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