Idea Generation for Product Managers

June 21, 2008

Are you creative? Most people, even highly experienced, successful product managers often respond 'No!'. Yet ideas are your future, your building blocks for new products, services, process improvements, and the presentations you make to sell those products, services, and processes.

Unfortunately the word, 'Creative', can conjure up images of painters, poets, and writers, not the typical product manager that is worried about ROI, pricing, launch plans, and sales objectives. In fact, the word 'Creative' is often associated with the kind of people that have no ability to face real business challenges. You may feel that you need to be creative to be successful product manager. I disagree.

Even if you are not creative you have the ability to be what I define as Ideative, the ability to proactively and regularly produce unique and valuable ideas. Creativity is a skill few people are born with but Ideative can be achieved by anyone willing to stretch themselves, explore, and have fun.

Ideative = (Knowledge x Experiences)vivid or I=(K+E)v

Your knowledge multiplied by your experiences to the power of the vividness of your knowledge and experiences produces ideas. Your job is to increase the size of each of the three variables in order to increase the outcome; Ideative.

Remember Lego? Try an experiment and see the variety of constructions you can build from just 25 Lego blocks. The options are incredible. Now imagine what you can do with a set of more than 5,000 blocks of varying colors, sizes, and shapes. What if you add other brands of building toys; Robotix or Erector for example? The connectors won't match, but that's okay; variety is better. Now stretch yourself beyond building toys to include completely unrelated items. Add Hot Wheels cars, a piece of fruit, a stapler, and a toy space suit. Now consider all the things you can do by combining these items. You can develop an endless variety of stuff if you are willing to collect and combine anything and everything.

Ideative people collect their life's learning, travels, education, parenting, business, and social experiences, and combine these 'building blocks' in unique configurations. They work intensely to reshape their blocks and add new blocks.

You have the foundation to be Ideative with just the building blocks that are already part of your life. To build on top of your Ideative foundation you need to live and learn more intensely. You have a business degree? Take art classes. Traveled to Europe? Try Southeast Asia. Beer drinker? Try wine; take a wine course and a wine tasting tour. Live innovatively. Routinely break routines. Just follow these three steps to assemble fascinating, unique ideas.

1. Saturate your brain; then add more
Knowledge of the subject you want to be Ideative at is like the basic set of 5,000 Lego blocks; you can build new stuff forever. Know everything possible, history, current, and future, successes and failures. Saturate your brain. Think, eat, and sleep on it until the subject follows you into your dreams at night.

For example, if you are looking for an idea for a new electronic game or toy, read consumer electronics print and online magazines cover to cover, read the back issues, and other magazines, blogs, and all other variety of print and online magazines covering everything from sports to fashion, skateboarding to natural history. Your goal is to assemble ideas from what you see and also to fit new ideas into the gaps in people's lives. Surf the internet, find foreign sites to see not only the gadgets they use but the way they live. You can even justify visits to other countries as Ideative saturation excursions. Play games with small children and steer their imaginations toward toys that don't exist and let them tell you how they use them. The key is to saturate your brain with your ideative subject.

2. Live life, learn, and grow beyond your Ideative subject
Universal experience and knowledge are the mental versions of all the completely unrelated items that you brought into play in the opening example; the raw material that triggers neurons and creates unique connections for new ideas. While walking through a Saigon fish market you smell an orange. The fragrance triggers memories of a fruit stand in California where you stopped during a bike race and that generates ideas you give to your software team in Baltimore. Learn and experience things that are different for you. By breaking routines routinely you'll learn to take blocks from one field or discipline and use them in other fields to develop ideas.

Have you ever actually read the beginning section of a dictionary, where it tells about the history of the language? Stop laughing, I am serious. Try it. You'll learn stuff you've never learned before. Become curious. Pay attention to the world around you. Drive down that street you've never been down or spend a weekend in city you wouldn't normally visit. Grow your curiosity. Learn, experience, live.

3. Craft ideas in your mind's Idea Workshop
Your brain can be thought of as an Idea Workshop where you build ideas the way children build with building blocks. Imagine for a moment that you're a child at play. You build a bridge, but it's a normal bridge and you want a unique structure, so you switch the pieces around and create a bridge that flies, and that's unique. The bridge will be more fun with the Hot Wheels so you add them and use the fruit to block the road so those cars need the bridge to fly away, and of course you need someone in a space suit to try to shoot down your bridge with their stapler laser gun.

You combined related and completely unrelated toys to make your imaginings more vivid. Do the same with idea assembly.

  • Gather your thoughts; whether you write them down or just review them in your mind before you begin.
  • Arrange your thoughts on a desk or in your mind, see what you get, put a few more together, pull some sections apart and reassemble them in a different way. Keep anything that looks like an idea.

Don't forget to let your mind wander. Some of your best ideas will appear to you during down time, a car ride, a shower, or while relaxing to music. Saturate your brain and the ideas will burst out. You'll find the process is like a star that has sucked in all the surrounding matter causing a massive explosion or Ideative Super Nova.

Then just pick the ideas you like best!

Let's do a real exercise.

Begin with the basics; Start with the Ideative blocks you already have. Here's an example.

You have a variety of experiences from work and fun. You like movies, cars, and baseball. You've remained fit by participating in a variety of sports. You used to dream of playing short stop, and rebuilding a classic Mustang; that was before you married and had children. Now you dream of a VP job overseeing the company's entire product line.

