Beyond Brainstorming 972

Originally Published MDDI September 2004

Bill Evans

September 1, 2004

14 Min Read
Beyond Brainstorming

Originally Published MDDI September 2004

Product Development Insight

Implementing a systematic approach to product definition can improve the efficacy of idea-generating sessions.

Bill Evans and Jonathan M. Wyler

Bill Evans

Jonathan M. Wyler

How can product development be conducted more effectively to achieve success in the marketplace? Studies suggest that the leading cause of superiority is product uniqueness, which is most effectively implemented through the use of a high-quality process that defines product value.1

Product value is defined in the earliest stages of new product development. These early stages are also when strategies are created to ensure that such value drives the design process. Paradoxically, they are also the least-expensive stages of development. To achieve maximum product value and marketplace success, developers need to spend more time determining what specifically should be developed, and not just how to develop it. A modest amount of targeted prep work can dramatically affect concept development activites, laying a foundation for products that offer meaningful advantages.

Most people recognize brainstorming as a bread-and-butter tool for generating innovative ideas. However, brainstorming means different things to different people. Some believe that brainstorming is a waste of time or that it is politically motivated. When managers do decide to organize a brainstorming session, they often find little more than personal experience to use as guidance. How then does one learn to manage such specific efforts and ensure that the process generates effective concepts that will lead to a competitive product?

This article addresses the first two stages of concept development management, taking into account that brainstorming is only one part of a larger product development process (see Table I). A subsequent article will explain the process of turning all the up-front work into a productive idea-generating session and concept deployment process. 

An effective concept development process combines innovative approaches with simple analytical and research tools. It is ideal for any medical product developers needing to revitalize a team's creative abilities. Taking a more strategic approach that focuses on customer value and technical solution space, managers can improve the efficacy of brainstorming sessions and increase potential product success.

Power through Knowledge 

Three variables influence brainstorming success. These variables are: the nature of the problem, a group's potential for creativity (this includes the facilitator), and a group's understanding of the problem. A problem's fundamentals are a given and cannot be influenced. The potential of a group can be orchestrated somewhat by choosing a good combination of participants and by having a skilled facilitator who can lead them in a favorable environment. But the most significant factor that can be influenced is the team's understanding of the problem.

A common myth is that to inspire breakthrough thinking, one needs to wipe the slate clean, withholding a project's background information from a group. Some think that keeping a brainstorming group in the dark will increase the group's likelihood of pursuing novel solutions. Although including group members from outside the company can often break organizational inertia, depriving a team of fundamental information can stone-wall innovation. Studies performed in the 1960s determined that more than 90% of patents solved problems with existing solutions. Current research supports this finding. Therefore, accepting the mantra that “all design is redesign” is crucial to successful ideation. 

An informal study comparing the creative performance of well-briefed groups and naive ones also gives credence to this assertion. The unbriefed groups launched into a creative outpouring on how to design an energy-efficient light bulb. The other groups first spent two hours reviewing samples of 30 different bulbs and evaluating their design issues. Both groups reported a significant number of ideas, but the ideas presented by briefed groups were of higher quality and contributed more to the bulb's final design.
Brainstorming, a topic covered in the upcoming installment of this series, is essentially about making connections between existing ideas. Participants should be inundated with information and allowed to filter and evaluate this information according to their interests. This way, they are more likely to develop new insights or interpretations of the given problem. Concept development should be considered as much a learning process as one for generating ideas.

Forming a Team for Innovation

The composition of an early-stage concept development team greatly affects the ideas that are generated and pursued. A team should include 8–12 participants. Team hierarchy should be flat—a single experienced facilitator should establish an environment in which all contributors' ideas are valued equally. Diversity is critical in assembling a brainstorming team. Having representatives from different fields, different sexes, and different levels of experience is obvious, but diversity of personality type and background is often more important. It can be highly profitable to involve people with broad nonprofessional interests, or a personal connection to the medical use of the device being developed.

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).

Encourage participants to step outside their roles as experts and to think outside their disciplines. Everyone can be a designer; many innovative suggestions come from participants who are not used to creating product ideas. Humor also breaks a lot of ice, so bring in someone who can precipitate laughter. Temper narrowly focused specialists with some generalists too. 

Incorporating outsiders in brainstorming sessions can present some challenges. For example, in a recent session for a sutureless anastamosis implant tool, a company invited two surgeons to participate in a brainstorming session. These experts attracted much of the attention of the group, turning the session into an educational question-and-answer meeting, and few ideas were actually generated. 

