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Moderation of ideation workshops – how ideas are created

Ideas are not everything. But without ideas it is also difficult. That’s why many people ask themselves: How does idea generation work? How do you create good ideas? They should have the potential to become genuine innovations. Ideas must not be allowed to fizzle out. And inspiring ideas would of course also be good. Ideation workshops are a way to develop ideas in a targeted manner. But how do you make an ideas workshop a success?

Henryk Stöckert is co-founder of the innovation consultancy TOM SPIKE, an active innovation consultant for companies and start-ups, and has been dealing with the topics of ideas, innovation and progress for many years. In the following interview*, Henryk shares his perspectives and experiences on moderating ideation workshops.

Workshops for brainstorming

The right workshop format for every company:

Introductory questions for moderating ideation workshops

How long have you been offering ideation workshops and how has the topic developed over time?

We have been offering support in developing ideas under the TOM SPIKE brand since 2015.

I first moderated workshops to develop ideas around 2010. Demand has certainly changed during this time. In particular, the main topics have shifted. There is increasing demand for the development of ideas for services and business development. The questions are therefore becoming increasingly specific. Less and less “just a few good ideas” are being sought. Although that still happens, of course. Especially in companies and start-ups that are just starting out with targeted innovation and idea development.

Henryk Stöckert moderates Ideation Workshop - TOM SPIKE Structured innovation

Which target groups and sectors do you support with workshops to develop ideas?

Our customers are almost exclusively B2B companies and INDUSTRIAL CUSTOMERS.

These are companies that offer products and services for business customers themselves. Most of them are manufacturing companies that produce physical products. Often, but not always, in combination with software components. We also support pure service providers such as B2B insurance companies.

The end consumer naturally plays a role in this, because at the end of the day there is always an end consumer who pays for the entire supply chain. However, direct consumer products play a role for us almost exclusively in start-up consulting.

Key questions for successful ideation workshops

Ideation Workshop sounds very broad and abstract. What does a typical ideation workshop at TOM SPIKE look like in concrete terms?

The typical ideation workshop can have two possible starting points.

Either the customer problem was understood and the customer need recognized. Or there is a technical challenge that needs to be solved better or differently. In both cases, we start by looking at who the participants are and what their expectations are. What are they up to? What do you think would be a good result?

The common basis

In the second step, a common level of knowledge is created. Who has had what experiences? Who can bring what experience to the table? What has worked in the past and what hasn’t? This is important so that all participants can speak a common language and work together. The participants often do not work together on a day-to-day basis. You don’t know what the others know. That is why there is a need for discussion in order to harmonize the language, technical terms and backgrounds. And of course the ice has to be broken first. Similar to a party or other events.

The ideas

The next step is solution development, in which various methods are applied so that initial ideas are put on the table relatively quickly. This can be Design Thinking, TRIZ or classic creativity techniques such as brainstorming. Many participants also bring ideas that they have had for some time. Iterative steps are then run through. The questions here are: What have we created? Is that already good? What is still missing? Why is this a good or a bad idea? What could be possible evaluation criteria? Further rounds of idea development will be launched.

Idea evaluation and selection

Depending on the time available, this can be done within half a day or over three to four days. At the end of the iterative phase, the ideas are consolidated. Nobody can do anything with 78 ideas. Consideration is given to how the good ideas can be identified and what the next steps are. The iterative phase is very much dependent on the method and the individual case. A wide variety of things can be relevant here: customer journeys, competitor analyses or data on technical products.

Different priorities require different tools for developing ideas

Design Thinking focuses more on the user, while TRIZ focuses on technical factors such as parts lists and physical principles. Business model patterns are looked at in the search for new business models. The question would then be: How do business models work differently today than in the past? What are good and bad examples? This is very diverse, which is why there is little standard procedure at this point.

Of the two possible starting points – understanding the customer problem or the technical challenge – which methods are more likely to be used?

Different things can be used, but there are tendencies.

Design thinking is a methodology for better understanding customer problems. TRIZ is used for technical problems. I use brainstorming when ideas are already in the minds of the participants and I just need to collect them. Combinatorics approaches are also used. How could I combine the two? Could I leave something out? Combinatorics approaches are helpful for participants who are not used to developing ideas in a targeted manner or who have little imagination and few ideas.

In this way, I help them to believe that they can do things differently or better. This belief is important. Because people often think “There can be no innovation in our industry. It’s always been like this, it must always stay like this.” Believing in the changeability of today’s world is a basic prerequisite. As trivial as that may sound.

The choice of methodology is determined by the participants. The time available plays a very important role. In a two-hour ideation workshop, I don’t start with complex topics such as TRIZ, inventive problem solving. I don’t start with design thinking either. I would then only use brainstorming. Or at most very simple building blocks from other methodologies.

