Build a Better Brainstorm by Flaring and Focusing

In order to manage dozens, if not hundreds, of ideas from a brainstorm, take time as a team to get intentional and systematic when prioritizing ideas. Don’t default to the easiest idea to implement or the shiny new bullet. 

There’s no foolproof method for innovation, but “flaring and focusing” can help you generate better ideas and get to prototyping faster. During the “flare” stage, the team comes up with as many ideas as possible, and then selects the most promising ideas in the “focus” stage. The next time you’re faced with a challenging problem, try flaring using Google’s approach to brainstorming, then use a decision-making filter to focus ideas and move them into the prototype stage.

Flare to Create Ideas

  1. Get to know the user. Before you even start coming up with ideas, think about whom you’re solving the problem for. You can’t understand your users’ needs until you actually relate to them, so go into the field to collect users’ stories, emotions, and ideas.  For example, in one brainstorm, Google found that “mobility” means “working offline” in India, while in Canada, it means “instant collaboration from anywhere.”
  2. Come up with ideas that are 10x. Now that you know your audience, have your team write down ideas based on “10x thinking”: improving something by 10, rather than 10%. To help guide their big ideas, have your team follow these guidelines:
    1. Build on each other’s ideas, saying “yes, and” instead of “no, but”.
    2. Generate lots of ideas and jot them down on sticky notes.
    3. To clarify your idea, write headlines consisting of six words or less.
    4. Illustrate your ideas—pictures are louder than words.
    5. Think of bold ideas, not incremental solutions.
    6. Don’t judge ideas in the middle of brainstorming; let them grow so you can iterate.

Focus to Select Ideas

  1. Perform a post-brainstorm Decision Session. This may be the hardest part, as the team will have to “kill their darlings” and select only a few options to move forward with. We refer to this as the “Groan Zone,” since it’s natural to feel uncomfortable as the team’s choices are removed. However, by using objective criteria or filters, you can feel more confident that you’re making the appropriate choices. Try one of the following techniques:
    1. Identify Superlatives. Have team members vote on the ideas that are 1) easiest to implement, 2) best meets a customer need, and 3) most breakthrough. Allow the team to discuss their choices, articulating the design principles the underlie each choice.
    2. Make 2×2’s. Create a grid in which one axis represents a customer requirement (e.g., delightful to unappealing) and another axis to represent a business requirement (easy to hard). As a team, take a few minutes to sort ideas into different quadrants and discuss the tradeoffs for each.
    3. Rate by Criteria. Create human, business, and technology criteria to measure ideas against. These criteria could come from stakeholder interviews or research. For example, customer requirements might be “meets key customer need of reducing prep time” or “personalizes recommendations without forced input” whereas business requirements might be “fulfills our mission” or “leverages our strategic partnerships.” Use a simple rating method such as Harvey Balls to analyze each idea.
  2. Move on to prototyping. Now that the team’s identified a few ideas worth exploring further, build a simple prototype and get it in front of the customer as soon as possible. It doesn’t need to be perfect—just a physical manifestation of an idea that can test assumptions.


Published October 31, 2016