Therefore, carefully consider the role of outsiders: are they contributing ideas or educating the team? Use their expertise specifically for its intended function. In the above example, the surgeons' expertise might have been more appropriate for use in briefing sessions than brainstorming. Including outsiders is valuable, but such outsiders must be selected carefully. 

Product Definition

Participants should understand the specific approach to concept development they will be using. One major challenge in concept development is identifying and understanding the problem. This challenge makes product definition a critical phase of concept development. It is the phase in which designers conduct research and analysis to identify and understand the basic design parameters and develop a value model. In this phase, designers should also provide a strategic basis for ideation and product improvements. A thorough product definition can determine the success of brainstorming. After all, it's difficult to solve a problem without first understanding it. 

Many companies already use some definition tools, but perhaps not as strategically as they could use them. For example, some teams focus their efforts and resources on the most complex, but not necessarily the most important, aspects of a design. Other teams spread themselves too thin trying to cover every part of a design. The sidebar “Product Definition Activities” on page 48 describes ways to address project-relevant objectives. 

It is helpful to view product definition as a filtering process. A team starts with potential access to vast amounts of relevant information, including research studies, individuals' experience, and consumer data. It must distill the information down to the most important points using objective analytical methods. This filtered list then forms the basis for an intelligent design strategy, and focuses a team on critical and specific topics for ideation.

One or two designers can conduct the following activities over a 2–4-week period. These activities lead up to a presentation to an entire development team of 8–12 participants. Those conducting the up-front research and analysis are responsible for organizing all activities in the concept development project. However, their voices are equal to those of the rest of the group in the generation and selection of concepts.

Planning. In concept development, planning is the most important step for getting a team onboard in terms of developing a set of common expectations and priorities. Is the goal to minimize time to market? To advance the technology to a certain level, regardless of time? A team should develop, document, and formalize its priorities and its strategy for addressing trade-offs. 

At this stage, a helpful activity is to poll participants to determine each person's most important objectives. It is common for a group's objectives to differ at the start. Presenting these differences to the entire team and pursuing a consensus is an important first step.

Learning. It is essential to conduct research and present background information about the product, the market, the use setting, the user, and the manufacturing and operations issues. An emphasis on benchmarking and observation is often overlooked, but can provide information that reveals an opportunity for a competitive edge.

Benchmarking is a powerful two-part tool to help understand competitors and customers. First, it can be used to formally evaluate and quantify product differences, both in technical metrics and customer-satisfaction levels. Second, it provides a method to look beyond similar products and serves as a brainstorming event of its own. It enables a team to investigate new and exotic materials, manufacturing processes, and products from completely different industries. Benchmarking also enables a team to cross-pollinate ideas from these other technologies or processes. 

Some teams buy product samples that might lead to ideas or provide inspiration. It is essential to have samples available to dissect, reverse engineer, experiment with, and play with during the brainstorming sessions. A minimal investment at this stage can produce important ideas. For example, while developing an intraocular lens-folding tool, one team came across some Chinese finger cuffs. The toy led to the development of a set of solutions based on contracting a membrane by pulling on it.

Observational research is increasingly becoming the secret weapon of successful product designers. Seeing products used in the field is an invaluable experience. This observation affords a team the opportunity to recognize subtle issues and challenges that others have overlooked. With this insight, a team can develop a more meaningful appreciation of what customers want. To gain the most from this task, group members may need to think like cultural anthropologists, industrial engineers, or behavioral psychologists. Observational research complements broader quantitative market surveys. Demographic metrics alone often miss the subtleties of the user environment. A connection with the design challenge can motivate a team to create improvements upon existing products.

Analysis. To begin systematically focusing on the scope of the project, it may be helpful to use what might be termed an analysis lite approach. The idea is to use many relevant analytical tools to dissect the problem, but to get the most out of them in the least amount of time. For example, quality function deployment (QFD) is a method for processing product information and generating outputs that drive product development. However, QFD can be an enormously time-consuming process and, if done poorly, may be of little value. But if a team focuses on only directly relevant QFD processes, the resulting data can be very helpful. By using selected QFD processes to record information and to strategically generate discussion, a team can develop a basic output on which to focus.
In a recent two-day session for a well-understood product, the team completed only the planning and requirements part of the QFD method. But on a more technically challenging project, it focused also on the tools for identifying design interactions and for structuring technical benchmarking. 

