What are some best practices for brainstorming product ideas?
What is the best way to devise a brilliant solution to a problem? Product development teams reckon with this daily. From conceiving of a new product to documenting requirements for a specific feature, product development relies on smart problem-solving. But harnessing the creativity and insights of a collective can be an unpredictable effort.
You want to set people up for success. This is why many product leaders look for ideation tactics that can help corral the chaos and lead to innovation. Brainstorming has long been a popular way to generate ideas in a condensed time frame. Over the years, additional techniques have emerged that offer unique ways to stoke creative thinking and engage different personalities in new ways. Every product team is unique and your method for ideation will reflect that. It is up to you to choose what yields the best outcome for your product, your customer, and your team.
What is brainstorming?
The term “brainstorm” referred to a “fit of acute delirious mania” up until the late 1930s. It was then that Frank Osborn shifted its meaning in popular culture. In his 1942 book, How To Think Up, the advertising executive introduced the concept of organized ideation. His approach focused solely on producing a list of ideas that could be used later. Selection or evaluation of ideas generated was not part of the brainstorming process.
There are no “bad” ideas in a true brainstorming session. The group should not critique each other or otherwise dampen creativity by vetting the viability of what is proposed. Since nothing is criticized and there is no pressure to come to a final solution, brainstorming sessions frequently result in “piggyback” ideas. Meaning, the idea of one person might spark another to offer a related but unique concept.
Free association — expressing oneself without censorship — is a core tenet of brainstorming. To encourage this, brainstorming sessions rely on positive reinforcement to solicit more participation. Osborn suggested a playful atmosphere where no idea could be seen as too outrageous.
There might not be any “bad” ideas in a brainstorm, but there are certainly bad brainstorming meetings. Failed brainstorms happen for a variety of reasons, ranging from poorly-formed focus questions to lack of diversity in attendees to ideas being shot down by the organizer. Most of us tend to prefer agreement as well. So you can end up with a list of many similar ideas because people felt comfortable conforming to groupthink rather than voicing different concepts.
Examples of brainstorming
Ideas are the result of an open dialogue that reveals a new way to solve a problem. Creating the right circumstances for these conversations to take place is a critical part of any brainstorm. Here are a few examples of popular brainstorming techniques:
Brainwriting: Writing down ideas silently, then passing to the person to the left or right of you. Each person adds additional points to the concept as bullet points. At the conclusion, the original ideator shares the built-out concept with the group.
Figurestorming: Viewing the problem through the lens of a relevant public figure. (“How would Steve Jobs fix this?”) You can also ask from the perspective of user or buyer personas that the team has already defined.
Mind map: Starting with one concept on a whiteboard or piece of paper, the team adds related sub-concepts as spokes that spider out from the central idea. The result is a visual “mind map.”
Rapid ideation: Churning out as many ideas as possible within a specific time frame. The goal is to capture high-level concepts and not censor your own creative process.
Round robin/musical chairs: Swapping people in and out of ideation groups at set intervals over a period of time. Each newly-formed group contributes to building out the concept.
Is brainstorming effective for product development?
Product development is the entire process of bringing new ideas to life. Product development teams are tasked with finding clever solutions to challenges — problem-solving for customers and for the company. Generating new ideas is essential for success.
Brainstorming can be effective for product development, if approached in a thoughtful way. Unlike the freewheeling, say-yes-to-everything approach that Osborn advocated for early on, product development teams typically benefit from a more structured method. The brainstorm session should be oriented around offering suggestions that present actual opportunities to innovate based on the overall product direction.
Product managers typically lead these sessions and are responsible for offering strategic context, asking follow-up questions, and documenting everything that is shared. Another way that product managers can facilitate is by keeping the conversation focused on idea generation — if the conversation derails or the team starts to spend too much time discussing one concept, redirect back to the agenda.
A list of ideas is only useful if you have a way to objectively evaluate and implement the best ones. Following a holistic product development process is the secret ingredient for turning a brainstorm into a breakthrough.
How do you structure a product brainstorming meeting?
A productive idea generation session is exhilarating. Attendees feel satisfied after contributing their creative input and the product development team has a long list of ideas to investigate further. So how do you structure the meeting to be most effective? The exact parameters of your product brainstorming meeting will depend on a variety of factors — from the scope of the problem you are hoping to solve to the maturity of your product. However, there are a few consistent factors of which to be aware when organizing your product brainstorm meeting.
You want to invite the right people. Product brainstorming meetings can include internal or external sources. Examples of internal sources could be cross-functional teammates from departments such as engineering, marketing, sales, and support. These folks typically have different backgrounds, knowledge of your product, and level of exposure to customers. A diverse mix of internal sources can result in a high-yield brainstorm. Examples of external sources could be current customers, partners, or a focus group of people who represent users of your product. With external sources, you always want to consider how familiar the attendees might be with your market and offering — additional context may be required depending on who you choose to include.
You are likely familiar with the cliche image of a conference room with sticky notes plastered all over a white board. Although synonymous with brainstorming, this style of in-person meeting is not the only way — or the best way — to structure your meeting. In addition to limiting the number of people who will be able to join your meeting, this old-fashioned approach puts undue pressure on the product manager to record everything that is said. This is why many product teams choose purpose-built software that offers virtual and asynchronous options for idea management.
Traditional brainstorm sessions capped group members at six to 12 people. Any more and you may miss out on quieter voices and lose track of the group. Any less and you may miss out on the potential for “piggybacking.”
Product managers are responsible for setting the context and agenda for the brainstorm. As part of meeting preparation, product managers gather related materials, articulate the objective of the session, and formulate prompts to keep the conversation going.
The objective should be simple to understand and can be a touchstone for reorienting the conversation if people get sidetracked. Examples of objectives for product ideation include:
Come up with a better onboarding flow for customers
Improve the mobile app experience
Related materials should be kept to a minimum, but available for the group’s reference as needed. The materials should be relevant to your sources (internal vs. external). Examples of materials for product ideation include:
Documenting prompts in advance can be beneficial to spur ideation. Product managers can create open-ended questions ahead of time. Some software products designed for product development include interactive options such as polls. Examples of prompts for product ideation include:
If we had infinite resources, what would you suggest?
How do people solve this problem now?
What would happen if we did not solve this problem?
What are some best practices for product ideation?
Brainstorming is a creative process. You do not want to create too many rules or stifle the group’s imagination. But there are a few best practices for product ideation that any team can benefit from — no matter what type of product you are building.
Keep these tips top of mind when getting ready to brainstorm product ideas:
Reference product strategy
Invite a diverse group
Give people time to prepare
Create a supportive environment
Set a time limit
Articulate the problem clearly
Provide needed context
Aim for quantity
Defer idea evaluation
Evaluate ideas against strategy
Follow up with attendees
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