You have an MBA and continue taking seminars in a variety of subjects. You've worked in all areas of your company from sales, engineering, marketing, and finance to the help desk. You are a very typical professional product manager.

Saturate your brain
Spend a month visiting every person you can possibly get to that is even remotely connected to your product. Meet everyone that will talk to you, from the top executives to the lowest ranked and paid person on your product. Visit potential customers. Every where you go ask questions and listen to the answers; listen to everything, even the small talk. Between excursions read every book, magazine, and website you can find on your industry and anything that might interest your customers, or give you a key to their thoughts, ideas, goals, and fears.

Live life; learn and grow
The typical approach in a search like this is to look for opportunities to improve your products, to fix what is broken, or to find some unmet customer need. The Ideative approach is to start with that typical approach, then go way beyond. Think about what constitutes entertainment across cultures, age groups, and history and look for ways to combine the best of what you find. Perhaps there are ideas in combing ancient Egyptian children's games with the lyrics of a favorite song among skateboarders, and the problems of travelers getting through airport security to form a great new game.

Take courses on anthropology to understand people or electronics classes to understand technology. To gain those far-out inputs read a couple of books on American history or Renaissance painters. If you travel a lot for work sneak in some visits to historic sites and even explore some botanical gardens and flower shows. You have no interest in botanical gardens and flower shows? Wonderful. Do it anyway! You need to expose yourself to as much variety as possible. Best of all, bring your children with you on many of your Ideative explorations and you'll also see the world through the eyes of a child while having quality family time!

Craft your ideas
Begin by thinking through the building blocks you have already collected. Mind Maps, 2x2 charts, branch diagrams and pyramid charts are great if you know how to use them. Regular notes on paper or in your head are just fine if you are not familiar with those techniques.

You've decided that you would really like to make a game that kids can play in the car, on long family trips which are becoming more popular do to the hassle of flying, so start there. Take your related and unrelated experiences and piece them together. During one of your trips you had car trouble and spent three hours stuck in a mechanic's waiting room. To keep your kids occupied you pulled out the portable DVD player from your car and let them watch movies. Soon several other kids were seated along with yours while their grateful parents thanked you repeatedly. A product idea? Maybe. There are numerous video players out there from DVD players to iPods. Phones can play movies and by the time you're done looking, you think that in a couple of years your shirt buttons will play movies. Is there a product idea here? No, you decide.

You note some ideas for electronic toys while in the waiting area. You think about games based on real places; game rooms, amusement parks. Still, nothing practical. So you keep going (you may see opportunity in these constructions that I don't, great! Ideative results will be individual). You pull this idea apart and reassemble it a few different ways. Maybe entertaining kids is not the route. Maybe fun for the entire family while on the trip is something. You remember family car trips with your kids fighting and your spouse trying to keep the peace while you drove. Maybe there's something that everyone can do on these trips and that just might keep the kids from fighting; or at least reduce the number of fights. That has some possibility but you're not excited yet.

Perhaps you have a game where the driver can simply press a button, or one of two buttons, mounted to the steering wheel. Or maybe the driver has to answer verbally! You think you're on to something than you realize your idea is nothing more than the toys sold when you were a child. Remember the first rule of Ideative is that bad ideas are still good. Keep this idea and let's try constructing something better.

Your kids watch movies in the car. The driver can hear the movies when if the headset jack is out but watching while driving is out of the question. Maybe there is a way to let the driver in on the movie while remaining safe? Probably not. Or maybe. You listen to audio books while driving. You talk on your phone. Why can't there be audio games? This idea excites you.

You go online and look at toys. You start with board games, older ones that you played as a kid. These games are simple. Adults, the drivers, are familiar with these games and kids enjoy them. You compile a list of games that you could convert to audio games. The list, you realize, contains the best list of brand names, and if you can't make a deal with one of these brands, the list provides the source of ideas to create a brand new game. You take a trip to a toy store and select five or six games to play with your family over the next few days, the better enable more Ideative thinking.

You now have the basis for an exciting new product line. You've combined your knowledge of the games, your life experiences, and parenting, with movies, audio books, electronic games, family trips, and business knowledge to develop the idea. You have the building blocks to expand this business idea to a full business plan, and, you have the building blocks, the ideas in your brain, forever. You can build on this idea and create new ideas, remain Ideative for life, by adding more blocks and refreshing the ones you have.

10 ways to routinely break your routine
  1. Hold a conversation with a new person everyday.
  2. Avoid wasting time. You have far too little.
  3. Waste time. Relaxation frees the subconscious to connect the blocks of your knowledge and experiences.
  4. Use your lunch, not just for lunch with friends or to run errands. Go to museums, new restaurants, new parks, try new foods.
  5. Read books from the Dummies series on subjects you have no use for. Even better, read children’s books; they’re faster.
  6. Play with Legos and Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs.
  7. Create a piece of art and enter it into an art exhibit,
  8. Try writing a short story. Try writing a short story about the area you chose to be Ideative in.
  9. Expose yourself to a wide variety of music (I draw the line at disco however and no amount of creative inspiration will cause me to cross that line).
  10. Change your schedule: If you normally arrive at work at 8 a.m. try 9 a.m. and 7 a.m.

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