Brainstorming techniques for product teams
Customers and prospects. Competitors. Market trends. What are your main sources of insight as a product builder? And how do you take all of the information you have gathered and feed it back into your product strategy? There are certainly many ways to answer these questions — depending on the product you sell, who your customers are, and what stage of product planning you are in.
Many product teams use idea management software to collect and organize product feedback from customers and colleagues alike. This is an excellent way to synthesize ideas across sources into opportunities for product innovation.
But you cannot act on the germ of an idea. You need to turn the idea over, explore other angles, and understand how it fits into the larger vision of what you are building. Call it what you want — ideation, brainstorming, mind mapping, discovery work — whatever you call it, it can be helpful for product teams to think through some concepts visually before you bring them to life in your product plans.
Folks using Aha! Notebooks can work from several pre-built whiteboarding templates, including the brainstorming session template. It is a convenient choice if you want to start a collaborative brainstorming session right away.
Start a brainstorming session in Aha! Notebooks. Try it now.
Now, let's consider how fruitful your brainstorming sessions are. If you ask the members of a cross-functional product team how many of them enjoy group brainstorming, what would a typical answer be? Plenty of teams resent brainstorming because it leads to aimless conversations with few meaningful insights. (And who can blame them?)
If you come to a brainstorming meeting without a clear agenda and only a loose idea of what you are trying to accomplish, you might spend time staring at an empty screen or blank whiteboard. It helps to take a more structured approach. Many teams find success with creative brainstorming techniques — simple, visual frameworks for guiding discussions and uncovering deeper insights.
So if you want to make your next brainstorming session more effective, keep reading or skip ahead:
Why do product teams brainstorm?
"Brainstorming" is a pretty vague term. It is defined as "a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of [the] group." So in the context of product development, what do we actually mean by brainstorming?
Product teams rely on creative thinking to solve many challenges — from exploring bold, new product strategies to optimizing daily operations and of course, thinking up new product ideas. A brainstorming session can be effective for this type of collaborative ideation. It can provide a dedicated forum for you to tap into everyone's unique insights more effectively and examine potential solutions together.
Let's look at a few examples. As a product team, you might hold a brainstorming session when you need to:
Innovate early product concepts: Capture initial ideas, sketches, and diagrams for new products or features.
Enhance your Complete Product Experience (CPE): Brainstorm ways to improve your CPE — including customer touchpoints with marketing, sales, and support in addition to the product itself.
Revamp team processes: Think about how to make workflows more efficient. This could refer to major cross-functional processes or routine ones.
A product manager will typically lead product-team brainstorms — planning the agenda, taking notes, and following up on next steps. It is also the product manager's job to stay on track and grounded in the goals for the meeting.
This sounds simple enough. But it can be a tricky balance to run a productive brainstorm. You want to provide enough structure to encourage participation and keep the chaos in check — but not so much that it will hamper creativity. This is where brainstorming techniques can help.
What are the benefits of brainstorming techniques?
At a basic level, brainstorming techniques help kickstart the conversation. It is easier to get the creative wheels turning when you have visual cues and questions to respond to. For product teams, brainstorming techniques offer added layers of benefits:
Your time is precious. In an aimless brainstorming session, tangents can lead you away from the objective at hand. Brainstorming techniques help you stay focused throughout the discussion — providing a framework to get to the results you need, faster.
Top-performing product development teams are made up of an eclectic mix of experts — diverse in skill sets, personalities, and backgrounds. But these varied perspectives can get lost in an unstructured session where only a few voices carry the conversation. Many brainstorming techniques are inherently inclusive by prompting participants to take turns giving input.
Not all ideas are equally valuable in product-building. You need to hone in on the ideas that will have the biggest impact. Be ruthless in cutting any that do not align with your goals. Most brainstorming techniques offer built-in organization with visual categorization to help you be more objective and efficient when prioritizing.
From roadmaps to kanban boards, product development relies on a number of visual tools. While it could seem simpler to chat verbally with teammates and take notes on the side, it makes sense that product team brainstorming should be visual, too. This aids collaboration and communication just like other product-related visuals.
In freewheeling brainstorming sessions, the output is often a haphazard list in a spreadsheet or a pile of scribbled notes. But when you brainstorm, you want the best ideas to be readily transferable to your product plans. A structured technique will help ensure you end the meeting with clarity on how the ideas you generated will inform your strategy, roadmap, or processes (especially when you use a virtual whiteboard).
13 examples of brainstorming techniques
Ready to start brainstorming? We have included 12 different techniques below and provided some examples and inspiration for using these techniques within Aha! Notebooks. Aha! Notebooks comes with pre-made templates for brainstorming, mind mapping, and more. Of course, you can always start with a blank whiteboard and customize its look based on your team's needs. That is what we have done in many of the examples below.
Try the brainstorming session template in Aha! Notebooks.
The 5 Whys brainstorming technique is designed to help you dig into problems and determine the root cause. You first define the problem and then ask the group why it occurred. Continue to ask why four more times until you uncover deeper reasons for issues. This technique can be especially helpful as part of a retrospective meeting as you look back on recent problems you encountered.
We built a 5 Whys template with drag-and-drop boxes in Aha! Notebooks. Feel free to experiment with your own layout.
You can use affinity diagrams to organize discussion items from any brainstorming session. This is one of the simplest techniques to try. As your team comes up with ideas, group related ones together into categories — whether by forming columns, clusters of sticky notes, or another visual grouping.
