The four-step strategy for generating truly innovative ideas

In an excerpt from ‘Driving Innovation from Within,’ business strategist Kaihan Krippendorff shares his I-D-E-A framework

Imagine–Dissect–Expand–Analyze spells “IDEA.” My strategic innovation firm has packaged the framework into this acronym to make it easy to remember, and thus easy to follow, for experience has shown that it will increase your chances of generating some truly innovative strategic options.

Over the past 15 years, we’ve facilitated hundreds of strategic discussions. There is a lot I’m not good at, but with all that practice it would be hard for me not to have learned something about guiding strategic conversations. 


To think differently about a problem or opportunity, it helps to start out by defining an “impossible” goal. By “impossible,” I mean a goal that is unattainable by the solutions already in hand. In contrast, setting “possible” goals encourages an execution conversation. That is, you already have a solution that almost gets you there, so the easiest path seems to be to discuss how to tweak that existing solution to be a little bit better.

An effective way to get your team to set an impossible goal is to work backward from the future. You can do this by following five steps:

1. The mess

Step out 10 years into the future and imagine the “mess”—the undesirable but realistic future that would occur if you continued on your current path. 

2. Long-term trends

Still standing out 10 years from now, think about the trends that will affect the future in which you will be operating. 

3. Long-term ideal

Envision your ideal outcome 10 years from now. 

4. Near-term ideal

Then ask, in 18 to 36 months, what must be true for us to know, without a doubt, that we are on the path to realizing our long-term ideal? 

5. Strategic question

Finally, convert your near-term ideal into a strategic question. 


Now that you have defined a seemingly impossible strategic question, you and your team will naturally start looking for answers. A word of caution: The tendency will be to look in the obvious places. Marketers will naturally want to look at marketing ideas, salespeople at new sales tactics, and engineers at new product features.

To increase your chances of generating innovative options no one has thought of before, it helps to look where no one has looked before. Consider Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. He and my mother both left Bangladesh to study in the United States and were activists in the Bangladeshi freedom movement of 1971. Later, as a professor at Chittagong College, he went on to introduce an innovation that would transform the lives of millions of the world’s poor: microfinance.

When I interviewed Yunus I asked how he conceived of a strategy for combating poverty that no one, despite centuries of effort, had thought of before. He did it by looking in the less obvious places. While most efforts at alleviating poverty fixated on creating employment, Yunus observed that most poor people, in Bangladesh at least, had jobs. Indeed, they often had multiple jobs. Their problem was getting a sustainable wage for the jobs they performed. So he decided to attack the poverty problem from a different angle: financing. Yunus’s solution was a new kind of financial tool—microfinance, as it became known— which enabled these would-be entrepreneurs (many of them women) to take out very small loans at reasonable rates. With one simple idea, Yunus was able to break the cycle of poverty for millions of people.


You are now primed to brainstorm solutions. The more ideas you generate, the greater your chances of finding a truly innovative idea.

1. Start small

Rather than attempting to dream up a large-scale innovation, identify a seemingly small pain point that customers or users experience. 

2. Turn an internal capability into a business

Andy Jassy convinced Amazon to turn its internal capability at managing technology into a service managing technology for other retailers and, eventually, for any kind of company. The resulting Amazon Web Services offering grew into a $17 billion business. What internal capability can you turn into a business?

3. Do good

Working to solve social problems is the source of inspiration for many internal innovations

4. Find an unorthodox path

We often get so used to delivering value in one way that we overlook opportunities to deliver it through different pathways. The Louvre, for example, delivers its experience through its landmark museum in Paris, but this limits its market to tourists willing and able to travel to France. It is now essentially franchising its model through a partnership with the Abu Dhabi government, which allowed it to open a museum in the Middle East. 

5. Apply an abandoned innovation

Your organization has a junkyard filled with failed innovations. You can pick innovations out of the trash and apply them in new ways. What has been abandoned that you could repurpose?

6. Coordinate the uncoordinated

The growth of models like Airbnb and Uber point to the notion that we can now coordinate things (empty rooms, personal automobiles) that before we needed to control. 

7. Serve ‘super-users’

We often focus on customer segments that represent the largest portion of our market. But on the periphery, you will find “super-users” who are trying to use your product or service in new ways, pushing the limits of your offering. Look at what those users are asking for. Nike, for example, gets many of its innovation ideas by studying world-class athletes, literally inviting them to play on Nike’s campus while designers watch. 


Finally, you will want to prioritize your ideas. As you do so, you may find you want to ignore the ones that are the most innovative. There is a logical reason for this. By definition, the most innovative ideas are departures from the past. They will be inconsistent with prevailing dogma and practices, so they are easy to discount. But you can avoid this through a simple three-step process.

1. Sort your ideas on a 2-by-2 matrix—easy or difficult, high or low impact

For each idea, assess whether it is easy or difficult to implement. Easy ideas will appear to be low cost, simple, requiring little in the way of new capabilities. Then, for each idea, ask what its potential impact would be if you did successfully implement it. Would it have high or low impact? 

This gives you four groupings of ideas:

  • Difficult, low-impact ideas are “wastes of time.” Get rid of them.
  • Easy, low-impact ideas are “tactics.” Put them on a to-do list, then implement them when you have the time
  • Easy, high-impact ideas are “winning moves.” These are the ideas one would think you should focus on. But we have found that the truly breakthrough ideas tend to fall into the fourth category
  • Difficult, high-impact ideas are “crazy ideas.” They appear to be impossible, but if you could figure them out, they would have a major impact. Your breakthrough ideas are likely to reside here.

2. Break down some ‘crazy’ ideas

Force yourself and your team to sit with a seemingly impossible idea for 10 minutes. List three big barriers that make the idea look crazy. For each barrier, brainstorm three ways to remove it. If you think it will cost too much, for example, you might write, “Partner with someone who has the money. Find a customer to fund it. Outsource to reduce the up-front cost.”

Then sit back and ask, “Does this idea still look crazy?” You will often find that what at first appeared to be an idea you came up with as a joke is actually worth exploring further.

3. Document your idea portfolio

Select about five innovative ideas you are committed to testing. Circle, highlight, or write them down in a notebook. Maintain a list of ideas you are working on, a list of those you have implemented, and a list of those you have ruled out. When you implement or rule one out, pull another innovation idea from your backlog and start activating it.

One idea isn’t enough 

Many would-be internal innovators get frustrated because they myopically pursue just one idea. Instead, create a portfolio of options to work on. Do this by Imagining the ideal outcome, Dissecting the problem to focus on an unexpected part of the problem, Expanding your option set by brainstorming lots of potential innovations, and Analyzing the ideas by sorting and selecting a few options to pursue now.

Kaihan Krippendorf is an author and keynote speaker on the topics of innovation, growth, strategy, and transformation.

Driving Innovation from Within by Kaihan Krippendorff. Copyright © 2019 by Kaihan Krippendorff. Reprinted by permission of Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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