by Cathy Dunn and Phil Allcock

Some useful techniques

Below are a number of easily-used techniques that can be applied at each of the different stages of the process.


  • Exploring a number of questions:
  • What is supposed to happen in this context?
  • What goals are we looking for?
  • Who’s involved and what are they looking for?
  • How is it being done now?
  • What’s working and what’s not?
  • Does it remind you of anything else?
  • Use the ‘five whys’ technique to really get under the skin of a situation:
  • Why do we do that?
  • But why is that important?
  • But why would we carry on doing that?
  • But why...?
  • But why...?
  • Remember tale of the Emperor’s new clothes? Are you brave enough to challenge the status quo?
  • What assumptions are people making? Be an assumption buster.
  • Understand the area/subject/situation thoroughly – hidden in corners there may be ideas that just need to be uncovered.
  • Try walking into your work place at the start of a working day or looking at a problem as though you’ve never been there or seen it before. What do you see and feel that you hadn’t seen or felt before and how does that help you understand the place or the problem differently?
  • Rethink the ‘don’t bring problems, bring me solutions!’ mantra. Not everyone has the capacity to both identify and then solve a problem. By giving people the message that they have to do both, you lose out on the critical input of problem identifiers. After all, if you don’t know a problem exists, you can’t resolve it.
  • Do the preparation with other people, particularly the stakeholders who are affected by the problem and will have to live with the solution. Two heads really are better than one and, when it comes to implementation, you might need as many allies as you can lay hands on.
  • Keep a journal close by and write down/draw in it any insights into or reflections on the problem that occur to you.
  • Mind-maps are a really good way of collecting information as it emerges and then, later, exploring connessione – making links between what you’ve got.
  • Another good way to explore and create an understanding of the ‘big picture’, and connessione, is by using techniques associated with systems thinking (see work by Peter Senge and others).
  • You can also learn from the past. What’s the history of the problem? If you can understand that, then you can develop solutions that deal with root causes.
  • Meditation, with somewhere to make notes, is a good tool for preparation. Make sure you have writing materials within easy reach. Sit quietly somewhere and let insights come to you; jot them down, and then let something else come to mind.


  • One possibility – successfully used by James Dyson and by the scientists at Continental Tyres – is to see if there are any ideas you can borrow from other fields. Often, an innovation in one area of business is something that has been borrowed from somewhere else. The key thing here is that the two seemingly different areas are fundamentally the same in terms of what they’re trying to do.
  • Another possibility is to ask yourself how you could destroy the thing you’re trying to improve. It sounds a bit odd, but if you do this, you’ll identify things that, for example, you should plan to avoid.
  • If you ask people, and yourself, what they would wish for in the situation you’re dealing with, they are more likely to be more daring with their answers – they’re only wishing for something after all, not putting their head above the parapet by making a concrete suggestion.
  • You could also ask people a question such as ‘If you didn’t have to live with the consequences, what would you do in this situation?’ By removing their responsibility for the outcome, you’re making it safer for them to share an idea they might otherwise dismiss.
  • On a similar note, set up a brainstorming session.
  • Learn from the past. Things that might have been tried in the past and let slip might be worth bringing back. The pharmaceutical industry are investing a lot of money looking into traditional/herbal remedies, to identify the active ingredients that made those ‘old fashioned’/low-tech solutions work.
  • Use the TRIZ problem-solving technique.
  • Try using an analogy to trigger some alternative thinking. What does the situation or problem you’re dealing with remind you of? An animal, an object? Let’s say it reminds you of a tennis ball because
  • It’s made up of different parts, but they are so tightly fixed together you can’t separate them
  • Because it’s round, and so you can’t see all of it at the same time
  • It’s pretty resilient, because when it hits something, or something hits it, it bounces off and doesn’t fall apart.
  • Then ask yourself, if it was that animal or object, how it would respond to a situation/problem like yours.
  • Think of someone famous you admire – Elvis Presley/Napoleon Bonaparte/Joan of Arc. What they might do in response to this situation/problem?
  • Draw a picture that represents the problem and then play around with that image to see what options it suggests.
  • Listen to some baroque music – Bach, for example – while you’re working on the problem. This kind of music produces the brain waves that enable us to come up with new ways of dealing with things.
  • Meditation, with somewhere to make notes, and some writing materials within easy reach, is also a good tool for generation. Sit quietly somewhere and let ideas come to you, write them down and then let something else drift into your mind. Don’t force it or fight it.


  • Sleep on it; go away to a different place; occupy your mind differently for a while, and allow your subconscious to work away in the background.
  • Meditate and relax.
  • Do something that involves repetitive physical activity – cycling, a rowing machine, ironing – and see what comes into you mind as you do that.
  • Just go away and come back to something; it doesn’t have to be for long. You might get a different perspective that will lead to new avenues to explore/read about.


  • Involve those you identified as stakeholders in the preparation phase in the evaluation process – they will have to live with the outcome.
  • Think hard about the pros and cons.
  • Get someone else to test the ideas and your thinking.
  • Find someone to play devil’s advocate.
  • Ask what would happen if it didn’t work.
  • Identify all the possible costs, to check feasibility.
  • In response to objections – and there’ll probably be a lot of those – get people to consider the consequences of doing nothing.
  • Check back against all of the themes/needs that emerged during preparation; how effectively does your idea deal with those? You can even create a grid that contains all of those themes/needs and a column in which you and others can score a solution against all of them.
  • The best way to see if something works is to try it – set up a small-scale trial, which won’t cause too much damage if it fails – and give the solution a go.
  • Imagine you are on ‘Dragons’ Den’ – what would they say about your idea and what questions would they ask?

Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.

Steve Jobs


  • Make a plan and put it into operation – do things, rather than just talk or think about them.
  • Draw on project management tools; devise a timeline and critical path to follow.
  • Don’t ignore the human response to change. You’ll need to plan to manage people’s adaptation to the new way of doing things as well as handling the technical aspects of implementation.
  • On that note, remember the phrase, ‘Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.’ Make sure that you identify people who might openly, or less obviously, block progress. Then work hard to build a working relationship with them: listen to their concerns; respect their position, and involve them in trying to find modifications that might enable them to become supporters, rather than blockers.
  • Create a storyboard of the change and how it will be implemented.
  • Bring the end result and its benefits to life for people – what would a day in their life in this new world be like?
  • Use the allies you made during the earlier part of the process, by consulting with and actively involving stakeholders as advocates for the solution – particularly if they are ‘cool’ or credible.