Add some structure to your affinity diagram with colorful text boxes in Aha! Notebooks — or simply group related ideas together into clusters of sticky notes.
This unconventional technique encourages you to think of as many bad ideas as possible. As a prompt, you might ask: "What is the worst solution you can imagine?" Exploring absurd ways to solve a problem can help the team feel more comfortable sharing and think more creatively than they normally would. Talk about what makes each idea bad as a group — then challenge yourselves to consider what insights each bad idea reveals.
Brainwriting is useful for brainstorming meetings that require deep thought. Each person writes down ideas silently, then shares their notes with the next person. Each team member tacks on additional points to the original concept. Once everyone's ideas have made the rounds, they are shared with the group.
To create a mind map (also referred to as a "concept map"), you start with a single concept on a whiteboard. Participants branch out from the central idea into related concepts. Continue adding branches throughout the session until you have a web, or map, of ideas. Mind mapping is a great way for your product team to take a holistic look at problems to solve — starting with broad angles and getting to more specific ideas with each branch. Try it for yourself with the mind map template in Aha! Notebooks.
Rapid ideation is about churning out as many ideas as you can within a set time limit. The goal is to capture high-level concepts without dampening creativity by thinking too long about any one idea. Your product team may also try rapid ideation when time is tight to spend on brainstorming activities.
Pick a time limit and use this pre-built brainstorming template for rapid ideation.
It is usually easier to spot problems than it is to find solutions. Reverse brainstorming plays into this by exploring what kinds of ideas could cause issues or lead to undesired results. This technique is useful for solving complex product problems like a major UX overhaul, for example. It forces you to consider what could go wrong — so you can be more confident in the solutions you choose.
We adjusted the brainstorming template with new headers, prompts, and an extra column.
Rolestorming (also referred to as "figurestorming") entails brainstorming through the lens of a relevant public figure (e.g., “How would Steve Jobs fix this?”). You can also ask try rolestorming as the user or buyer personas that your product team has defined. This technique is helpful for when you are feeling stuck on stale concepts and could use some fresh perspectives.
When using the round robin technique, you start by brainstorming ideas as pairs or small groups. From there, participants will rotate between groups and build on the original ideas within a set amount of time. Round robin is an effective method for collaborative brainstorming — providing structure your team to fluidly build on each other's ideas and avoid groupthink.
Set up a simple grid with drag-and-drop shapes and use sticky notes to try the round robin technique in Aha! Notebooks.
SCAMPER is a brainstorming technique that uses an acronym to help you think critically about the ideas you produce. SCAMPER is particularly helpful for idea prioritization — requiring you to comb through every idea, embrace what will work, and cut what does not. SCAMPER stands for:
Substitute: Could we replace this idea with something else?
Combine: Can multiple ideas be merged into one?
Adapt: How can this idea be adjusted to support our objective?
Modify: How can we change this idea and build on it?
Put to another use: Can this idea help us solve other problems as well?
Eliminate: How can we simplify this idea?
Reverse: How can we rearrange the components of an idea?
We built this SCAMPER diagram with shapes and connectors in Aha! Notebooks.
This brainstorming technique uses a star-shaped diagram with "Who", "What", "Why," "Where," "When," and "How" on each point. Starbursting focuses on generating questions rather than solutions. It is most helpful for early product ideation and research, when you are determining strategic elements like product positioning.
Use the star shape in Aha! Notebooks to build a starbursting whiteboard.
Step ladder is a creative and collaborative approach to brainstorming. First, one team member will start by defining a problem. Another will add their ideas as the first "step." Then, another participant will join in to share their ideas for the third step, and so on — until you have reached four or five steps. This method is useful for integrating diverse perspectives and encouraging different folks to share unique solutions.
Responsive text boxes in Aha! Notebooks adjust as you go.
SWOT analysis is a common planning tool for business strategy, but it can also be helpful for brainstorming as a product team. By examining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, you can take a multi-faceted view of any problem. Getting the big picture can help you determine how to proceed.
A quick brainstorming technique checklist
If you want to try a brainstorming technique in your next product team meeting, here is a quick checklist of helpful tips to feel prepared:
Get organized. Create and share an agenda for the meeting, choose a facilitator, and think about who to invite.
Set an objective. Think about what you want to achieve during the session — and how it supports your product goals. This is important for keeping the discussion fruitful and on-topic.
Choose a tool. You need a way to capture all of the ideas you generate. In-person brainstorming usually happens on a classic whiteboard — but digital whiteboards are ideal for remote or hybrid product teams and often come with built-in templates.
Pick a brainstorming technique. This guide has 12 examples of popular brainstorming techniques to try but of course many more exist. Depending on your objective, some will be more suited to your session than others. You will likely use one brainstorming technique per session but you can experiment with multiple.
Plan for action. After the brainstorming session has ended, what will you do with all the ideas you generate? How will you evaluate which ideas are most valuable — and which to cut? Make a plan for next steps and how you will incorporate the results of your brainstorm into future product plans.
A core benefit of Aha! Notebooks is that it works seamlessly with other Aha! products — Aha! Roadmaps, Aha! Ideas, and Aha! Develop. You can collaborate asynchronously or in real time on whiteboards, then embed them directly into work items in the other tools. This way, ideation and brainstorming are connected to your daily work and serve as reminder to the team of the broader context behind the path forward you have chosen.
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