Beyond Brainstorming

Originally Published MDDI October 2004

Bill Evans

October 1, 2004

12 Min Read
Beyond Brainstorming

Originally Published MDDI October 2004

Product Development Insight

Beyond Brainstorming

A sound understanding of product value and the fertile areas for potential solutions positions product developers for effective idea generation and innovative concept refinement.

Bill Evans and Jonathan M. Wyler

Bill Evans

Jonathan M. Wyler

Developing successful products starts with understanding customers and translating their voice into appropriate product ideas and solutions. Brainstorming is a common ideation technique used to rapidly generate potential solutions. However, managers often find little more to go on than personal experience to streamline the process and vague admonitions to get a great facilitator and pack a room with creative talent.

The first installment of this article discussed critical processes such as forming a team and defining product value.1 This article illustrates how to use this team insight to continue the process. Doing so includes formulating targeted questions, generating a multitude of ideas in a series of team brainstorming sessions, and then systematically synthesizing the best ideas into a series of system-level concepts (see Table I). These concepts can then be tested by potential customers and iteratively refined and improved. This process will help discipline the design process early on, saving valuable time and money and mitigating risk over the entire development cycle of a new product.

Constructing a comprehensive model of customer value and clearly defining the solution space is a first critical stage of product development. If product definition is successful, then brainstorming happens quite naturally. It is a far more controllable and predictably successful process than many believe. In fact, when a team comes out of product definition feeling like they are prepared for the next step, they can often reliably predict the number of ideas that will be generated in brainstorming sessions.

Idea Generation

The goal of concept generation is to produce a vast quantity of ideas virtually without regard to quality as long as there is a focused attempt to address the problem. Some people are uncomfortable with this so-called quantity-over-quality approach, and some research challenges it. However, although both dimensions are important, it is difficult to assess the quality of ideas during brainstorming. In addition, there are no specific cognitively based means of trying to deliver higher-quality ideas other than censuring some of them, which should never be done during brainstorming. Finally, quantity is more important in terms of team interaction and enabling team members to build upon other people's ideas.
To generate the necessary quantity of ideas, a team must take on a high level of intensity and perhaps even competitiveness. Factors that help teams attain such intensity include experience with the proper timing, skilled facilitators, process, and of course, copious amounts of caffeine.

However, real stimulation cannot be sustained for long. Therefore, sessions should be kept short; in fact, they should be far shorter than most people believe. A total of about six half-hour sessions, each on a different topic, is recommended. Teams should have a five-minute break between each session and should never attend more than four sessions in a single day. It is helpful to set a goal of how many ideas the group will try to generate in each session; 40 ideas per half-hour is fairly attainable.

Table I. Stages of the concept development process. The process deliberately cycles between activities requiring diverging and converging thought, and between large and small groups of participants(click to enlarge).

While it may seem contrary to popular belief, the attitude toward concept generation should be to be focused rather than unconstrained. Good facilitators manage a group attitude without trampling on its collective creativity. It is helpful to consider the optimal creative mindset to be one that is defocused with heightened sensitivity. Team members should focus on the problem or topic, free their minds to whatever conceptual associations they may make, but have the sensitivity to recognize connections between ideas that may lead to solutions.2

To support this goal, the organizers should carefully craft a set of questions for each topic session. Each question should specifically address one goal or requirement arising from product definition, but should avoid implying certain types of solutions. One method to develop a system of such questions is to conduct functional decomposition, a process of breaking the problem down into a series of simpler subproblems. The question creation task is far more challenging than it seems, and it requires practice, thought, and feedback from others. Table II provides examples of effective and ineffective guiding questions.

Finally, sharing and documenting ideas is crucial to maintaining inertia and building upon those ideas. It also provides an efficient way to archive ideas so they can be reviewed later in the process.

The documentation method suggested here is simple and can be more effective than using whiteboards or flip charts. This approach also remedies the so-called production-blocking effect in which idea generation is hindered as people must wait their turn to record or announce their idea.3
A facilitator should bring a few hundred sheets of letter-size paper, preprinted with a generic format, as the medium to record note taking and sketching (see Figure 1). Team members should be encouraged to note their ideas and to draw large and colorful pictures, which facilitates more-effective visual communication. Sketches should be briefly shown to the group to stimulate others to build on the ideas and posted on a wall in the work area. At the end of the session, the sheets can be collected, scanned, and indexed in an HTML Idea Log, which creates a record for future investigations and IP protection purposes.

Concept Deployment

Table II. Questions for brainstorming sessions can be based on customer requirements, design goals, or broader design challenges, but should be specific enough to motivate a focused 30-minute brainstorming session (click to enlarge).

Once the stress of brainstorming sessions is over, the real work begins. The intense idea-generation process can be fun and invigorating. However, making sense of these ideas and refining them into realistic high-value solutions is a difficult task. Team members should break for a few days to distance themselves from the stress and any bias or ownership issues from the brainstorming sessions. The iterative selection and refinement process are the next steps.

Screening. Reviewing all of the ideas gives team facilitators a sense of what they have to work with. A short meeting (1–2 hours) works well to screen the ideas. This meeting should have no more than three participants. This step is a fast-paced, low-stress way to skim off the good, the bad, and the ugly. One screening method uses three bins labeled something like “Hot Idea,” “Maybe,” and “Back Burner.” Led by one person, the group can rapidly distribute the ideas into the bins. If an idea is obviously hot, give it the go; if it is irrelevant or impractical, trash it; and if there is disagreement or unclear potential, put it in the middle. This activity is not the time for a lengthy debate; everyone involved should recognize that.

