Emotionally Intelligent Idea Generation

Emotionally Intelligent Idea Generation

If you’re bored hearing the same student business ideas every term, this exercise is the first step to helping your students…

Ideate unique business models that are based on the real emotional needs of customers.

Developing unique, needs-based ideas is difficult for students.

Their lack of exposure to different customer segments often means we as educators hear the same business ideas over and over. Plus, like most first-time entrepreneurs, students tend to focus more on their own product ideas than the emotional needs of their customers. As a result, student business models are often repetitive, infeasible, or low impact.

This “Emotionally Intelligent Idea Generation” exercise, which we featured at the 2021 Summer Summit, starts students’ ideation efforts off by helping them hypothesize:

  1. The groups of people they want to serve
  2. The emotional needs of those people (i.e. problems they want to solve)

With this needs-based approach, we’ve seen a significant reduction in the number of students working on product-driven businesses (e.g. “alcohol delivery”, “t-shirt design”, “coffee shops”, etc.) and an increase in needs-based business (e.g. “decreasing the carbon footprint of the ‘fast fashion’ industry”, “reducing sexual harassment and assault in ride-sharing services”, “increasing access to outdoor recreation among lower SES communities”, etc.).

It’s worth noting, this exercise does not cover the entire idea generation process. Instead, this exercise is the first step in an opportunity assessment process that’s designed to ensure the business models students validate are built upon real customer needs. After this exercise, you’ll be ready to introduce your students to a range of opportunity identification and validation exercises (e.g. market-sizing, competitive analysis, customer interviews, etc.) to continue the idea assessment process.

Full Lesson Plan

Click here to skip to the full lesson plan, otherwise, you can get a summary of each of the steps below.

STEPS 1 & 2

First, to helps students explore the needs of a range of customers besides themselves, the exercise starts by asking students to simply list out who their closest friends and family members are:

Emotional intelligence ideation

STEPS 3 – 5

Students pick the 5 closest family members and friends they’d be excited to help solve a problem for. This step helps students find groups of people they’re excited to understand the needs of, which results in business ideas that are less about a product, and more about real-world customer desires.

Next, instructors invite their students to send a text message to those 5 people (during class) asking them what their biggest challenges are. This step is powerful because:

  1. It’s fun and engaging for students. Students are never encouraged to text their friends during class. This invitation to talk to friends during class is surprising and novel.
  2. It models the customer discovery process students will eventually do, helping students get more comfortable talking to people about their pains and gains.
  3. Focuses their idea generation on the needs of the people students want to serve (and away from a product students might want to build).

Finally, as their friends and family respond, students record the challenges they learn about in box #5:

Emotional intelligence ideation

STEPS 6 & 7

Students are invited to reflect on groups of people they personally belong to, or they are passionate about helping. This helps make the upcoming emotional needs hypothesis process (Step 8) more personal and relevant. For instance, a student could include sports teams, or school clubs, or community organizations. They could also include hobbies they have – maybe they play chess, or they knit or they love putt-putt.

Emotional intelligence ideation


In this step, students first pick the three groups they’d be most interested in resolving emotional needs for from all the groups of people they listed in steps in the previous steps.

The results are often something like, “people like my mom”, “students with ADHD”, “electric bike riders”, etc. which are all concrete groups of people students can start hypothesizing needs for.

To help with that process, students are prompted to explore the emotional needs of each segment by hypothesizing their:

  • Fears
  • Frustrations
  • Stresses
  • Loves
  • Etc.

We’ve found this step helps ensure student ideas are both more unique, and needs-based. By shifting students’ attention towards emotional needs (and away from products), the ideas tend to be more novel and less repetitive. And, by focusing on the emotional experience of the people they want to serve, the ideas students ultimately generate tend to be more grounded in customer needs.

Customer's life


Students then identify:

  • 2 of the emotional needs from Step 8 that they hypothesize are most emotionally intense for the members of that segment and
  • 2 of the emotional needs from Step 8 that they are most excited to resolve for the segment members.

Students then use a combination of back-of-the-napkin estimates of the market size, intensity of the emotional needs, and their personal passion for resolving those needs to prioritize the segments and needs they want to assess further.

Opportunity assessment


For the last step, students fill in the blanks to define two customers segment hypotheses they want to start a more in-depth assessment process on:

  • A primary segment hypothesis they think has the most potential
  • A backup segment they can pivot to if their primary hypothesis gets invalidated

Emotional intelligence summary

This emotionally intelligent framework for defining customer segments helps students shift their customer segment descriptions away from generic demographics (e.g. “women 18 – 24”) towards more useful, needs-based descriptions (e.g. “people with low self-esteem due to persistent acne”).


After this exercise, you’ll have laid the groundwork to walk students through a wide range of assessment and validation processes for their hypotheses including:

  • Market-sizing
  • Competitive analysis
  • Customer discovery/interviews
  • Business model validation experiments

The result of which will be unique, and needs-based business models!

Get the Full “Emotionally Intelligent Idea Generation” Lesson Plan

We’ve created a free lesson plan for the “Emotionally Intelligent Idea Generation” exercise to walk you and your students through the process step-by-step.

Get the Lesson Plan


Or Get the Lesson Plan, Slides, and a Video Walk-Through

We launched this exercise at the Summer 2021 Teaching Entrepreneurship Summit.  If you’d like the slides and recording where we launch:

  1. This lesson (Emotionally Intelligent Idea Generation)
  2. Making Finance Fun
  3. Improving Student Pitches

Click here to purchase the slides, recordings, and lesson plans for all three!

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