Ideas and how to kill them – tools to help evaluate creative ideas

“The key question is never what the idea is, but what the idea has to do” – Dean Poole, Creative Director, New Zealand’s Alt Group

Think about the last time you thought something was ‘creative’. What was it?

What criteria did you apply to decide whether it was creative?

The envy factor is often how I judge creative ideas – when I think, ‘ooh, I wish I’d thought of that!’ Whilst we may think we’re being rational, our first reaction is always emotional (intuitive, unconscious, fast) rather than systematic logical thinking based on evidence, as brilliantly summarised in Daniel Kahneman’s masterly book Thinking Fast and Slow.

In The Rough Guide to The Brain (2007) Barry J Gibb writes “…as the mind moves through a number of possible choices, it is the emotions that give the thumbs up or down, by fleetingly providing an insight into how the consequences of a specific choice would make us feel. However much it goes against our conception of ourselves as rational creatures, the role of the emotions in decision-making cannot be overstated.”

The first chapter of my book explores how a shared definition of creativity, and agreeing what constitutes a ‘big idea’, can help inform and assess work internally and externally, direct your briefing process and make creative conversations easier.

But what makes an idea brilliant and creative rather than ordinary or mundane?

WPP agency Millward Brown works with some of the world’s biggest companies to research and develop brand-marketing campaigns. They define a big idea as “a game-changer. It shifts paradigms and turns category convention on its head”. It must “resonate, be disruptive, have talk value, transcend cultural and geographic boundaries and stretch the brand without straining credibility or believability”. (Hernandez, 2012.)

A big idea must resonate, be disruptive, have talk value, transcend cultural and geographic boundaries and stretch the brand without straining credibility or believability

I interviewed ITV’s ‘Pope of Soap’ John Whiston (Creative Director of Serial Dramas, responsible for Coronation Street and Emmerdale) who told me: “In terms of a ‘Good Idea’ – for me it’s heart. In that, when you hear it, it has the same effect on you as a good joke. It’s out there. It makes you gasp a bit because it’s so wrong and so beyond the pale. And deep down I know you can drag an idea like that back inside the pale by the application of intellect and craft skill. Far harder (I would say impossible) would be to push a so-so idea, an idea that your brain says is OK and workable and relevant etc, to somewhere it can become great. In my view, no amount of the application of intellect or craft skill will get it there.”

Tools can help to offer practical advice to balance your emotional and logical thinking.

Solution finding tool 1

Evaluation Matrix

What is it? A systematic tool from the Creative Problem Solving process for judging more fully formed ideas against pre-agreed criteria.

How to do it: Create a matrix. Draw up a list of the options you want to assess and write them down the left hand side of the matrix. Identify the criteria you’re using to evaluate your options and write these along the top of the matrix. Choose a scoring system that makes sense to you eg 0–10.

“It is important to go down the (vertical) columns, rather than across the (horizontal) rows. If you were to select your favourite option and work across all the criteria, you might score this option higher because of a halo effect.” (Isaksen et al, 2011.)

It helps to frame the options and criteria into a sentence that you can systematically work through. So “does this idea deliver x…”

Why it works: The matrix can be used not just as a simple ‘numbers game’ to assess your ideas but also to evaluate whether an idea has strengths or weaknesses. This should enable you to potentially improve upon them.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants to evaluate a list of options without shutting down any possibilities.

You may also have come across, or used, Edward De Bono’s well-known Six Thinking Hats – a tried and tested way to get different perspectives. It’s widely available online and worth trying if you haven’t already.

Solution finding tool 2

Murder Board

What is it? Borrow from the CIA and convene a ‘murder board’: a posse of people who have had nothing to do with the concept and whose aim is to ‘terminate’ bad ideas.

How to do it: Get your board to mercilessly critique your idea, find holes with it and bombard you with difficult questions. The aim is to either kill the idea if it is fatally flawed or to make it more robust if it has potential. If you don’t address awkward questions at some point in the process you can bet your life that someone further down the line will!

Who’s it for? Anyone wanting to find holes in their ideas.

What it’s good for: When your ideas have been developed past the embryonic stage. When you want an unemotional, honest, outside opinion.

Not so good for: The early stages of the creative process when ideas are still fragile.

I like to get to three to four concepts that are pretty well formed before exposing them to a potentially grizzly death. A few years ago when preparing for a big pitch I created a war-room and invited everyone in the business to come and act as the murder board for the six ideas we’d worked up. We asked everyone to pop by for just five minutes during their day to add questions and remarks to the ideas pasted around the room. By the end of the day we had six ideas that had been exposed to over 30 different potential assassins and we killed a few and revived others. We won that pitch (worth £1m, delivered in ten slides), I’m sure due in no small part to opening the ideas up to that level of scrutiny.

Being objective matters whether you’re a graphic designer, scientist, judge, fashion designer or marketer. The UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising says that judging ideas is “where personal tastes and preferences can collide with process and consensus. It requires imagination, leadership and trust. Inevitably it leads to conflict” (2005). That conflict can be helpful when developing ideas – it’s been termed ‘creative abrasion’ and can lead to better solutions. Using tools can help manage any conflict constructively and give teams the language and framework to debate and agree which ideas to take forward. 


This extract from In Your Creative Element by Claire Bridges is ©2017 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

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