Ideator: Inclusive innovation for Profit-Enabled Impact
22 February 2023

I’m happy to say that this post is the subject of more requests than I can count on one hand. Incite’s Ideator is a facilitation tool that develops literacy in positive Profit-Enabled Impact (PEI). It’s based on our innate human pattern recognition ability and I think it’s unique within our field, though please let me know if I’m wrong. If the idea of PEI patterns is new to you, you can get some background here.

Essentially, Ideator can be used to improve the literacy of any team on PEI. This literacy can be applied to support thinking in many instances, from ideation to branding, purpose activation, creating a more inclusive culture and so on. Ideator is Incite’s first attempt at a genuinely complexity-adapted tool. It is informed by the Cynefin framework that distinguishes between an ordered context (where we can apply good/best practice and consult experts if it’s not clear to us) and a complex one (where we can only look at emerging practice and require more playful learning).

We have three kinds of Ideator: Generic, Sector and Bespoke.

Generic Ideator is applicable to any organisation. It shares a broad range of fairly high-level patterns, usually for Sustainability awareness and team building. It consists of:

  • Nine environmental pattern cards, highlighting basic ways in which organisations are delivering profit-enabled environmental impact through their business models
  • Nine social pattern cards, doing the same thing for social impact
  • Nine tech enabler cards, highlighting various digital, physical and bio-technologies that are being used to scale the relevant impact.

Each of the above is paired with at least one example card.

Sector Ideator works at a finer level of granularity. Drawing on the high-level patterns and sector-based research, it finetunes a carefully-named set of up to 15 patterns that are finding traction within a given sector. This is useful for Strategic Alignment and for supporting PEI ideation with any team.

Bespoke Ideator is a set of patterns specifically developed for a specific client and purpose. The requisite level of granularity will depend on the purpose. Recent bespoke Ideator sets have focused on circular economy opportunities (mining sector) and patterns that offer opportunities for empowering women across the value chain (food sector).

In Ideator processes, participants use the cards – singly or in combination – to catalyse their own thinking about what might deliver PEI anywhere along the value chain. How we choose to play depends on what our client is seeking: a PEI portfolio for strategic investment; greater Sustainability awareness; impact-oriented brands; culture alignment for M&As, etc. I’m confident that we’ve only scratched the surface on potential applications.

Generic Ideator is a good starting point for awareness and basic PEI pattern literacy. Sector and Bespoke Ideator sets cost more. The more granular we get, the more granular the patterns that come into perspective. Too granular, and we might lose sight of patterns that have potential value. Once we have data on the PEI patterns being explored by competitors, we can use analytics to rank their efforts and explore where they might be taking their strategy. (I’m a strategist at heart and sometimes have to be reminded not to bad-mouth disclosure. Jon generally obliges and he’s right of course because without mandatory public disclosure, PEI pattern analysis and Ideator packs would not be possible.)

Our original Ideator comprised seven basic steps. Once we got familiar with the method, we starting playing around, omitting and adding steps, depending on the specific task and time constraints. The whole point of the game is to improve creativity – in the approach as much as the outcomes. Our original seven steps were:

Step 1. Clarify the context. Why are we doing this session? What’s happening in the company, the broader environment, the minds of the participants?

Step 2. Provide a task. Ideally this is real or plausible within the organisation and for the players. Make it a bit edgy.

Step 3. Sketch the business model. The business model offers the most direct routes to scaling positive environmental/social impact. The profit formula has successfully scaled many negative impacts over the years and anyone familiar with indigenous spiritual processes knows that the way forward requires us to use the problem rather than suppress it. Find our Ideator-compatible business model canvas here.

Step 4. Introduce the Ideator canvas. Also referred to as the profit-enabled impact (PEI) canvas, this shows how three big pathways for PEI map directly onto the business model. Although Incite developed this canvas, it draws on the high-level pathways originally identified by Porter and Kramer in 2011. These refer to initiatives that are tangible and potentially scalable. They include:

  • Initiatives that deliver tangible social/environmental impact and increase revenues, typically through new products, services or markets
  • Initiatives that deliver tangible social/environmental impact and reduce costs, typically through productivity improvements
  • Initiatives that deliver tangible social/environmental impact and enhance the delivery system, typically through ecosystem improvements.

Step 5. Introduce the patterns. Hand out the Ideator pattern cards. It’s not necessary to explain where the patterns come from. They are simple enough for employees to get the basic idea and team members will share their insights with others. Use Ideator’s example cards to stimulate discussion, allowing the teams to become more familiar with the concept. They will generally work it out. If you’re using the PEI canvas (Step 4), explain how the patterns might enhance the respective elements of the business model. This is colour-coded on the cards, so it’s easy to see and remember. The more difficult part is getting participants to stop assuming that these are hard and fast categories. Many patterns impact more than one aspect of the business model and people see different aspects. At this stage, it doesn’t matter what aspect is highlighted and what category the team decides to put it in.

Step 6. Set the timer, remind the teams of the task and let ideation begin. There is no one way to play Ideator. It’s a creative tool for facilitators who draw on their own skills and insights to co-design the experience. Depending on the context, Incite facilitators might:

  • Use only one pattern card per small group; only one example card per small group; all cards for everyone at once; or any combination.
  • Do competitive speed rounds (2 minutes each)
  • Divide teams in different ways (e.g. oldest vs youngest, longest time in the company vs shortest time in the company, male vs female)
  • Offer a prize for the silliest idea (many people find this extremely challenging, even impossible, which is illuminating in itself).

Step 7. Debrief in accordance with the context. The game may be an end in itself (awareness and team-building) or it may be followed by formal prioritisation processes (strategic portfolio) and safe-to-fail prototypes.

We strongly advocate for diversity in any Ideator run. With Ideator, people with the relevant experience – for example, in how underserved communities might best be served – are not simply plumbed for their knowledge but engage actively in the process. We can run Ideator in 1.5 hours (that’s the minimum). We’ve also run it over a full day and over several consecutive one-hour sessions on-line. Online has obviously been taking precedence of late and our latest generic deck is due a reprint.

Ideator is generally time well spent. It can also be used in conjunction with other activities to help catalyse more insights. Next time the employee volunteer unit sets out to plant trees or paint the local crèche, add Ideator into the day. Engage stakeholders from outside the company in the process. Ideator is about stimulating new thinking, informed by diverse perspectives, starting from the current business model and building on what we have (or is already emerging in adjacent systems).

The end point depends on the players and their networks. Let’s play.


Banner photo: Employees of a mining company in Namibia using Ideator as part of a Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership training.


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