Innovation is quickly become the differentiator between market success and absolute failure in product design. Consumers have a plethora of choices today and are increasingly looking for products that are tailored to their specific needs and tastes.
In addition, traditional manufacturers are being challenged by a new breed of competitors, those being smaller, more nimble companies and startups empowered by crowdfunding and crowdsourcing platforms and inexpensive rapid manufacturing technology, such as 3D printing.
All of this makes the job of designing products more complex. It also means that innovation is no longer an option. As a result, companies must stock their product idea pipelines continuously, even if it means looking outside of their corporate walls for innovative, creative ideas.
Customers are also a rich source of ideas for new products or improvements upon existing products. Monitoring customer forums and soliciting feedback via direct email campaigns are both great ways to tap into your customer base for ideas.
Chances, are however, that there are people within your company who can also help. Brainstorming sessions were developed for the specific purpose of gaining insight from teams, however, if not run properly, the end result can be wasted time. Anyone who’s participated in a brainstorming session knows that it can either be a creative gold mine or a time-wasting disaster.
Let’s look at nine ways to encourage the free-flowing exploration of ideas during brainstorming sessions that can lead to truly innovative product design.
1) Don’t think outside the box. I know this was a popular phrase meant to encourage innovation, but if ideas go beyond the scope of what an organization would ever be willing to consider, based on company policies, they are a waste of time. Start brainstorming sessions by determining and sharing the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about resulting ideas. Set parameters prior to starting so everyone knows ahead of time what ideas are within the scope of what would be considered to be implemented.
2) Ask the right questions. Research has shown that the traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques are not as effective as more structured approaches. Start out brainstorming sessions by asking 15-20 questions. Questions should have two characteristics: they should force participants to take a new and/or unfamiliar perspective so they are forced to look at new ways to attack old problems and should also limit the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it leads to particular answers or outcomes.
3) Choose the right people. This is an important one. Be sure and choose people who are capable and possess “in the trenches” knowledgable to answer the questions you’re asking.
4) Divide and conquer. Don’t try and harness the collective thoughts of a large group, which may lead to rambling and extended discussions. Instead conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups of three to five people. Each subgroup should focus on one question that you feel they are best suited to answer for a full 30 minutes.
5) Isolate the “idea crushers.” Nothing will stifle the creativity of a brainstorming session than creating an environment in which participants are afraid their ideas will be shut down or met with a negative response. To prevent this be sure to put the “idea crushers” into their own group. These people–intentionally or not–often prevent others from suggesting good ideas. They come in three varieties: bosses, “big mouths,” and subject matter experts. By quarantining them, you’ll free other subgroups to think more creatively.
6) Keep track of ideas–both good and bad. Assign at least one person to keep track of proposed concepts, both good and bad. Ideas can be jotted down on post-it notes stuck on whiteboards or on paper in engineering notebooks. A product idea that might not work today might work in the future.
7) Set expectations. Before you divide them into subgroups, be sure and outline your expectations. Since each group will carefully consider and discuss a simple question for a half hour, it’s important to stay focused and not consider ideas–no matter how good–during the subgroup’s individual session. Tell the participants if anyone comes up with a “silver bullet” idea that’s outside the scope of that particular discussion, write it down to be shared later.
8) Wrap it up. At the end of the session, a typical subgroup might generate 15 interesting ideas worth vetting so if you have multiple subgroups, you might now have a total of 60 ideas. While it might be tempting to have the whole group now evaluate the resulting ideas, it’s not a suggested practice since many of the participants don’t have the executive-level understanding of the criteria and considerations that must go into prioritizing ideas. Instead, have each subgroup narrow down its own list to a top few and they share with full group to motive and inspire participants.
9) Follow up. The worst thing you can do after a brainstorming session is to not follow up with participates to reiterate the output, the positive results, and the next steps that will be taken based on the session’s outcome. You want to enlist these valuable team members for future collaborative concept ideation, so validating their input is essential.
For more information on brainstorming, check out the article, “Seven Steps to Better Brainstorming” by McKinsey & Company. The consultancy has worked with over 150 companies in a range of industries to develop a pragmatic approach—they’ve dubbed “brain steering” that captures the energy typically lacking in traditional brainstorming sessions. The trick, the company says, is to leverage the way people actually think and work in creative problem-solving situations.