Ideation tools

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Developed by Julianna Apli



The ideation or pre-project phase is often underrated in project, program or portfolio management.[1]

Ideation is a stage within Design Thinking, that deals with the generation of a wide variety of ideas in order to solve problems. Project management deals a lot with defining objectives that need to be achieved and ideation can be a great aid for project managers to come up and execute great ideas. There is a large amount of ideation tools, however brainstorming has been and still is the most used of these tools. This is not to say that brainstorming is useless, on the contrary, it is a very useful tool, but in some cases other ideation methods match project needs better. Expanding the horizons for projects and projects managers, when dealing with idea generation, ideation can have the potential to increase effectiveness and improve processes in the project initiating and planning process groups.[2] It can also be used in the executing process group, which involves a huge amount of meetings, where brainstorming has been the prevalent technique for idea generation.[2] This article aims to help project managers realize the opportunities hidden in ideation, and utilize it in a plethora of projects.

Table of contents:

  • The Introduction provides a description of ideation with definitions. Furthermore, a brief history is presented on Design Thinking, which is a process, where ideation is just one stage.
  • The Big Idea describes what ideation tools can be used for in relation to project management and how project managers can leverage ideation tools to achieve successful projects. The Big idea also describes which perspectives from the Concept Box (purpose, people, complexity, uncertainty) do Ideation tools fall under.
  • The Application features descriptions of how to use ideation tools and the usage of each methods in projects.
  • The Limitations discusses where and when is it not beneficial or relevant to use ideation tools in a project management setting.


Ideation is an important process, that in essence means the generation of unexpected ideas via reframing any challenge.[3] It can be thought of as an alternative or almost synonym to the commonly known process of idea generation called brainstorming. However, while ideation is the part of the 5 stages of Design Thinking Process, brainstorming is just one of the ideation methods, tools.

Design Thinking first appeared in the 1960’s as a tool for architecture and engineering innovation, solving complex problems. In the mid 60’s, Horst Rittel (a design theorist) wrote about application of design methodologies mentioning it as “Wicked Problems”, which later become the foundation of Design Thinking, as it is about “(...) these complex and multi-dimensional problems that require a collaborative methodology that involves gaining a deep understanding of humans.[4] The first iteration of Design Thinking was created by Herbert A. Simon in 1969, in his book Sciences of the Artificial. During the next decades the method has been further developed and improved. Nigel Cross “Designerly ways of knowing” in 1982, Peter Rowe “Design Thinking” in 1987, the foundation of IDEO in 1991, just to mention the core steps of the history. At present we think about Design Thinking as “(...) a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.[5]

Design Thinking is a non-linear process and it has five main stages: Empathize, Define (the Problem), Ideate, Prototype and Test.

Figure 1: ITERATIVE PROCESS (Learn about users through testing) – the particular graph is created by the author of the article, Julianna Apli, for the purposes of the APPPM course

Ideation focuses a lot on designing radical alternative processes or products, with a focus on opening up the possibilities for a large quantity of ideas. It aids to avoid stereotype solutions and encourage flexibility, variety and fluency in the generation of ideas.[6]

Ideation facilitates the processes between identifying the problems and finding solutions for it. It can be most valuable in the planning phase of any project, program or portfolio, when the management plans (project charter) have to be created.

Big idea

Relevance to project/program management

Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques (...) accomplished through the appropriate application and integration of (...) project management processes".[2] In the beginning of a projects life cycle, two Process Groups are prevalent, namely Initiating and Planning. Ideation plays a crucial role in successfully carrying out these processes, which are key for successful projects. Ideation itself is the process of “exploring a large quantity of ideas and a diversity among these ideas”.[7] These ideas can be put to use in projects and programs to maximize success in the form of defining objectives, planning creative steps to satisfy customer needs via designing and delivering quality products while adhering to stakeholder needs in terms of timeliness and budget.[2]

Ideation brings with it a variety of methods, that can potentially be used in other phases of a project’s or program’s life cycle, but are most utilizable in the first stages of any project or program. For instance it can be used during meetings as a decision-making technique, as a planning tool or as an information gathering technique.[2] Furthermore, it can play a large role in the risk and uncertainty management of projects and programs, because it has the potential to identify problems and solutions to those problems, assess the situation, respond to challenges via generating ideas that can help in mitigating risk and uncertainty in a project or a program. This is extremely important as many projects fail due to changes arising, so flexibility and openness towards continuous idea generation can benefit projects and programs immensely.

In spite of the advantages that ideation can offer, brainstorming as a phenomenon has been more well-known and widespread when it comes to idea generation. Ideation involves a lot more refined methods to tackle challenges in a project management scenario than brainstorming does, which makes it more effective and thorough at its job. In truth, brainstorming is only one possible method under the umbrella of ideation tools. Ideation can be thought of as a way to expand the possibilities and opportunities of projects and programs and achieve better results via the application of one, two or several methods of ideation.

