Brainstorming Techniques to Jumpstart Device Designs

A three-step ideation process and two brainstorming techniques can help your organization get “unstuck” in the innovation process.

September 27, 2013

5 Min Read
Brainstorming Techniques to Jumpstart Device Designs

Many organizations use a traditional brainstorming approach to identify innovative opportunities for their product, service, or business. Teams undertaking these ambitious efforts can quickly get stuck in the brainstorming process, resulting in a narrow range of ideas or solutions.

Bringing a structured approach to the creative process may sound counterintuitive, but using a framework for ideation and specific brainstorming strategies can quickly stimulate creativity and open up the innovation process.

This three-step ideation process and two brainstorming techniques can help your organization get “unstuck” in the innovation process.


When a company embarks on an innovation development effort, resources are committed to that effort for weeks, months, or even years. With that in mind, it’s extremely important to identify the best opportunities for development. Ideation is often a key component to identify new ideas.

Effective ideation is more than just brainstorming. It’s similar to painting a room: When you paint a room, 20% of the effort is painting and 80% of the effort is preparation and cleanup. With ideation, 20% of the effort is generating ideas and 80% of the effort is preparation and cleanup!


The three-step ideation process is described below, followed by two brainstorming methods. To get the most out of your ideation effort, conduct each step as a separate activity. With this ideation structure and brainstorming techniques, there’s no more getting stuck!

Step 1: Preparation

Goal: Maximize effectiveness of the ideation effort.

  • Takes typically two days to two weeks (depends on the scope of the innovation project).

  • Crystallize the true objective:

oDefine the problem statement.
oIdentify the fundamental need (people want a ¼-in. hole, not a ¼-in. drill!).
oInclude essential constraints.

  • Develop criteria to evaluate ideas (go/no-go and targets).

  • Select a facilitator and diverse group of participants.

  • Plan the ideation session.

  • Have participants work on their own first to start ideas flowing.

Step 2: Idea Generation

Goal: Generate a wide variety of innovative options.

  • Typically lasts two hours to one day.

  • Start with a fun brain warm-up exercise (you can find good ones on the Internet).

  • Usual brainstorm rules apply: There are no bad ideas, no filtering, be wacky!

  • Facilitator reviews the goals and leads the team.

  • Briefly explain each ideation technique, then go!

  • Use brainstorming “sprints” to keep people fresh.

  • To keep everyone engaged, have someone else write down your idea on a sticky note.

Step 3: Idea Selection

Goal: Identify the best ideas for further development.

  • Typically lasts two hours to two days.

  • Cluster similar ideas.

  • Select the best distinct ideas from each cluster.

  • Screen-out ideas using the predefined go/no-go criteria.

  • Rank remaining ideas against targets: Vote on favorites or use a Pugh decision matrix.

  • Select the top 1–3 ideas for further development.


There are many ways to stimulate innovative ideas in a brainstorming session. Described here are two idea-generation techniques that consistently produce great results: buried treasure and breaking the rules.

Buried Treasure

This technique is called “buried treasure” because it helps a team identify hidden areas for innovation that they might not consider with traditional brainstorming. The buried treasure technique is a two-step process:

Step 1: Search far and wide to identify a broad variety of areas to “dig.”

  • Think about the problem statement from different perspectives.

  • Generate a list of all possible big-picture categories or “dimensions” to explore.

  • Resist the temptation to pursue details of promising categories.

Step 2: Identify the most promising areas and dig deep.

  • Each participant gets five votes for best categories.

  • Conduct focused brainstorming on the most promising categories first.

  • Brainstorm on one category until idea generation slows, then move to the next category.

  • Brainstorm on as many categories as time allows.

Here’s a brief example: Imagine your goal is to increase profits from your product. It would be easy for a team to immediately “dig deep” to find ways to improve the product so more people will buy it or to look for ways to cut costs. By first searching far and wide for a variety of areas to dig, a team might identify a much broader range of options to increase profits, such as new places to sell the product, new ways to advertise, new ways to improve customer satisfaction, and so on.

By clarifying the objective and using a systematic ideation method, a greater breadth and depth of ideas can be generated compared with traditional brainstorming.

Breaking the Rules

The breaking the rules technique uses a deliberate exploration of the conventions typical for a particular product or service to identify new innovation opportunities. This exercise often inspires new perspectives and clever ideas. The Breaking the Rules technique is also a two-step process:

Step 1: Identify the rules of a product or service.

First, write down the primary benefit. Second, think about the product or service from all different perspectives and list all the “rules” you can identify:

  • Appearance, cost, materials, features…

  • Process steps, inputs, outputs, user interactions…

  • What does the product or service NOT provide?

Step 2: Break the rules!

  • Generate ideas that go against one or more of the rules.

  • Maintain, enhance, or alter the primary benefit in a useful way.

The breaking the rules technique is best explained with some examples.

Example 1: Coffee maker

Primary Benefit: Brews coffee


  • Glass coffee pot.

  • Solid body.

  • Brews 8–12 cups.

  • Load and replace filter.

  • Measure and load coffee.

Break the Rules 

  • Eliminate the coffee pot, filter, and measuring the coffee.

  • Brew one cup at a time directly into your mug.

Idea: Pod coffee maker

Benefits: Quick, convenient, coffee doesn’t get stale

Example 2: Restaurant

Primary Benefit: Get food


  • You are seated at a table.

  • Waiter takes your order

  • Wait for food

Break the Rules

  • Waiter doesn’t take your order.

  • Food is continuously brought to your table.

  • Take what you want.

Idea: Sushi restaurant with food train

Benefits: No waiting, it’s fun

By deconstructing the common assumptions about a product or service and intentionally disrupting conventions, you can bring a new twist to the primary benefit to better differentiate your product.


Teams face a significant challenge when searching for new innovation opportunities. A traditional brainstorming approach can be haphazard, off-the-mark, and the group can quickly get stuck—unintentionally resulting in a narrow range of ideas or solutions.

By bringing a structured approach and specific techniques to the creative process, you can unlock the full innovative power of your organization.

Don Baumgarten is a project manager with Stratos.


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