Innovating, Part 2 – Asking the Right Questions

So, you have studied your market and identified what customers and other stakeholders in the market value.

  • What they love.
  • What they hate.
  • What they wish for.

You’ve compared yourself to competitors.  You know what works and what doesn’t.

  • The various product features that provide best in class value.
  • Where your product lags behind in value.
  • Where your product is ahead in value.
  • The opportunities for creating value that NO ONE provides at all.

You have a great set of insights that can guide you as you create ideas for a new breakthrough product.  Time to go to work!

Identify the Right Challenges

You first want to identify the top 10 to 15 challenges – the areas where ideas will make the most impact.

  • Where you lag the farthest behind competitors.
  • The product interactions customers value most highly.
  • The big gaps that no one in the market provides.
  • The industry holy grails that no one thinks possible.
  • The short list of “Aha – NOW I see what they want!” ideas you gathered while organizing your market data.

You do have to “fix things” or catch up to competitors where you are so clearly behind that it works to your detriment.  But, your biggest gains will come from addressing the areas of customer value that your competitors don’t even know about.  When your solution appears on the market, it can look like magic to them since they don’t understand the base value being fulfilled by your solution.

Craft Effective Brainstorming Questions

There is science (and maybe some art) to getting good ideation results.  Follow this question formula.

  • Design a [element of the product] that fulfills [one or more of the contributors to value you have discovered].
  • Example – Design a [user interface] that [provides the experienced user some detailed control].

Or this formula.

  • Design a [element of the product] that fulfills [one or more of the contributors to value you have discovered] without diminishing [some other contributor(s) to value].
  • Example – Design a [user interface] that [provides the experienced user some detailed control] but [is still easy enough for a raw beginner to understand].

To make an effective question, always ask the brainstormers to design some TANGIBLE element or feature of the product.  And, always direct them to some specific set of CUSTOMER VALUES to fulfill.

Address a Variety of Produce Elements, Values, and Degrees of Difficulty

First, at the end of your ideation session you will want to have amassed hundreds of ideas for a variety of product elements – to compile into ideal product concepts.  To give your team a good inventory of ideas to compile, select a group of challenge questions that cover a range of tangible product elements.

Second, it may go without saying, but you don’t want your ideation questions to focus on just a few challenges.  Try to cover the most important challenges – across a range of customer values or customer interactions.

Third, you will want a range of difficulty. You’ll need some fairly easy questions – defined as ones where you are sure participants can come up with LOTS of ideas – to get the sessions started on the right foot or to pick up a sleepy session.  And, you will also want some questions that stretch your participants to go past their limits.  Once they have been primed with the simpler questions – so they are used to pumping out ideas a mile a minute – you can tackle the hard challenges.

  • holy grail issues
  • contradictions that look mutually exclusive
  • complicated issues where multiple customer values and interactions intersect

Write Your Ideation Session Prep

When you present the question at your ideation or brainstorming session, you can’t count on your participants having a deep understanding of the customer values or challenges you discovered in your upfront research.  Even if you sent them a primer to read ahead of time, don’t count on them to have read it (or to remember it).

Instead, create a brief handout or presentation that refreshes their memory about the issues.  It always helps to verbally highlight the interaction values and issues before you start the brainstorming for each question – and let them ask questions.  A one-page simple handout is helpful for them to use during actual brainstorming so they don’t have to keep all of the issues in their heads.


Once you have 1) effective questions 2)) across a variety of elements, values, and difficulty, and 3) background prep, you are ready for ideation.

Subsequent posts in this series will describe more about other innovation steps.

For more detail, Innovation Rules and Tools is a practical handbook that describes a complete set of innovation steps that you can use to make innovation happen on demand in your company.  For each step, it describes a set of general rules or keys to success along with multiple tools you can apply from day one.  It is available in paperback and Kindle from

Announcing Knowledge Base!

Kbase Home Page

UPDATE: Knowledge Base is now FREE!  We have turned off the paywall – didn’t feel right to us – and you can now “pay with a tweet” to support Knowledge Base at no cost to you – or donate to support Knowledge Base financially. Oh, and we are up to 221 articles.  Enjoy!

Yesterday Founders launched a new product called Knowledge Base.

So, you know how the internet is stuffed with some really great information about doing a startup, but how it is tough to find.  You often have to fight your way through an avalanche of news stories, the latest editorial gossip and hype, and today’s trending meme just to find it, right?

Well, we decided that it should be easy to find great startup advice.  So we have curated over 200 articles so far – PLENTY more to come.  We categorized them, and we tagged them so they can be found easily (you can search for a word or phrase, too).

And then we decided that because startup people value their time, we would summarize each article.  We write the 1-3 “genius ideas” we found in each article and a “tl;dr” section with a brief paragraph or some bullet points summarizing the article.  Of course, we respect the original authors – we don’t cut and paste, we link out to the original article, and our titles include the author’s name.

So, right now, for example, Knowledge Base includes 69 articles about creating your Product, 60 about Marketing, 52 about Funding – among many others.  Doing an SaaS venture and curious about the metrics to watch?  There are 7 articles for just that.  Managing a launch?  5 articles.  Hiring key employees?  5 articles on hiring process.

I’d say it goes on and on, but it doesn’t – it stops at 203 articles – today.  By the time you read this, there will no doubt be plenty more.  We add new articles each week.

A Marketplace of Ideas

A while ago, at Fort Wayne City Council, Eric Kuhne of CivicArts presented Headwaters 2.0, a vision for our downtown riverfront that builds on Headwaters Park.

Eric Kuhne at Fort Wayne City Council  Headwaters Park 2

In addition to a great civic architectural concept – which would dovetail quite nicely with my friend Kelly Lynch’s vision for Headwaters Junction – Eric presented an almost larger-than-life vision for downtown Fort Wayne.

Even more interesting to me was to hear Eric talk, in the midst of all this, about a concept that sounded awfully familiar.  Eric said that he envisions downtown Fort Wayne as a “marketplace of ideas”.  In our age, as he put it, “A city is more than a marketplace of goods.  It can now be a marketplace of ideas.  It is the true measure of a great city.”  Toward that end, he design of Headwaters 2.0 would bring people together and foster “that magical thing that occurs in a city – accidental encounters.”

When he said that, I immediately thought of Nick Arnett, who had introduced me to the concept of placemaking some time ago.  He had explained placemaking in much the same way – purposefully designing the physical assets of a place (typically downtown Fort Wayne in our discussions) in a way that structurally encourages chance encounters among creative people – to foster innovation and city vibrancy.  Hearing Eric say the same thing made me love the Headwaters 2.0 plan even more.

I also thought of my own business, Founders, where we are building an entrepreneurial community with the same goal in mind.  We are purposefully bringing entrepreneurs, creatives, and independents together in our coworking space – and happily watching as they combine forces to bring new things to life.  By the way, Founders is located within a stone’s throw of the southwest border of the proposed Headwaters 2.0.  We could easily go hang out there on a cool summer evening.  We could recharge our batteries with a walk along the riverfront.  I could ride my bike on the trails and River Greenway through Headwaters 2.0 to about two blocks from Founders.  Sweet!

So, to those who are reading this, I say throw your support behind Headwaters 2.0 and help create that “Marketplace of Ideas” – and a very cool park – here in downtown Fort Wayne!