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Brainstorming needs a problem

Brainstorming is a popular way to generate new ideas and most R&D practitioners have participated in dozens of such sessions. It's a great way to quickly surface lots of ideas. Unfortunately, it all-too-often fails to produce GOOD ideas.

Over the past 25 years, I have facilitated more than a hundred brainstorming sessions with incredibly intelligent and creative scientists, engineers, and commercial experts. These groups tackled all kinds of important missions: creating technology roadmaps, extending technology and intellectual property, improving manufacturing processes, creating new products, etc. While I have learned a lot from this experience about how to facilitate a successful ideation session, there is one critical lesson that rises above the rest:

Starting with a problem works much, much better than starting with a solution.

My earliest brainstorming sessions were classic, blue-sky, solution-oriented efforts. We would dream-up all sorts of new product ideas, business models, joint-ventures, and more, tossing around concepts like, "moving up the value chain," "vertical integration," "white space," and similar business nostrums. Armed with dozens of imaginative new ideas and fresh feelings of accomplishment, teams would then be blind-sided when their output was utterly demolished by experienced commercial leaders who would say, in essence, "Are you for real? Do you think any customers care about this stuff?"

Not wanting to repeat these early "demolition sessions," we reflected on our struggles and worked to evolve the approach. What we found was that success was primarily driven by the quality of the initial problem statement and, as Dan Olsen said in the Lean Product Playbook, we had been spending too much time in the "solution space" and didn't think hard enough about the problem.

To be successful, the initial problem statement needed to be carefully defined, such that it was:


Specific. Problems need to be very specific. Not "Improve the profitability of business unit X," but rather, "Improve the (specific performance attribute) of product A by 22%."


Important. Problems need to be compelling and demonstrably important – not just internally to the business, but externally to customers, where much of our uncertainty typically lies.


Clear. All participants need to clearly understand the goal, so that all are on the same page during each and every session.

The trick is that getting to a perfect problem statement is not always easy. We would eventually begin each session with an explicit articulation of the problem we were trying to solve. In the spirit of Einstein's famous quote ("If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spent 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution"), we spent a lot of time and effort understanding, articulating, and debating – often heatedly – the actual, core problem. The tighter we designed the problem statement, the better the ideas we produced. Instead of the team mantra being "what cool thing could we do to transform the business?" it became, "What's the real problem we are trying to solve?"

These problem-oriented brainstorming efforts, later known as "Delta Teams", became high-powered, multi-session projects that were eagerly anticipated by their elite participants. They generated dozens of extremely valuable and actionable ideas, many of which produced hundreds of $ millions in added profit. Of course, we continued to use and refine every brainstorming facilitation technique possible, and the success of Delta Teams relied as much on the pure talent of their participants as our facilitation. Still, this new starting point – problems rather than solutions – was critical.

This is not to say that brainstorming should be used to dream-up problems to solve. Trying to use brainstorming at the front-end of your process rarely works because the problems you are trying to solve are not well-known or built upon real market insight. Current wisdom from movements such as User-Centered Design remind us that it is foolish to speculate about what customers care about. Rather, go ask them, or better yet observe them. However, once a real customer problem is surfaced, using brainstorming to dig into those problems, test their limits and underlying causes, and ultimately identify potential solutions can be incredibly effective.

Of course, brainstorming is an essential tool for innovation. But, if you're looking to generate really valuable new opportunities, put problems, e.g. "jobs-to-be-done," "pain-points," "hitches," "shortcomings," "complaints" – right up-front.

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