Thoughts

Having a Problem Coming Up with the Right Idea? We’ve Got a Solution For You

by Steve Cleff

There will come a time when you need to come up with an idea. You might be invited to a brainstorming session. You might lock your keys in your car and need to get in without breaking your window. You might want to start a business based on a new product. You might have to restructure how meetings are held because suddenly all your colleagues work from home.

At Promptworks we’re constantly in situations where we need to come up with ideas and to make the process easier, we’ve designed an idea generating framework. It comes from our years of experience and is a miniaturized version of our software design process. One notable difference is that we typically base our Product Design solutions in data from actual users, but this process works even if you don’t have that resource. If you use it, you’ll find it much easier the next time you’re staring down a blank whiteboard or screen and have to ideate. The broad structure is presented here, with the intention of making your life a little easier next time you have to come up with a great idea in a hurry.

With our staff working remotely now, we use an online whiteboard program called Miro. We have three sections laid out on a Miro canvas, one for each of the following three steps. This process doesn’t depend on any one tool and works great with real life stickies and whiteboards. How you use it is up to you.

Step 1: Define the problem

Most people start with solutions, Promptworks starts with defining the problem. We found that until you identify the cause of the problem, you’re just going to create different versions of the problem. So clarifying what you’re trying to do and what success looks like will lead to something new and help focus the entire brainstorm. Another reason we start here is to establish a shared understanding of the problem. If your team isn’t aligned on the problem then you won’t be moving towards the same goal. It’s common to assume that everyone sees the problem the same way, but you’d be surprised what you learn when you compare interpretations of what needs to be fixed. These small misunderstandings can have a big impact on what types of solutions you create and whether they’re effective or not.

We begin with four prompts to help the team to write out a problem that everyone agrees will sum up what you’re trying to solve. Each prompt is either a question or a sentence with some missing words to be filled in. The way the system works is that you use only what is helpful. So these prompts are alternatives, you don’t have to use all four. If you use the first prompt and have a well defined problem, you move on to Step 2. If that prompt isn’t working well, don’t spend too much time on it, try the next prompt and repeat that process as needed until you’ve got a sentence that best describes your situation.

Here are our prompts, you may find you come up with others that work for you: 1. I wish ____. 2. If we had ___ we could ___. 3. What are the current barriers to what we’re trying to do? 4. What are the consequences if we don’t solve the problem?

There aren’t any rules for what goes in the blanks in the first two prompts, we’ve found that leaving them open to interpretation is more helpful than being too restrictive.

Step 2: Ideate possibilities

Now that you’ve laid out the problem you can start ideating possible solutions - but contrary to some brainstorming habits, we don’t recommend just jumping in without guidelines. Some participants will feel overwhelmed and you may need some questions or prompts to get you started. We’ve found that more structure actually generates more ideas than no structure at all.

We have seven prompts we use in this step, three of our favorites are: 1. Re-applying unrelated solutions. If you’ve seen Marvel’s Infinity War, think about how Spider-man comes up with a solution to a seemingly unstoppable enemy by applying something he saw in the movie Alien. What solutions from other situations could be the exact solution you need for your situation? 2. Adding one thing. What could be the missing piece that solves your problem? What if your product could be customized? What if it could be cloud-based? What if you could add a game to video meetings that rewards speed or collaboration? What if you could add AI to automate some simple, but time-consuming tasks? What if you could add the ability to unlock your car to your driver’s license? 3. Absurd solutions. If you’re stuck creatively, push things too far. Think of extremes where you have too much or too little of something. Assume no budget, or an absurd budget. These may not be your final ideas, but they often lead to them.

As with Step 1, you don’t need to use all the prompts, just enough so that you have a good amount of ideas. Write down every idea that comes up and encourage conversation as you go. Save judging or evaluation for Step 3. Your goal here is quantity. Don’t forget to set a timer for your brainstorming period to give participants a deadline.

Step 3: Refine the solutions

Once you’ve collected all the ideas, it’s time to refine your ideas into actionable next steps. There are many tools you can use to do this and we often use a common impact/feasibility matrix. We take the stickies from Step 2 and move them into this matrix, putting them along two axes. As the name implies, one axis is a range of impact and the other axis is a range of how feasible or how much effort the solution would be. The feasibility range can be something along the lines from “we already have that” to “we’d need to hire someone full time to support it.” Following this matrix you should be able to quickly see what solutions would be most helpful.

Finish up by determining what needs to happen next to either doing a more thorough analysis of the solutions or getting started on the work. If you’re ideating for a product, this is the beginning of your Product Backlog.

You’ve gone from a troublesome problem to actionable next solutions in three easy steps. It may take a few tries to implement with your team but you’ll find what works best for you after you’ve done it. We’ve also learned that brainstorming with multiple voices and getting input from different departments definitely helps expand the types of ideas that you can put into place. We wholeheartedly recommend including a diversity of voices every time you brainstorm.

Do you have a product idea you’d like to brainstorm? Let us know!

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