Brainstorming techniques for product builders

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. Do you deeply understand the problem you are solving? What is the potential value of solving it — both for customers and the business? How will you translate creative ideation into actionable work on your roadmap?

There is a gap in product development between gathering ideas and insights and then converting those into initiatives and features on a product roadmap. Call it what you want — ideation, brainstorming, mind mapping, discovery work — whatever you call it, it is essential for product teams to think through some concepts visually before you can bring them to life.

Now, if you ask the members of a cross-functional product team how many of them enjoy group brainstorming, what would a typical answer be? It likely depends on how fruitful your group brainstorming sessions have been in the past. 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 shared 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:

  • Define elements of product strategy: Workshop product positioning and new customer personas.

  • 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.

Host a collaborative brainstorming session with your team in Aha! Create.

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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:

  1. Productivity
    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.

  2. Inclusivity
    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.

  3. Structure
    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.

  4. Visualization
    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.

  5. Action
    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).

Virtual whiteboards are available in Aha! software. Sign up for a free 30-day trial or log into your Aha! account.

12 examples of brainstorming techniques

Ready to start brainstorming? Explore 12 different techniques below — like 5 Whys, round robin, and SCAMPER — and get inspired to ideate. Each of these techniques is versatile and can be used for almost anything you want to brainstorm with your product team.

5 Whys

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.

Try the 5 Whys brainstorming technique with Aha! Create.

Affinity diagram

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.

Try the affinity diagram brainstorming technique with Aha! Create.

Bad idea

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.

Try the bad idea brainstorming technique with Aha! Create.

Brainwriting

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.

Try the brainwriting technique with Aha! Create.

Mind map

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 the mind map technique with this template available in Aha! Create.

Rapid ideation

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.

Try the rapid ideation technique with Aha! Create.

Reverse brainstorming

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.

Try the reverse brainstorming technique with Aha! Create.

Rolestorming

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.

Try the rolestorming technique with Aha! Create.

Round robin

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.

Try the round robin technique with Aha! Create.

SCAMPER

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?

Try the SCAMPER brainstorming technique with Aha! Create.

Starbursting

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.

Try the starbursting technique with Aha! Create.

Step ladder

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.

Try the step ladder brainstorming technique with Aha! Create.

SWOT

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.

Try the SWOT analysis technique with this template available in Aha! Create.

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 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.

Related: Best practices for brainstorming product ideas

Brilliant brainstorming begins with a plan. Try a few of these brainstorming techniques and tips in your next session to uncover new ways to innovate your product. With Aha! Create, you can get started in minutes with built-in whiteboard templates. Collaborate asynchronously or in real time, then tie the results of your brainstorming session right to your plans in Aha! Roadmaps — so your most exciting ideas can become a reality.

Create. Ideate. Roadmap. Build. Do it all with Aha! — try it free for 30 days.

Product development dictionary