these ideas into questions prevents the exercise from becoming biased towards one solution. In fact, these ideas aren’t solutions at all – really they are just reworded problems with a great focus on what matters to your future users. 


The GovTech cohort work on an ideation exercise using post its on a whiteboard.


Take this example from this year’s Lightning Lab GovTech programme. The National Council of Independent Women’s Refuges and the Ministry of Social Development team are working on a project to better support those experiencing family violence in New Zealand. Here is one of the insights that they gathered from their problem discovery process:


“Trust is huge in developing this solution” – Katie


We know that people need to trust the solution. Rather than listing all the ways trust could be built, we would simply write “how might we build trust with our users?” This gets the insights out of our heads and onto paper. Keep going until you’ve got everything written down – that’s when the magic happens. 


Converge – diverge – converge

Once everything is on the wall, some pretty clear themes will emerge. What those themes are will depend entirely on your project but there is always some overlap in the questions that people have come up with. The beauty of post-it notes is that you can now move and group the questions by theme to narrow your focus on the areas that matter the most. As Alicia, a member of the family violence team put it: 


“There are so many contributing parts to this, so we have narrowed this down to focus on education, Contact, and referral”


This grouping is the first point of convergence. It makes sure that everyone on the team is contributing to the discussion and creates a shared understanding of what really matters. 

Next, we get the team to diverge and do a bit of independent thinking. Each person takes the key focus areas that have come to the surface and sketches out a solution which addresses the parts they feel are most crucial. This should be a short exercise and focus at the highest level; an app that provides information to those in a bad situation, or a mobile drop-in centre or a public education campaign. 

Once everyone has made a solution on their own, the team comes together and presents what they have come up with. The team can then vote and decide on the direction they want to take. It might be that there is a common thought from everyone, or perhaps the decision is to combine two of the solutions. Either way, the result is a solution which everyone has had a hand in creating. The team converges on one idea which is crucial when it comes time to bring their ideas to life. 


Complex issues can be daunting. It would be too easy to sit in a room and debate the fine points of an issue without ever arriving at an actionable solution. The teams in Lightning Lab GovTech are all tackling big, meaty issues. Using this Ideation methodology keeps the teams moving forward. They can create solutions that meet the needs of the public and can be developed, rolled out and then refined in a timely manner. 

This is the future of public sector problem solving, and the future is looking bright. 


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