Idea development Time watches and team at the table - TOM SPIKE Structured innovation

To what extent does the time depend on the methodology?

The time does not depend on the methodology, but on how easy the solutions are to find.

For example, if I talk to a group of people who have been researching battery development for 10 years, I can’t get anything out of two hours of brainstorming. This takes three to four days, during which we look together with the team at what has been done so far. I need at least two days just to know where they are.

If I go to a company that doesn’t focus on research and development, like insurance companies, I can achieve a lot with two to three hours of brainstorming. This is because they have often not yet thought specifically about new ideas. Then there are the highly praised “Low Hanging Fruits” or “Quick Wins”.

The time required depends on the level of knowledge and experience of the participants?

Yes, exactly.

Are structured innovation methods such as design thinking, SIT or CPS used in the design of the workshop?

Innovation coaching for better ideas

The idea is not everything. But without an idea, everything is nothing. Ideas workshop? Design Thinking? TRIZ? Ideation Challenge? In coaching, we discuss what works best for you.

We mainly use TRIZ and Design Thinking to develop ideas.

Systematic Inventive Thinking SIT is very similar to the TRIZ methodology. Creative Problem Solving CPS is a very generic approach. Ultimately, it means that I first clarify what my question is. Ideas are then collected or developed. Solutions are then developed and implemented. This is essentially our approach, but we do not otherwise deal with CPS and do not use the term CPS any further.

How is this reflected in the process?

An important difference is that with Design Thinking I try to involve the user.

I don’t think about what the user would do or think, but I invite two or three real users to gather their actual experiences.

This is not necessary with TRIZ because TRIZ is a very technical subject. The assumption here is that the user is either already understood or that the user plays no direct role. Can the user really “not play a role”? Today, everyone is talking about user centricity. In many cases, however, the user does not play a significant role. If I develop a metal alloy that is supposed to have ten times higher conductivity with otherwise unchanged properties, then the user is not really my topic.

Another difference lies in the entry hurdle. I don’t need any special training for Design Thinking. In order to use TRIZ, participants need to have certain basic skills. TRIZ also requires a certain openness on the part of the participants to want to think methodically. Not everyone has access to or an interest in dealing with theoretical concepts. The entry hurdle for design thinking is very low. As a good moderator, you very rarely lose a participant.

Ideation workshop with cross-functional team and paper prototype - TOM SPIKE

What are the similarities?

Prototyping is an important common feature.

I have to have something for the participants to tinker with. We call this “thinking with your hands”. This can be Lego, paper, cardboard, string and glue, which they then use to create haptic results. Prototypes are helpful both in the technical area and when thinking about how the customer could use it. Prototypes make it possible to obtain better feedback. Because something can be shown and talked about. Different things happen in my head when I’m making and building something than when I’m just working with words. It is easier to move forward.

Another thing we have in common is that we always think about the added value we want to create. What does the user want with it? What is the result? Should the product be faster or simpler? With complex topics, it is easy to lose sight of the goal. You have to keep coming back to this by clearly emphasizing the goal again and again.

Testing ideas is another common feature, because every idea is just an assumption. And in the end, the idea generator, idea developer or self-proclaimed innovator is not the benchmark. The benchmark can only ever be the customer, buyer and user. This calibration is important. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to get caught up in your own bubble and end up lying to yourself about how good, useful or relevant ideas actually are.

Is the user also involved in testing in Design Thinking?

In any case.

At least with design thinking. Actually, for every other topic too. Even with TRIZ or any other approach, I should never think I know what the customer wants. It’s easy to believe such things, but in reality we have no idea. That’s why we have to go to the users and get their feedback. One of the most typical misconceptions is “For the customer, only the price counts”. This is an assumption that is almost never confirmed. Almost every customer has wishes and needs that he or she would gladly pay a higher price to fulfill. However, it is not always easy to find out what these wishes are. Especially if you work in sales and the customer already knows that you want to sell something.

What criteria must be met for an ideation workshop to be successful?

A manageable group is IMPORTANT for a successful workshop.

Seven participants is a good number, ten or four would also work. It is difficult with only two participants. We need enough participants so that they can exchange ideas. The more diverse the backgrounds, positions, ages, genders or cultural backgrounds, the better. Although this does not speed up the workshop process, it does create better ideas at the end.

Good moderation is also important. A group does not moderate itself. As a moderator, I have to make sure that results are actually achieved within the set time frame and that time doesn’t run out in the middle. Then, on the one hand, I have no result. This also causes resentment among the participants because they lose faith that there can be a result. And I make myself untrustworthy as a workshop moderator. This can quickly become your downfall.

