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6 Ways to Avoid a Dead-End Product Development Brainstorm

Brainstorming is a simple process, right? Not so fast. When it comes to product development, learn why there’s definitely a right and wrong way to ideate.

Adam Prather

March 14 th 2023 | 8 min read

Everyone knows what a brainstorm is in theory. But few teams know how to actually run one effectively. In fact, many assume the very act of scheduling a brainstorming meeting is some sort of silver bullet. Get the right people in the room and voilà: they’ll magically solve the product development problem in front of them.

It doesn’t work that way. Creative problem-solving is hard work, and there needs to be a method to the madness. Without a smart, deliberate approach to the process, you risk spending the entire session laying rudimentary groundwork, circling around the same solutions, or getting sidetracked by the wrong problems altogether. And even brainstorms that seem to result in a lot of ideas can struggle with execution after the fact.

So if your brainstorms have a history of going off the rails — or you simply want to level up your approach in order to unleash your team’s best ideas — there are specific steps you need to take.

Here are 6 proven strategies to help you get the most out of every product development brainstorming session.

1. Define Your Design Problem(s) Ahead of Time

Brainstorming sessions are all about generating ideas. But your team can’t jump into the creative process without a clear idea of the problem they’re trying to solve. It’s essential to provide adequate context in order to make the most of everyone’s time.

Whether you’re pulling three engineers together to ideate the best way to build a mechanism or convening a team of high-powered executives to chart out your company’s product roadmap, it might be wise to:

  • Hold a pre-brainstorming meeting to discuss your goals and educate the team about the problem at hand.
  • Provide market research to help everyone understand the opportunity you’re going after.
  • Ask the team to do prep work in advance (e.g. create a rough mock-up; generate 3 ideas as a starting point for conversation) in order to hit the ground running.
  • Bring props and materials to the meeting to facilitate the team’s best thinking.

You don’t have to take all of the aforementioned steps to prepare your team. But if you don’t make it a priority to define the problem clearly in advance, you’ll likely spend the majority of your allotted time covering the “what” and the “why” without ever getting to the “how.”

2. Lay The Foundation For Creativity

Inspiration doesn’t just happen, it helps to follow some fundamentals to create the right atmosphere for ideation. Every brainstorm is different. To ensure the best outcome, utilize different methods to create a path to success.

Here are a few ways M3 works to unlock our team’s best thinking:

  • Quantity over quality. Brainstorming is all about generating as many ideas as possible without worrying about whether they’re good or bad.
  • Don’t be shy. For a brainstorm to be effective, getting everyone in the room to participate increases your odds of finding the solution. The best ideas typically come as a result of building on and iterating off of what others have said — or even engaging in competitive collaboration.
  • No naysaying. It’s ok to offer up off-the-wall ideas. In fact, we expect it. What’s not ok is prematurely poking holes. Brainstorming is not the time to expound on why an idea won’t work. Off-the-wall ideas may evolve into practical applications.
  • Suspend disbelief. The best brainstormers challenge assumptions, question the status quo and shake off any baggage they’ve brought with them. They don’t let past attempts to solve similar problems hold them back.
  • Write every idea down. We can’t afford to lose track of a single idea in the brainstorming process. Therefore, everyone is expected to jot their ideas down so we have a thorough record of every concept we generate.
  • Think outside the box. I know it’s cliche but sometimes it’s worth asking the right question to get your group in the zone. For example “If we were in a sci-fi movie and anything is possible what would the solution look like.”
  • Read the room. If you find your team struggling to get started and can’t find the creative juices, try narrowing the scope of the task. Sometimes people need a nudge to get started and by providing a platform you might find the floodgates will open.

If these guidelines aren’t enough to spark ideation try adjusting the rules. In some cases, it helps people focus on a goal and work with limited tools to come up with new ideas. You will find laying down some ground rules will create the right atmosphere for ideation.

3. Don’t Just Talk About Product Ideas — Visualize Them

Brainstorms involve a lot of talking — and that’s how it should be. The fundamental point of gathering people together is to bounce ideas off of each other.

But to reach a truly innovative result in product development, mere conversation is typically not enough. It can be incredibly beneficial to visualize each possible solution as a group.

This might involve:

  • Conducting mind mapping exercises to structure ideas in a visual format. Using color, symbols, and rough sketches can stimulate creative thinking in ways that traditional note-taking doesn’t.
  • Writing ideas on sticky notes and grouping them together on a wall or whiteboard based on the categories they fall into. Whether you do this in person or using a collaborative tool like miro, this exercise can help you quickly identify where there may be gaps in ideation.
  • Having everyone create crude sketches of their ideas, even if they’re not a designer. Another way to approach this is to provide a basic underlay or sketch of the product and have everyone sketch their ideas on top of it.

Since brainstorming sessions can easily go off track without thoughtful leadership, it’s particularly important to assess how things are going along the way. Putting everything you’ve sketched up on a wall can help you identify where you’ve spent too much time or energy and notice if there are still areas that need the group’s attention.

4. Break Down Big Design Problems into Micro-Problems

One of the impediments to brainstorming productively is looking at problems that are too big to solve in one session. If the no-limits style approach we discussed in “Lay the Foundation for Creativity” isn’t working for you, try dissecting the problem to make finding a solution more manageable. If you’re entering a new market, creating a transformational product from scratch, or analyzing a complex organizational challenge, don’t try to boil the ocean.

Break the big picture down into pixel-sized problems through the process of functional decomposition.

For example, perhaps you’re challenging your team to make a handheld device more ergonomic. What does that really mean? Is the goal to make the product feel better in the user’s hand? To make it easier to use the device with one hand? Or to allow the user to activate the device more quickly and seamlessly?

Ergonomics covers a lot of ground in this scenario. By breaking the problem down into as many smaller parts as you can, you’re more likely to get to the heart of the issue. Then when you put it all together, you can be more confident that the overall concept will meet your big-picture objectives.

5. Get Physical With Crude Mockups

A great way to make any brainstorming session energizing and productive is to add in a tactile component. Once you’ve batted around some ideas verbally and taken time to sketch out rough concepts, take the process to the next level by putting together some crude prototypes and mock-ups.

We often bring raw materials from the shop with us to brainstorming sessions so that the team can grab a motor, hinge, pump — whatever — and use play dough, cardboard, or modeling clay to test out the design components we’ve been discussing. This helps us quickly evaluate different ideas and refine our approach.

Getting physical can also involve role-playing to test our concepts out in a process we call “body storming.” For instance, when we were working on a design for an oral cancer screening device, we tested various prototypes on each other. This allowed us to experience how easy or hard it was for the dentist to operate the device and make sure we could see every area of the mouth clearly. It enabled us to experience the device from the patient perspective as well.

And of course, tearing down an existing product is another great way to bring a physical element into your brainstorming sessions and speed up the process toward developing a superior concept.

6. Engage a Design Firm With a Track Record of Successful Brainstorming

It’s common to think of brainstorming as more of an art than a science. But innovation isn’t born solely out of random flashes of inspiration. The creative process can be fostered, nurtured, and harnessed in order to consistently produce smart ideas.

A design firm with a track record of innovation can help you demystify the brainstorming process and deliver superior concepts that set your company apart. So if you’re ready to stop spinning your wheels and start ideating effectively, get in touch. We’d love to help.