Ideas are required to tackle challenges, and figuring out solutions that satisfy many different stakeholders and can be designed in a sustainable way. Ideation comes with a lot of methods, that can be used in projects to facilitate the creation of creative solutions.

Relevance to Project Managers

Project and program managers play a pivotal role in achieving success in projects and programs. The ideation methods discussed in the next section Application – Ideation methods for project management can have an imperative part in helping project managers fulfill their requirements as project managers such as “task needs, team needs, and individual needs”.[2] Using ideation methods suggest that a project manager possesses indispensable competences - knowledge, performance and personal - required for successful project or program management.[2]

As discussed before, ideation tools are most relevant in the Initiating and Planning Process groups. In the developing stage of the project charter and management plan, it is used as a facilitation tool. Later on, in the Executing Process Group, ideation occurs during the meetings while directing and managing the project work. Project managers are the ones responsible for making sure that these activities match the stakeholder needs and further the project in a meaningful and effective manner. [2]

In the table below, it can be seen where a project manager can use ideation tools during project management, while the next chapter discusses how to use said tools.

Table 1: Project management process groups and applicable processes for ideation – the particular graph is created by the author of the article, Julianna Apli, for the purposes of the APPPM course"

Application - Ideation methods for project management

Ideation methods can be used in several ways in project management, such as facilitation techniques, group creativity techniques or at meetings. The purpose of these methods, among others, is to help teams and managers to achieve agreements and identify project and product requirements faster.

The table below underlines, which ideation tool can be used in project management in what way. Several methods fall under different uses, so there is definitely an overlapping pattern in ideation, but project managers have to consciously choose the right methods for the right application.

Table 2: The matching of ideation methods with project management applications – the particular graph is created by the author of the article, Julianna Apli, for the purposes of the APPPM course, based on the guidelines released by the Institute of Design at Stanford"

The methods relevant to project management are based on the guidelines, released by the Institute of Design at Stanford:[7]

Story Share–and–Capture

As the name of the method indicates it, this method starts with a sharing process. If the team members share their knowledge and experience with each other, it gives a good foundation and basic understanding for the teamwork. With the sharing process you can get new perspectives even on a well known subject.

The process:

  1. step - story sharing,
  2. step - capture (notes, headlines),
  3. step - develop ideas, find the pattern,
  4. step - understand the process.

Sharing the stories about the topic and capturing it by making notes, headlines and using post-its can trigger the brain and drive the team towards better solutions.

Saturate and Group

It can be an additional method after the Story Share-and-Capture, as it is a method for the process of summarizing thoughts and experiences. By visualizing and grouping the main points and finding patterns, the method inspires the team and helps in identifying the needs and finding solutions.

The process:

  1. step - space saturate (post-its, headlines, pictures) with anything relevant to the situation,
  2. step - organize the notes (post-its, pictures…) into groups according to the ideas about the patterns, or any other logical system,
  3. step - look for relation between groups, go beyond the obvious connections
  4. step - create new group sets, try out different sets of groupings
  5. step - discuss, make notes about the findings

By using this method, you can summarize data into important conclusions, which can be useful to the team to finding and creating solutions.

Powers of Ten

This method is a reframing technique which can be used as a support method during ideation. During for example brainstorming there is a fluctuation in the flow of ideas, this technique can facilitate the generation of new ideas.

The process:

  1. step - add a constraint which changes the magnitude of the of the solution space
  2. step - come up with solutions to the problem given the constraints

These constraints in a project setting would related to if there is a time or budget limit on the project - what can be done and how can it be done if there is no time for a longer project on there is not enough money to support a large project.

2x2 Matrix

The 2x2 matrix can give a deeper understanding in the problems during the synthesis process by helping revealing the connections between things or people and it can be also used as a visualization tool. This could help in visualizing project requirements and objectives in an easily understandable manner.

The process:

  1. step - choose two spectra
  2. step - draw a 2x2 matrix,
  3. step - put the opposites on the ends of the axis (low-high, cheap-expensive)
  4. step - place items (product, motivations, objects, materials,... - any group of things that is need to be/would be useful to explore) on the map,
  5. step - search for relations, connections in the group formations on the matrix, which area is full and which one is empty.

Placing the items on the map, must be a discussion driven act, considering that the discussion itself is usually more important and valuable than the result of the matrix. The best way of using the matrix is to try a number of combinations of spectra, due to the fact that more perspectives can generate more ideas and solutions.

Why–How Laddering

Asking the questions “why” and “how” always generate new answers and gives an opportunity to dive deeper into a topic. Creating a “why-how-ladder” can accomplish better results during ideation.

The process:

  1. step - identify an important need, write it down and ask the question “why”,
  2. step - phrase the answer as a need and ask the question again,
  3. step - create another need, continue on and write them above each other,
  4. step - reach the top of the need hierarchy branch, a very abstract need
  5. step - develop more needs by asking “how” (go down on another branch)

The result will show a need hierarchy which indicates the main needs of the user.

