Ideation Techniques for Product Managers

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” — Jack London

I love this quote. It embodies everything I believe in about the creative ideation process in product management. The pro-activeness of discovery, the structured process that leads to inspiration and the constant hard work that sets the ground for “wow” moments.

As anyone who has ever been involved in the birth of a product knows – you can’t just wait around for apples to fall on your head. If we’re honest with ourselves, even those moments of enlightenment in the shower arrive at the end of a long contemplation or a fruitful stream of consciousness. We are constantly thinking about our innovations. Sometimes we are struck by serendipity but more often, we have to carve those good ideas out of a rock.   

Ideation Vs. Brainstorming

There are a number of creative ideation techniques out there, all of them focusing on stimulating the “creativity glands” enough to bring out new and original ideas. While some ideation tools are more systematic than others, a surprising number of people still confuse ideation with brainstorming. Let’s start by clearing up this subject:  

Brainstorming is an event rather than a process. Participants gather to be physically in the same space, and shoot out ideas. As such, the range of ideas is very wide and ideas are hardly ever explored in-depth. The starting point is necessarily a general one, and the goal is to ignite as much free-flying creativity as possible, shooting far and wide. It is, as implied, a storm of ideas.

 

oldschool_brainstorming

 

Ideation is a structured process that can be done alone or in a group, over a period of time (rather than in one sitting). It is more focused than brainstorming, often guided by a known need or a pre-set requirement. Visual aids are important for the structured process, as they help to create a storymap or a mindmap which then enables in-depth development of the idea. In other words – seeing it through and crafting an actual form from the idea.   

Structured Creativity Yields Better Results

While both ideation methods have a place in the world of product development, we have discovered over time that a structured ideation process helps us achieve better results, and I’ll explain why:

We don’t create ideas from scratch

In a healthy agile product development process, next-step ideas don’t pop out of thin air – we compile them patiently after collecting user feedback, talking to users and analyzing usage patterns. Our starting point is usually much more advanced than what brainstorming allows. Creativity is required in implementation – UX, design, R&D.

Louder is not better

As a group activity, brainstorming comes with all the problems (and advantages) that arise from group dynamics. Like imprinting, for example. Under group conditions, we tend to sub-consciously adopt the first idea and stamp it as “the right idea”. It doesn’t matter if it really is the best idea of the crop – the fact that it was the first one convinces us on some instinctive level that it is the leading one. Since most managers and brainstorming teams are not aware of this pitfall, it becomes impossible to avoid it.

Processing takes time

Structured ideation can be spread over several days or even weeks. While this easy-goingness lacks the compressed and pressure conditions of brainstorming that squeeze out those rad ideas – it gives everything time to sink in. Processing ideas allows us to consider them from multiple angles, find the flaws (and maybe solve them), expand the really good ideas and maybe even enjoy one of those Eureka! shower moments. As ideation methods go, the ones that allow time for processing tend embed the criticism into the process, producing a more reliable result.   

story mapping man card sorting

Exploring Product Ideation on Your Own

A great advantage of structured ideation is that it allows a lot of space and freedom to explore ideas on your own terms, with your favorite tools and approach. Of course we do need to keep it structured, so here are some techniques I use to get the most out of my creativity:

BicHok – Backside In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. This concentration method is widely known and discussed, especially among writers. The idea is that when you are physically in position to ideate, your mind gets in position as well and soon the ideas start to flow. This usually works, but I also find that being in movement (driving, walking, surfing) is also a strong catalyst for idea-creation. The downside – it is harder to document my thinking process with my hands on the wheel or my eyes filled with salt water.

Methodical research – specifically, methodical research of industry trends. Inspiration is everywhere, especially in the newest innovations in your field. It is not only an important aspect of competitive analysis, but also helps to stay in touch of feature requests by users.  

Visual structure – the famous Post-It technique helps give your thoughts a shape and a path. It channels thinking into context, rather the amorphous everythingness that sometimes accompanies “out of the box” think-events.

For Craft, we were able to model the digital Post-It to simulate the old-school print experience, so that it really feels like you’re standing in front of a blackboard (but with all the comforts of digital ideation tools). We also connected the discovery tab to the definition and roadmap section, making it possible to push the good ideas to the next stage of product creation quite seamlessly, as the process ought to be.   

 

story mapping on craft.io
Click to enlarge

Getting the Most Out of Group-Thinking

Group ideation can seem similar to brainstorming, but will produce different results, especially given an extended product ideation process.

The other success factor in ideation workshop techniques is framing. As product manager, you have a say in who gets to participate in the ideation process. Leverage this prerogative to build a strong, effective think-team. You can handpick the more constructive, creative thinkers from your teams and work to create a group dynamic that encourages discussion and amplifies originality.

Another aspect of framing the ideation process is providing clear borders of thought. When you define the perimeters of the thought process, you get much more accurate results. Moreover, limitations on subjects and themes often inspires the most creative ideas – finding a way around limitation is the greatest creativity exercise.

How to decide which ideas should be further explored and which should be shelved? That is a huge subject that deserves a blog post of its own. It involves research, feedback, A/B testing and prioritization.

Summary

Structured ideation may sound less sexy than brainstorming, but offers a wide variety of idea generation techniques and a flexible, constructive method of channeling creativity. The structured ideation process is a living thing, that can change and adjust itself to restrictions, bringing together the team to really invoke the collective creative force that moves your product. Try Craft to make sure that it works!

 

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