Chapter 4 Coming Up with Great Product Ideas Product Management


  • Finding sources of inspiration
  • Discovering techniques to bring about creative new ideas

A major component in product management is coming up with innovative new products
and ideas for new features for existing products. Producing product ideas is the first step
in the conceive phase of the product life cycle (see Chapter 3 ). Unfortunately , no app lets you easily select a perfect product idea that precisely fits your requirements. So where do these ideas come from, and how can you come up with a compelling list that you can later prioritize to determine which to pursue? This chapter gives you some useful tips and techniques for doing just that.

Getting a Handle on the Creative

Entire books have been written on how to generate ideas. T o help narrow the creative
process, in this section we present some of the most common methods and places to find ideas. These techniques are by no means exhaustive, but they should be more than enough to help you develop a healthy list of ideas to choose from.


An important part of generating ideas is getting into a creative state of mind by engaging all parts of your brain. Because most of your brain is working at a subconscious level, you want to let your conscious brain kick off the problem and then leave your subconscious mind some time to mull it over .
When engaging in finding new ideas, plan for several rounds of one or more techniques with time in between to let your subconscious do its work. Then you should be well on your way to some really creative insights.

Exploring sources for new ideas

New ideas are the fuel that keep an organization from stagnating. Luckily , many sources
can help generate new ideas. Looking both inside and outside the organization can help
you discover a plethora of possibilities. Consider the following:

  • Existing customers: Observe your customers and see what types of problems they’re having. Talk with current customers to have them open up on the problems that they are experiencing. This information may uncover latent needs, which are needs that have not yet been identified. And they are a great source of ideas for a potential new product or procedure.
  • Existing products: Try to make something old new again. Look at an existing product and think about ways to improve it, innovate the current business model, and/or compete with the present processes, such as developing more effective distribution, using low-cost strategies, or launching a higher- or lower-end brand.
  • Demographic changes: Large-scale changes in society or groups may create new ,untapped opportunities. For example, aging populations in many countries create opportunities for products that address the needs of older people and their desire to age in place (continue to live comfortably and independently in their own homes and communities).
  • Unexpected occurrences: Any time something new , out of the ordinary , or surprising happens, you may be able to capitalize. For example, Avon found that male customers were buying Skin So Soft body oil to use as insect repellent. As a result, Avon now has a line of Skin So Soft insect repellant in packaging that makes it easier to apply quickly and completely .
  • Technology shifts: As new technologies emerge, they make existing solutions obsolete. The introduction of the smartphone integrated several electronic devices. The digital camera, portable MP3 player , and personal digital assistant markets either disappeared or shrank considerably.
  • Process or other inefficiencies: Look for difficult, time-consuming things you can do in a significantly more effective way . If you’ve ever seen a container being pulled off a transport ship and placed directly onto a truck, you can appreciate just how efficient modern shipping has become. The days of taking out individual pallets of product from each container are long gone, and the prices of many products decreased as shipping costs dropped.
  • Large-scale trends: Find an existing larger wave of activity and change that you can tap into and benefit from. One huge trend has been the Internet and all the services that can now be accomplished at much lower cost.


Companies can choose to leverage a trend or two as a new way of doing business emerges. Uber leveraged three trends: smart phones, geo location, and a sharing economy to create a new type of taxi business. Small companies and startups leverage technologies like the cloud-based services such as Amazon web services (AWS) to dramatically decrease their costs as they explore business opportunities. Before AWS, cheap open-source software and storage like GitHub, a small software development company , would have to spend a lot of time and effort on creating and managing their own information. Now that AWS and other resources are available it eliminates the costly and time-consuming overhead of creating it themselves, so companies can move more quickly to create products.
And large companies aren’t standing still. They , too, are taking advantage of the same services to dramatically decrease IT costs and produce innovative new products rapidly .

Letting your team play

Many times product managers, entrepreneurs, and other businesspeople are tempted to
come up with great ideas completely on their own. Most people want to think that they’re the next Steve Jobs and that their unique, brilliant insights make them the only person who could possibly predict the next one-in-a-million idea.

The reality is that you aren’t Steve Jobs. And even Steve Jobs was known to surround
himself with incredibly brilliant people and occasionally “borrow” an idea or two. The most effective strategy for coming up with killer product ideas or new features is to include your team. Team members have unique insights and often come up with ideas that you never would’ve dreamed of on your own. When you explore new ideas, your role as product manager is to facilitate the process of product discovery and then carefully evaluate and prioritize what has been discovered.

Consider your team for the product discovery and evaluation exercise to include your
engineers, salespeople, executives, customer and technical support folks, and anyone else who spends time working on the product or interacting with customers. On occasion, you may want to consider bringing in customers, but since they are company outsiders, their understanding of internal constraints is limited.