Synthesis. Concept synthesis is perhaps the most challenging and crucial part of the entire concept development process. It is fundamentally a subjective and organic process that involves less-structured decision making. Two or three designers should start with the “Hot Idea” bin and work toward generating a set of integrated system-level concepts. Single ideas are usually meaningless by themselves; they need to adhere logically to other ideas to form solutions that can be evaluated reasonably.

By developing a structural or functional breakdown of solutions, team members can select and combine ideas from each category. It may also be helpful to develop themes by envisioning system personalities and then combine ideas that work well with that specified set of characteristics. Often, such themes will be apparent.

With either method, it is important to group similar ideas and arrange them using a deliberate system. For example, one team held brainstorming sessions for a diabetes infusion set on various topics. Afterward, the team members pieced together ideas from those topics to form a set of six distinctly different product systems. For example, one system embodied the notion of slimness, one was meant to appeal to children, one was based on modular components, and one facilitated the invention of a new insertion tool.

Figure 1. Using idea sheets is one effective way of managing ideas during the brainstorming session. The list shows the kinds of information worth capturing along with each sketch (click to enlarge).

It is important that all of the potential systems represent different concepts. Some should be radical and some conservative; some simple and some complex. The ideas that are selected and combined should:

• Physically or functionally work well together.
• Balance each other's weaknesses.
• Resolve design contradictions.
• Maximize product value as it was defined during product definition.
• Minimize complexity, cost, and risk.

This task fundamentally requires the ideas to be shuffled around. It's helpful to find a big table or floor space, and start pushing paper. At this stage, it is also important to revisit the “Maybe” stack to see whether those ideas have since developed any potential.

Concept Evaluation and Selection. This is the time to get critical. The selection phase presents an ideal opportunity to reassemble the entire team for serious discussion.

A simple selection method, such as Pugh's Method, can stimulate and organize discussion and debate (see Figure 2). Pugh's method is an iterative technique in which candidate concepts are compared with each other on a number of different dimensions.4

The chosen selection method should leverage the customer requirements and business filters weightings that were developed during the product definition stage described in Part I of this article. Again, the discussion, rather than the numbers in the matrix, is most important. At this stage, emphasis should be placed more heavily on customer requirements than might realistically be the case. The team should not overly scrutinize each system to determine an exact numerical superiority between systems. Rather, the focus of this session should be to narrow the scope, either by eliminating ideas or combining and reconfiguring them.

Concept Refinement. Refinement and evaluation go hand-in-hand, and often these steps are iterated multiple times to move ideas closer to a more promising set of concepts. The goal is not to lay out or engineer the systems, but rather to develop a greater understanding of their nature, potential, and value.

Activities might include drawing detailed sketches (but no CAD yet), adding or removing features or functionality, researching patents, consulting with specialists, establishing significant economic data, and conducting focus groups. Very simple prototypes that demonstrate specific critical functions or evaluate product scale or ergonomics may be appropriate.

This refinement is an interdisciplinary step, so participation from marketing, manufacturing, operations, finance, and design is important during the process. Concept refinement also requires smaller working meetings with a greater focus on quality and specifics than the original large brainstorming sessions.

Concept Testing. Once the team has a limited group of refined system solutions, it's time to return to where the entire concept development process starts: the customer. Testing marketplace acceptance of product concepts is vital to increasing the likelihood of success. Such testing typically takes the form of consumer interviews or focus groups.

Figure 2. This generic example shows how this tool can help compare concepts with a datum concept, which is often an existing product, noting only whether a concept is better, worse, or the same as the datum on each of the categories. Actual product requirements and importance ratings would need to be generated for the specific product(click to enlarge).

To make this effort successful, it is important to plan an easily repeatable test. It is also essential to engage an experienced and effective focus group facilitator and to work with diverse and representative subject groups. Participants in development activities should not interact directly with interview subjects or focus groups.

Such investigations typically start with presenting study participants with concept-level sketches or storyboards for initial feedback on the ideas and not their physical embodiments. Only after this high-level evaluation takes place should a study participant see specific concept prototypes or renderings.

It is essential that controls be applied to the process. For example, all prototypes should reflect the same level of craft, and factors that are not being investigated (e.g., color, material, etc.) should be constant across concepts. This control reduces subjective bias variability. Also, an experienced group leader or interviewer should monitor discussion to ascertain valuable feedback and prevent runaway focus groups. The results of such studies can be used to select and further refine concepts.

Concept testing does not need to be an expensive, large-scale quantitative study. If the budget is tight, the marketing team could show the ideas to potential customers in a few diverse geographic regions.


The concept development process engages multiple functional groups within an organization as a single team with the common goal of exciting customers with new and valuable products. This first phase of product development is crucial not only to increasing the likelihood of product success in the marketplace, but also to motivating the team for the subsequent phases, as this process ensures that ideas are ultimately envisioned by the team and not only individuals.

Using cutting-edge technology, engineering reliable products, designing influential advertising, and presenting trendy styling can all play a critical role in marketplace success. However, all too often product failure happens because excessive time and resources are spent on these activities while failing to commit sufficient effort to understanding core product value and determining how to deliver it. Following the process proposed in this article can help lead an organization to a more successful understanding of its own processes and products, and how it provides value to its customers.


1. Bill Evans and Jonathan M Wyler, “Beyond Brainstorming,” Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry 26, no. 9 (2004): 46–53.
2. Liane Gabora, “Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying the Creative Process,” Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creativity and Cognition, Loughborough University, UK, October 13–16, 2002: 126–133.
3. Scott G Isaksen, A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquirys, Monograph #302 (Buffalo, NY: Creative Problem Solving Group, 1998): 13.
4. David Warburton, “Getting Better Results in Design Concept Selection,” Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry 26, no. 1 (2004): 66–71. n

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