Another criterion is to have a clear target definition. Even if we cannot know what the outcome will be in terms of content, it is important to know what a successful outcome would be. One possible goal could be to develop three ideas that can be presented to the customer. A target definition prevents time-consuming discussions during a workshop.

It is also crucial for success to have a good perspective on the outside world and not just the internal view. One possibility would be to involve customers in the brainstorming workshop or at least have someone present who has a good idea of the customer. Otherwise it becomes very theoretical. Preliminary interviews with real customers, a market study or other market data such as a competitive benchmark can also bring these insights into the workshop.

How do you guarantee these success criteria?

We influence the participants.

At least that’s what we’re trying to do. But most companies are also open to this. Only rarely is there a fixed list of participants that we cannot change.

As we take over the moderation, we guarantee a sensible agenda and the actual process. If there is no contact with the user or customer, we create it. For example, by bringing users or customers to the ideation workshop. To this end, we address relevant target groups and help our clients find participants for the workshops.

If the team is very homogeneous, we suggest external participants who would fit in well. In the meantime, we also ask how innovative the groups think. We have a dashboard for this where the teams can group themselves. A kind of self-assessment. Are we narrow-minded? Are we chaotic? Then you can also make adjustments during the workshop.

Experts and managers develop ideas in business - TOM SPKE Structured innovation

Won’t every team say we are very open?

We also give feedback to the groups when they are classified.

This is not always painless. Sometimes there is real outrage when I tell a group that they are really conservative and narrow-minded in their approach to an issue, whereas the group sees itself as open and visionary. But it is important to discuss this. It gives the group the opportunity to assess itself, but also to receive feedback from outside. And this reflection is often a key turning point in a workshop. Because this gives you the opportunity to give up the pressure to be consistent and allow a change in behavior that would otherwise be very difficult to achieve.

Is there any preparation for the workshop participants? If so, which ones?

In any case, we conduct preliminary discussions with the participants.

We call each person on the list of participants and clarify the following points: Why are they attending? What do you think is important? Do you have any concerns? What experiences have you had where something similar worked well or badly? The advantage is that we get to know the participants better and this creates a basis of trust that we can work with more effectively. This also prevents troublemakers who first want to show that the consultants don’t know everything.

It is also possible to intercept such positioning work within the groups through preliminary discussions. When a new group forms, there is potential for friction. Everyone wants to put their skills to the test. This can be mitigated by letting the participants speak beforehand and taking into account both their concerns and previous experience. That way we can also get off to a faster start.

In most cases, the content provided in the preliminary discussions is also valuable. We can add new things, put other topics on the agenda, take participants in or out and thus improve the Ideation Workshop.

Is there also content-related input during the preparation?

Not normally.

Not in the preparation. It’s hard enough to get the participants out of their day-to-day business for two to three days. It never worked to tell participants to read a book or look at this. Most people don’t do this and those who do are in a bad mood. If we realize that certain topics are important, we can try to include them in the idea development workshop. We then turn these into small input sessions or have a few examples we bring along to better illustrate concepts.

Ideation workshop and moderation Henryk Stöckert - TOM SPIKE Structured innovation

What are your tasks as a moderator in the workshop?

Apart from the standard tasks of the moderator, such as taking breaks and keeping to time, it is important in ideation workshops to get the participants to say crazy things.

This is not always a matter of course. Especially groups that don’t know each other well don’t talk about their craziest ideas, hold back topics and don’t dare to say certain things. They are cautious and don’t dare to think in certain areas because they think it’s nonsense, won’t work and “what will the others say?”. It is therefore an important task of the moderator to say even abstruse things so that the participants are encouraged to let their crazy thoughts out.

These thoughts may not be good ideas, but they are the first step in the right direction. Participants are asked to think about things that actually seem nonsensical. They should try to break down their mental barriers. This psychological inertia needs to be worked on again and again. Otherwise we have a negative atmosphere where every comment is shot down and nobody dares to say anything.

Moderators must also make sure that everyone has their say and not just those who like to talk a lot. The workshop moderator must remain neutral and not give the impression that an idea is particularly good or bad. You must not become a source of ideas yourself, because otherwise the moderation is quickly no longer taken seriously as moderation. But as a biased party.

Should the moderator know about the subject area or domain?

In any case. Moderators need to be knowledgeable, but they don’t need to be experts

It is important to speak the language of the participants in order to understand what is being said. Otherwise, the moderator will no longer be taken seriously. If I don’t know the most basic technical terms in a group of seven experienced tech geeks, they know they don’t need to tell me any ideas. Because I wouldn’t understand it. Engineers in particular are very critical when it comes to this. If I say “condensing element” instead of “condenser” just once, then I can go home immediately.

