Small businesses need to keep their offerings fresh and relevant to their customers as the marketplace evolves, which sometimes means bolstering product development efforts. But just telling staff to brainstorm ideas at the next meeting likely won't be enough to generate the innovation that you're seeking.
Here are three exercises to stimulate creative product development and help you avoid common brainstorming blunders.
1. Avoid Groupthink by Putting Pen to Paper First
Brainstorms should facilitate fresh ideas, but everyone has been to a brainstorm where one or two ideas dominate the session. According to Fast Company, this is due to a process called "anchoring." When one person speaks up first, listeners tend to latch on to that idea and may struggle to come up with original contributions.
Having staff write down their ideas ahead of time can help them resist the power of anchoring. What's more, junior staff members who may be too nervous to speak up will have a ready-made invitation to contribute. You can either ask team members to come to the brainstorm with a few written product ideas, or devote the first 15 minutes of the session to a free write. Make sure to give them some constraints to guide their ideation.
2. Don't Think (Totally) Outside the Box
If you're considering adding a new offering to your product line, you probably already have some idea of what you — and your consumer base — want. Instead of encouraging zany, out-of-the-box thinking, the Harvard Business Review suggests giving your team a set of parameters to frame the brainstorm — a new box, specific to your business needs.
This type of thinking is often far more useful. HBR notes: "[Employees] live with constraints all the time and automatically explore alternatives, combinations, and permutations within their confined space." The trick is to ask the right questions to "create boxes that are useful, but different, from the boxes your people currently think in." Once you've set the right constraints on your brainstorm, you're more likely to arrive at the product ideas that will really resonate with your target audience.
3. Use SWOT to Analyze an Idea's Viability
After you've generated a solid product idea, consider whether it will succeed under current market conditions. A good way to get this process started is to incorporate a SWOT analysis — i.e., "strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats" — at the end of your brainstorming session.
Wheel a whiteboard into the room and divide it into four quadrants for each part of the analysis. Then, have your team spitball items for each category. What does the product idea have going for it? What needs improvement? Does it capitalize on an opportunity or consumer need that is currently unanswered, or could it be threatened by a competitor's product? If your idea doesn't pass the SWOT analysis, refine it or repeat the same process with another idea.
What You'll Need
Have employees bring their laptops or notebooks for the writing portion of the meeting and have a whiteboard ready for the SWOT analysis. Your product development process will take some time, so make sure you have a clear way to collaborate on the project after the meeting has concluded. File-sharing software can help your team walk through the product development process with a minimum of confusion.
Most importantly, you'll need to make time in your employees' schedules to participate. This could mean pushing out a deadline or moving tasks around, because overworked employees won't give you their time or their best ideas.
Brainstorming takes time, but these meetings are often necessary to help spark great ideas. Make it a priority, and you'll be better equipped to compete in your industry over the long term.