Why get so many people involved? Each of these roles provides a unique perspective on
the customer’s problem. While your potential team may be large, specific team members have particularly important and ongoing roles to play . Customer and technical support will have heard about what doesn’t work well directly from the customer . If they’ve heard about it many times, it’s a good indication that the problem is worth solving.

Engineers are wonderful because they understand the technical structure of the product, and they can bring a sense of how to best approach solving the customer’s problem. When you have the team members talking together , good ideas take flight. Each area adds another perspective. Y ou can watch a complete solution appear as you dissect the problem and develop a potential solution. The other roles typically don’t participate on an on-going basis. They come in to validate and expand on what the core team has developed. Sales often doesn’t like to spend time hashing ideas out in detail, so get their feedback separately . And executive participation can be a double-edged sword. They may have a non-validated opinion that others are afraid to contradict. Get their opinion offline.

See Chapter 2 for a complete view of roles when you choose the team you want to work
with. Chapters 17 and 18 give you more ideas on how to bring the group together and
focus them on the same goal.
Having team members feel included in the process helps you get buy-in when you do
decide to move forward with prioritizing and evaluating the top ideas.

Warning One of the biggest mistakes product managers can make is to brainstorm and plan completely on their own without involving other functions. This is particularly true of excluding their engineering teams in the process. Delivering a plan to your engineers
about what product to build and what the customer needs are without their
understanding the process you went through and providing input along the way is a
recipe for resentment and poor team dynamics. Don’t be afraid of their input and
ideas; embrace them. That way , when you do finish planning and they start to build
the product, they’re on board and working together with you as a team.

Generating Creative Ideas: Techniques
and Tips

Generating creative ideas is a numbers game. Research shows that the more ideas you
create, the better your chances of coming up with one that makes it to market successfully .
This section offers some great ways to successfully unleash the creativity of your team.
And you’ll almost always have loads of fun in the process.

After you’ve generated a list of potential ideas by using the techniques in this
section, the next step is to prioritize them to determine which ones are a good
strategic fit for your company to pursue and are viable candidates to do more in-depth


Brainstorming sessions can be a fun and productive way to generate ideas. Brainstorming is a way for groups to generate ideas quickly by gathering a team of people together and letting them all work on the same idea at the same time. The keys to success are careful planning ahead of time and managing the initial and final parts of the exercise appropriately so that you achieve your brainstorming goals. Read on to find out just how .

Planning for a brainstorming session

Walking into a brainstorming session with no plan is a recipe for failure. Answer these key questions before setting up the session:

  • Who will participate in the meeting?
  • What is your end goal? Do you want to simply generate a list of ideas, or do you want to group and/or prioritize them with the team’s help?
  • Will you ask for people to submit ideas prior to the meeting via email, a web form, or some other method? This approach is a great way to include a much larger group of people in the process while keeping the brainstorming session manageable.
  • Where will you hold the meeting?
  • What supplies do you need in order to brainstorm (white boards, sticky notes,markers, flip chart, laptop, projector , and so on)?
  • How long will the session be? Will it be broken into more than one meeting?
  • Will you forbid participants from using their cellphones or laptops so that they devote 100 percent of their attention to the activity at hand?
  • Who will capture the ideas, keep meeting notes, and distribute them to the team?

One excellent practice is to send out a description of what you’re trying to do and ground
rules for the session. Setting expectations is a key skill of a product manager , and this
approach is a great way to practice this skill.


The most important rule to remember is that during the brainstorming and idea generating activities, the group should capture but not eliminate ideas. No idea is too silly , stupid, outrageous, impossible, or daunting. The goal is to get people rapidly generating both ideas that are known and obvious and ideas that are completely out of the box. Research has shown that by lightly challenging ideas and then expanding and adding to them during a brainstorming session, the resulting pool of ideas at the time is
better . In the exercise in the section “Part 1: Using sticky notes to get the ideas on the table ,” look for opportunities to gently challenge and expand particular ideas especially during the grouping part.
That said, don’t allow anyone to scoff at other people’s ideas. When you run a brainstorming session, you need to make sure that everyone agrees to these ground rules before you get started.

Wonder how you’re going to gently expand on someone’s idea without stepping on
it? One great communication skill to adopt for brainstorming and, in fact for most
situations, is to start using the phrase “Yes, and….” When people comment on
someone else’s idea, the common phrase they use is “Yes, but….” This has the effect
of negating what the other person said. Using “Yes, and…” is a supportive statement
and indicates that you are adding to the idea. Plan to use this phrase in the next hour
and you’ll see how powerful it is.

Part 1: Using sticky notes to get ideas on the table

Though very simple in concept, this technique can deliver some of the best results. Each
member receives a pad of large (3-x-5-inch) sticky notes and a large marker . Each person quickly writes as many product or feature ideas as possible in a set period of time — usually five to seven minutes — using just a few words. The idea here is for ideas to flow freely . You’re looking for quantity over quality at this point. Have someone time the exercise and let the team members know when two minutes are left, thirty seconds are left, and then finally when to put down their markers.