How–Might–We questions (HMW)

This is a technique that is used for launching a brainstorming session, by creating a scope that gives boundaries to keep the range manageable, but open enough not to create frustration in the team. The proper scope varies according the project and the project stage.

The process:

  1. step - make a problem statement or start with a Point Of View (POV),
  2. step - divide the problem/challenge into smaller parts,
  3. step - look into the different aspects and try to finish the sentence: How might we…?


Stoke is a collection of short (5-10 minutes) activities that can help engagement to a project and freshens up the team energy. It can be used before meetings, brainstorming sessions, anytime that it is needed do inspire and give some new energy to the team. It requires active participation of every member of the team.

An examples:

Category, category, die! - Pick a category and point randomly members in the group. Everyone have to name something in the category. The one who fails out of the round. It is a brain freshening, “sudden death” game.


Brainstorming is a really effective and probably the most popular ideation method. Having said that, since it’s very well known, people tend to think that they know how to brainstorm, when in truth, it needs to be managed to be successful. There is no ‘right’ way to brainstorm, but there are plenty of wrong ways. If the process and general rules featured below are followed, the possibility of success is increased.

The process:

  1. step - identify clearly the topic (use a HMW question)
  2. step - come up with ideas
  3. step - capture every ideas (no criticism)

The rules:

  • One conversation at a time
  • Go for quantity
  • Headline
  • Build on the ideas of others
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Be visual
  • Stay on topic
  • Defer judgment - NO blocking

Facilitate a brainstorm

Since brainstorming is a crucial method in the ideation methods set, it is highly important to correctly facilitate a brainstorm. It is the project manager’s utmost interest that the brainstorming is successful, so it is his/her responsibility that the brainstorming is facilitated well.

The process:

  1. step - Energy: keep the ideas flowing. Tools for that: HMW questions and provocative ideas.
  2. step - Constraints: create HMW questions with constraints and set a time limit on it. That can prompt new ideas.
  3. step - Space: make sure that each member of the group have the resources (sticky notes, marker…) and enough area to write down their ideas.


Selection is a necessary step after finishing the brainstorming to ensure that the ideas are actually being used, but because of the wild range of ideas a selection is needed. It is important for a successful project, that not only the safe choices have been selected, the more risky, interesting ideas need to be considered as well and the process should not be narrowed down too fast.

Selection techniques:

  • Post-it voting - each team member can vote for three ideas. (equal voice)
  • The four category method - choose one or two ideas for each categories: the rational choice, the most likely to delight, the darling and the long shot. (innovation potential)
  • Bingo selection method - Choose ideas that inspire you to build in different form factors: a physical prototype, a digital prototype, and an experience prototype. (innovation potential)

A good policy is to continue on with multiple ideas, test, prototype and see which one or which ones are working the best for the team and for the project.


IDEO: On Letting Go of Ideas[8]

Ideation cannot be used in other parts of a project/program/portfolio life cycle, because it deals with coming up with ideas to solve a problem. When executing a plan or monitoring a project, there is not much wiggle room left to find new solutions.

Another potential limitation of ideation tools could be what the creators of IDEO talk about as ‘abundance mentality’ meaning that one good idea does not mean a great product, because there is a lot of work involved in bringing ideas to life, so inventors and designers have to learn to let go of their ideas. Moving ideas into other perspectives are more effective, and can bring success a lot more, than clinging to one idea. (see video)[8]

Annotated bibliography

[2] Project Management Institute | 2013 | "A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge" | (5th Edition):

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge is a book containing a thorough overview of guidelines required to project management, and it also describes and explains related concepts. These guidelines are good practises gathered and systematized by professionals and presented in an understandable format. The book can be used as a project management tool in many different projects.

[7] Stanford (2018) Design Thinking Bootleg:

The Design Thinking Bootcamp Bootleg is a working document released by the Institute of Design at Stanford. It’s a collection of the different stages of Design Thinking with a summary of all the relevant tools and methods used in each stages. It can be used as a toolkit for designers and project managers to use Design Thinking and its methods to improve processes and succeed in projects with a higher certainty.

[8] IDEO:

IDEO is a design company that focuses on human centered design for a wide variety of products. They are at the forefront of teaching people to be creative, help organizations work and design products in a creative way and foster collaboration among different companies.


  1. Kock, A., Heising, W., & Gemünden, H. G. (2016). A contingency approach on the impact of front-end success on project portfolio success. Project Management Journal, 47(2), 115–129.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Project Management Institute. (2013) "A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge" | (5th Edition)
  3. Stanford Put Design Thinking to Work. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Feb. 2018].
  4. Design Thinking: Get a Quick Overview of the History, [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Feb. 2018]
  5. 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process, [online] Available at:[Accessed 11 Feb. 2018]
  6. Stanford (2018). An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Feb. 2018].
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Stanford (2018). Design Thinking Bootleg. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018]
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 IDEO (2018). [video] Available at: [Accessed 15 Feb. 2018].
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