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Design Research

Surfacing Insights from State Employees

How To Run A Successful Ideation Session

A session attendee's hands can be seen writing on a post-it. They have an open packet of background info in front of them, as well as a few crumpled up post-its.

The CivicMakers Team has been working with a state agency over the past six months to better understand how multiple stakeholders interact with an application process. To do this, we have assembled an internal “design team” to help fill in our approach with the invaluable context they hold as subject matter experts within the organization. In exchange for that critical context, we are providing them with the tools and techniques of human-centered design so that they can engender a culture of collaborative problem solving long after our involvement.

CivicMakers process graphic

On March 10th, 2023 we facilitated a two hour in-person Ideation Session at the client’s offices in Sacramento. The purpose of this session was to source ideas directly from folks across the organization who will be impacted by process, policy and/or program decisions – providing them a role in shaping those decisions. The 30 attendees, many of whom traveled from across the state for the session, represented a range in both tenure and role within the organization. One attendee had been in their position for six months, while a couple others brought 20 years of service at the agency. We had representation from: leadership/decision-makers, IT, program staff, finance and analysts.

The system-wide challenges presented to attendees were identified during a discovery phase where we conducted 33+ interviews of both internal and external stakeholders. These stakeholders were identified and vetted by our internal Design Team. We went through a several month long process to synthesize unique insights taken from these interviews (140+ insights in total). From this work, we were able to design challenges that we framed into “How Might We” statements, setting the stage for creative idea generation.

Another important method we used to create the conditions for a generative session were personas. These gave attendees an idea of which stakeholders would be impacted by which of the design challenges. Persona development can be tricky, particularly when it comes to public service delivery. However, we have found it helpful in our data synthesis to provide even just high level characteristics of similar groups we’ve interviewed during the discovery phase, leaving out demographic details and arbitrary descriptions that can introduce bias.

Session Design

Below are five key ingredients for a successful Ideation Session:

  • Importance of warm-up/breaking the ice. State employees often do not have many opportunities to dream up big, wild, audacious ideas for how to improve their work and deliver better servicesto their customers. As such, it’s important to set the stage of the session and get folks into a curious, hopeful and collaborative mindset. Our partner in this work, Virginia Hamilton, led a fun opening exercise that allowed for folks to enter into thesession with an open mind, open hearts and, perhaps most importantly, clear expectations of what’s possible.
  • Timeboxing idea generating activities. We held a fairly strict time frame for the ideas – 10 minutes per ‘How Might We’ statement, with six statements, totalling an hour for generating ideas. Next, we gave teams 10 minutes to prioritize. The time box allows for the ideas to have some sort of constraints, some boundaries within which they can be held. Otherwise, we could drift into analysis paralysis territory and overthinking. The prioritization and prototyping process (to follow ideation) will allow us to determine which ideas are desirable, feasible and viable; this is not a place we want to venture into during idea generation.
  • Getting folks into teams that are mixed (i.e. people they don’t typically work with). Groupthink is a real thing. We attempt to minimize it by mixing people up, avoiding the “water cooler” talk, and giving people the opportunity to get to know each other. We have found that simply giving folks permission to be in a room together creates relationships across organizational silos that can lead to greater organizational resiliency.
  • Prioritization, documentation & next steps. The process of prioritizing the ideas provides additional, valuable constraints that allow us to see what might be possible for moving ideas into the prototyping phase. As part of the documentation of the ideas, we recorded teams presenting their favorite ideas to the rest of the group. This allows for us to better understand the nuances with which they are approaching these ideas, and also permits us as facilitators to be present in the session, not hovered over our notes. Very clear next steps are important for setting expectations. In this case, we do not want to set any false expectations that the ideas will be implemented. They will be vetted by decision makers and external stakeholders, made tangible through prototypes, and presented as recommendations. Our firm will help with the implementation of some of the ideas, which brings our applied human-centered design approach much more into the “real world.”
  • When possible, in-person is best. While we have hosted many virtual sessions, there’s nothing quite like hearing and building off each other’s ideas in-person. For attendees who might have had trouble accessing the session, we’ve shared a full report out and are providing our next session virtually so that we may also engage those who are unable to join in person.

Where we could improve

We heard from a number of attendees afterward that they wanted more time to sit with the challenges and think through their ideas. While we would typically like to do something like this in a half day session, we were attempting to strike a balance between the session feeling generative (i.e. they are getting things done) or extractive, meaning we’re taking away precious time out of their days.


What works for you?! What are some critical considerations in getting folks to explore big, wild, beautiful ideas, especially when they face so many constraints?

Drop us a line if you have anything to share or want to learn more!