One at a time, the team members then place their ideas on the wall and explain each idea. You may find that the other team members have questions about an idea as it’s put on the wall. Whoever is posting the idea should clarify what it’s about at the time. If more ideas come up, document them immediately . This synthesis of many people’s point of view is one huge benefit of brainstorming.

One way to get more — and more synthesized — ideas is to run a second round of
brainstorming. In round two, all team members have put up their ideas and explained
them. You then repeat the entire exercise but with a three-minute time limit for
writing new ideas. Have everyone then post and explain any additional ideas. At this
point, you should have a comprehensive list of possible product and/or feature ideas
that you can use for grouping and prioritization purposes.

Part 2: Grouping ideas

Grouping ideas is a very useful technique to use at this point. Have the team do this job
together . Ask members to move the sticky notes around and arrange them in logical groups such “next steps.” If you use the lens of the topic you are brainstorming, logical groups arise very naturally . This strategy helps identify and eliminate duplicate ideas and spot themes for possible products and features.


One approach in generating ideas is to reduce the amount of time people have to work on the idea. Doing so focuses everyone on the task at hand. One possibility is using the 3-12-3 brainstorm from the website. In this version, you use time to keep ideas coming in a very focused way .

  1. Define the topic or problem and distill it to two words, such as “more fun.”
  2. Distribute index cards and markers to each person.
  3. Give each person three minutes to generate a pool of characteristics of the

    Focus on nouns and verbs. Don’t filter ideas.
  4. Break the group up into teams of two or three for 12 minutes with the
    instruction to draw three cards from the pile and develop a concept using
    descriptions, sketches, and prototypes.
  5. Have the small groups present these ideas to the rest of the group for the last
    three minutes.

What other ways can you think of to use time and space to get people to collaborate quickly and with low conflict? Y ou may be amazed at how much laughter comes as a side effect of these simple exercises.

Consulting customer councils

Creating a customer council is a very useful technique for getting product feedback.
Forming a group of 10 to 15 representative customers for your products and having them meet once a quarter helps generate new and innovative ideas. Because they use the product day in and day out, customers often have great ideas that you and your team
wouldn’t have thought of . You can do the sticky note exercise (see the earlier section “Part 1: Using sticky notes to get ideas on the table ”) with your customer council to add to the list of ideas your team created.

Remember You want to invite people who actually use the product on a day-to-day basis; they can provide detailed feedback. Other types of customer councils involve managers and executives, but these audiences are better suited to reviews of strategic direction.

Tapping the power of mind mapping

Another common and powerful technique is mind mapping. Mind mapping uses a visual
framework for generating related ideas; for many people, it fits in well with how they think and learn. Physically , each member of the team is next to each other member . This arrangement decreases conflict because the problem is literally on the wall to be worked on together .

Mind mapping works by starting with one central concept and then branching out. Y ou can create mind maps by using special software, or you can simply use a white board or flip chart with one person (or everyone in the team) capturing the ideas as the team works together to come up with them.
To create a mind map, use the following process (see Figure 4-1 ):

  1. Draw a rectangle in the center of the white board or flip chart.
  2. In the center , state the problem you’re trying to solve and draw several
    branches extending from the center .

    For example, in Figure 4-1 , the problem is energy waste caused by leaving the
    lights on.
  3. For each branch, write a possible solution to solve the problem.
    If you run out of branches before you run out of ideas, add more branches.
  4. Draw smaller branches for each main branch and write possible
    variations or more detailed implementations for each solution.

    Continue until you’ve come up with a wide variety of possible solutions. Include
    as much or as little detail as seems appropriate. In Figure 4-1 , the idea of
    rewarding kids for turning off lights triggered thoughts of more specific
    actions, so the team added those ideas. Team members may expand on the
    notion of using energy efficient bulbs at a different time or implement it as an
    entire project by using a different tool.
FIGURE 4-1: A sample mind map.

Trying a more structured approach: The four actions

Another approach for coming up with ideas is to take an existing product (yours or one
currently in the marketplace) and apply the four actions framework from Blue Ocean
Strategy .

To apply the four actions framework, draw a four-quadrant matrix with an oval or
rectangle in the center . Write the product name in the oval. In each quadrant, write ideas for removing, reducing, improving, or creating new features or aspects of the product as shown in Figure 4-2 . This approach can lead to product ideas that provide differentiated products and that may meet customer needs better . For example, the framework in Figure 4-2 shows the creation of the flip camcorder , an innovative handheld video recorder before smartphones had video cameras. It was created to compete with more complex and expensive products and make it simple to create and post videos. Instead of focusing on adding features, the flip took away features, made things much simpler for the user , and allowed for a lower price point.

FIGURE 4-2: An example of the four actions framework

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