At a minimum, the preparatory-analysis phase should include the following tasks:

Figure 1. Creating a Pareto chart of requirement weights is one way to visualize the relative importance and contribution to the value model. Often the top four or five requirements will account for about 80% of the product value based on project emphasis (click to enlarge).

• Identify the customer. This may not be as straightforward as it seems. It requires a team to map out the entire supply and value chain, identify the key players and their stakes, and assess how money and information flow through this system. For example, financial management makes decisions on some hospital products, whereas clinician preferences may be more important for others. The model can be simplified for other definition activities.
• Generate a list of about a dozen fundamental customer requirements. (Put aside the 50-page design requirement documents. They are often overly constraining and lead people to think in terms of features and metrics rather than the customer's voice.) A team should rank or weight these fundamental requirements to focus on brainstorming topics and to use later for concept evaluation. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate different ways to rank requirements. This ranking activity should involve input and discussion from all disciplines.
• Develop a similarly weighted list of business filters that defines the constraints and opportunities related to objectives within the organization. These could include the bill of materials (BOM) costs, development risk, process development, reimbursement, inventory control, and intellectual property.
• Identify technical objectives. They can be general or specific. Examples include increasing quality, making the product a specific length, decreasing mass, reducing the BOM cost, eliminating failure modes, or reducing assembly time. The team should then rank the importance of the objectives.
• Conduct analyses specific to the problem. For example, on a cost reduction redesign, a team might run a design for assembly analysis that evaluates assembly-time improvement. For emphasis on reliability, it might conduct a failure mode and effects analysis on similar or earlier products.

These weighted lists and analyses form the basis of a value model that will help focus ideation activities.

Briefing. One of the final steps in the product definition process requires coordinators to brief the entire team. Those charged with conducting definition activities can then create a two-hour presentation that educates, answers questions, incorporates guest specialists, and shows samples. Two key points are important at this stage. First, the presentation should clearly focus on the design problem, not just impart a large amount of information. Second, it should be interactive. 

Team discussions may be the most valuable aspect of the briefing process. Afterward, participants should be able to easily express the design's most important requirements and objectives. To avoid overwhelming participants, the briefing should take place at least one day before the brainstorming session.

Figure 2. Developing a list of requirements is one way to focus and structure brainstorming. Here, a 1, 3, 9 weighting system was used for strong differentiation. Other scoring and calculations reflect specific emphasis for a particular project (click to enlarge).

Participants should be encouraged to start thinking of ideas before attending the brainstorming sessions. Independent ideation can often be more effective than group brainstorming.2


The concept development process is an effective approach to engaging multiple functional groups within your organization as a single team with a common goal. The initial investigation and product definition activities are critical to defining a value model that will guide the design process. Furthermore, these activities will help to motivate the team for subsequent stages by unifying them around a clear mission.

The second installment of this article will cover the subsequent stages in concept development, namely ideation, concept selection, and refinement. The success of these stages in generating and deploying concepts to a competitive product is ultimately based on the team's ability to leverage the knowledge and understanding they have developed in the initial stages.

Product Definition Activities

Customer Value-Chain Analysis—A marketing-based tool for identifying the customers and understanding the dynamics of the supply chain.
Value Engineering—An encompassing methodology for identifying, understanding, and delivering product value in the most efficient way by clarifying the hierarchy of requirements flow-down.

Quality Function Deployment—A broad-reaching method for logically linking customer requirements to technical metrics to product features to process development, etc. It incorporates benchmarking, marketing analysis, and design-interaction identification. This rigorous method may be more relevant for complex systems.

Design for Assembly—A methodology employing several analytical tools and design guidelines to reduce assembly cost, reduce assembly time, and increase quality.

Failure Mode and Effects Analysis—A tool for identifying potential failure scenarios and eliminating them through design changes.

Service Modes Analysis—A method for examining and evaluating issues of serviceability. It may prompt design considerations to reduce later-stage life-cycle costs. It is appropriate for more-complex reusable systems.


1. James F Burley, Richard Divine, and Greg Stevens, “Creativity + Business Discipline = Higher Profits Faster from New Product Development,” The Journal of Product Innovation Management 16, no. 5 (1999): 455–468.
2. Scott G Isaksen, A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquirys, Monograph #302 (Buffalo, NY: Creative Problem Solving Group, 1998): 11–12. 

Copyright ©2004 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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