In general, it is important to understand what the participants are saying in order to be able to clarify misunderstandings among the participants. The moderator must communicate clearly if something has not been understood. Most of the ideas expressed are initially incomprehensible. And only rarely does anyone dare to reveal their lack of understanding. You don’t want to be seen as slow on the uptake. This is where the moderator steps into the breach and shows that understanding details, openness and ignorance are important and okay. You have to bring blurriness to the table in order to promote communication.

Does the moderator provide content-related impulses? If so, which ones and when?

Giving impetus is absolutely important.

Of course, the moderator herself also has ideas when she takes part in an ideation workshop. The important thing is how you deal with your own ideas in the workshop. Ideas from outside usually have a very hard time. There is the well-known “not invented here” syndrome. An idea that is not ours cannot be good. Objectively, this may be nonsense, but you can’t simply deny psychological effects.

If you are only heard by a small group, it is possible to drop an idea without it being heard by everyone. Such ideas are often taken up. You just have to make sure that the team accepts this idea. This works best when it is casually dropped into a discussion and not proclaimed as a “great idea”. Moderators often notice things that are obvious but that nobody really says.

Which creativity techniques, such as brainstorming or Six Thinking hats, do you use in the various workshop phases?

We use few of these classic creativity techniques.

Most standard creativity techniques are spinning tricks to combine different things. The approach we take is to solve problems. Either from the customer or the technical side. We prepare the topics so that there is a problem to solve. Humanity can solve problems. There are approaches and thought patterns for this. I rarely need classic creativity techniques for this. However, the term “creativity” is not uniformly defined at this point and there are numerous discussions about what creativity actually is and how it can be broken down.

I need something like ideality. What would be perfect? It can help to visualize where we want to go and how different things can be from what we know. If you don’t believe that things could be different, then you won’t work on them. A vivid example of this is the invention of the wheeled suitcase. Before the wheeled suitcase was invented, mankind managed to land on the moon. Back then, everyone thought that suitcases had to be carried by someone. Nobody thought about the fact that nobody wants to carry a suitcase and that there could be a simple solution.

There are also many other creativity techniques in the TRIZ area. For example, the concept of little men. Here I look at systems at the molecular level. The choice of techniques depends very much on what kind of problem I want to solve. Design thinking is not a creativity technique, but a tool to better understand the customer. The tools we use are primarily there to gain an understanding of a problem, a situation, the motivation or the action. Most ideas come from gaining an additional understanding of a situation.

Ideation workshop in the creative space and coworking space - TOM SPIKE Structured innovation

Have I not asked you something that you feel I should know?

Yes, indeed. The spatial environment plays an important role in idea development workshops.

And I had actually almost expected the question about innovation labs and creative spaces. It is important to get people out of their familiar environment. They should think differently and be somewhere else in their heads. This works particularly well in a different environment. It is not important to have a special ideation workshop room or an innovation lab. Leaving your familiar working environment is enough to get you started.

Another question would be whether ideation workshops can also be held online. This works for relatively simple questions. And it works better when a team already knows each other and has worked together before. Online formats are a rather poor solution for challenging ideation topics. Let’s assume an idea is based on a “compensator” and as a team member I can’t really make sense of what it is. Then I can quietly ask my colleague “What is a compensator?” and she will say “Capacitor – not compensator”. Everything is immediately clear and I’m back on the ball. In an online setup with 10 participants, I probably hold back the question, get left behind at some point and get back on board with the next idea.

What’s more, interpersonal interaction works much better in a shared space where people are present. You can only see a small section of the picture online. This means that you can only work with gestures and facial expressions to a limited extent because you don’t know who is looking at you. Ultimately, you lose a whole range of communication channels. This leads to greater effort, slows down the collaborative thinking process and ultimately to poorer results. In the end, it remains a matter of weighing up whether online is good enough and has more advantages or disadvantages overall than a face-to-face workshop.

In the end, ideas and innovations are made by people. Und Menschen sind anspruchsvoll, wenn es um die Rahmenbedingungen geht, um mit erfolgreicher Ideenfindung gute Ideen zu entwickeln. If the framework is not right, then even the best methods won’t help. But good workshop moderation can make all the difference.

*The interview was conducted by Kaan Yilmaz as part of his studies on innovation and entrepreneurship at FH Aachen (University of Applied Sciences) in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Konstanze Chwallek.

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TOM SPIKE helps ambitious companies to conceive, develop and design new products and services for market success. Innovation workshops with various objectives are an important building block for this. Ideation workshops are just one aspect of this. Business cases, customer and target group interviews, individual coaching or more comprehensive, strategic innovation consulting often play a role.

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