Leveraging Disruptive Thinking to Drive Innovation

Life as a Product Manager

It’s time to think about the unthinkable. To differentiate yourself and your business or product, you must build innovative and disruptive thinking techniques into your daily life as a product manager! There are two ways to get there – divergent thinking and convergent thinking. While some managers believe these are competing practices, they are just different approaches to arrive at new ideas. Neither one is better or worse and both may offer a solution when the other is just not working.

Divergent versus Convergent Thinking

How we arrive at our next best idea is really not so important in the scheme of things, but it is helpful to understand that we naturally approach innovation and disruptive thinking from two different spectrums. Divergent thinking lets us build complex ideas from one concept, often based upon an unexpected combination or remote association.

Take the practices of elaboration or using your imagination, where you build upon a known idea or data set. On the other hand, with convergent thinking, you take a variety of inputs and apply a specific strategy in order to arrive at the one best answer. Logic and pattern matching are good examples of convergent thinking.

Whether you are a longtime product manager or an intra-preneur inside a larger company or even an entrepreneur starting your own gig, find out how to incorporate these types of thinking in order to uncover exciting new opportunities and solutions to your customers’ pains. In this article, we’ll explore both divergent and convergent practices in a group or team setting. Read on to learn about the practices of brainwriting, worst idea, picture prompt, and the heuristic ideation technique or HIT.

What You Need to Get Started 

If you are serious about thinking differently in order to uncover new solutions to the problems you are facing, whether they are process issues, engineering challenges, or competitive pressures, then practice one or more of the approaches described in this article. Designers, developers, and product managers at any level, as well as students, can learn and apply new approaches to idea development. Sometimes, just the discussion of approaching a problem from a new angle opens a gateway to new solutions.

While several of these practices can be performed solo, we are going to discuss them as group activities. So, to get started, you should gather together in a small group and set aside some uninterrupted time to work together. While the team or teams do not have to be in the same location for these activities to work, having a dedicated space and being co-located has advantages, especially with regard to building excitement and readily sharing feedback.

Before starting an innovation or disruptive thinking session:

  • Designate a leader and a note-taker.
  • Ensure that the necessary materials are available.
  • Review the techniques that the teams will employ and make sure all the participants understand the approach.
  • Finally, outline the problem or problems teams should tackle in their innovation session.


Leaders and participants should be prepared to take part in hands-on, group activities, where each team can practice specific ideation techniques. Each group should have an easel and markers, sticky notes, pens and paper available along with other specialized items depending upon the methods employed. Each group should also designate a note-taker to help coordinate the team’s activities and capture key ideas.

Getting Set Up

Teams should have access to a conference or training room or other location away from their normal work zone. If teams are working together virtually, they should find space where they can talk freely via conference calls or web-based meetings that also allow them to share documents, pictures, charts, and other content they may create or use. Teams should set aside a designated amount of time, for example, one to two hours to review the techniques and then to go through one or more ideation sessions.

 Ideation Approaches

To kick-off the ideation session, the designated leader should describe the specific disruptive thinking approach that the team will employ during their time together and then review the materials available for the team’s use. The leader should also step through a brief example of how the approach will work. So, let’s review several disruptive thinking techniques and how you can implement them with your teams.


You can use this classic ideation technique to turn brainstorming inside-out. Not everyone is comfortable yelling out their ideas or contributions. In fact, some people are so worried about appearing “wrong” or embarrassing themselves, they opt out of traditional brainstorming sessions. Some have found with brainstorming that just a few extraverts take the lead and squelch the voices of quieter participants.

In brainwriting, everyone participates – silently. With this technique, the leader highlights the problem that the team will focus on for the exercise. Each team member is given a pad of sticky notes and a pen. For the first round, the note-taker sets a timer to 2 minutes and asks the team to write 3 ideas related to the problem (one idea per sticky note) and to place each sticky note on a sheet of paper.

When the round ends, the note-taker asks everyone to pass their ideas to the right. Participants can then use the ideas already on the sheet as triggers or ignore them as they write 3 more ideas. These rounds continue until a fixed number of rounds (such as when sheets come to a full turn around the table). The note-taker collects all the sheets, and as a team, they consolidate, classify and prioritize the ideas on a whiteboard.

Picture Prompt

Some say that a picture is worth one-thousand words. Others say pictures can evoke feelings and emotions when the discussion has gone flat and ideas are running low. For this technique, teams need a set of illustrations, photographs, or other visual renderings. These graphic images can be completely random and can be curated by one or more people from the team. This technique uses images as a way of triggering intuitions, emotions, and feelings. This practice helps individuals find solutions to creative challenges or problems that may have a more emotional or psychological angle. The leader shares a set of graphics with each person at the table and asks them to write down ideas that are inspired by what they see. Next, participants pair up and discuss the ideas.

Finally, the teams of two present their ideas back to the group. The images can be random or they can generally support the kind of problem that is being addressed (for example, staff or culture challenges may have images of people interacting; manufacturing issues might have more industrial images; new product challenges might include pictures that suggest a product category, et cetera). Non-specific graphics may also stimulate creative solutions.

Worst Idea Technique

Most teams find this ideation approach highly entertaining. Using this technique can spark people that are running low on inspiration and creativity. The leader asks the team to create a list of really outrageous, ridiculous, callous or even illegal ideas and then the note-taker writes them on the whiteboard. Once all the ideas are captured, the leader encourages the team to turn those horrible ideas into great solutions by either considering its opposite or by finding some aspect of it that can be used to inspire a good idea.

Heuristic Ideation Technique (HIT)

Heuristic Ideation or HIT is another very efficient strategy for larger teams that can help to generate innovative ideas. Using this method, a team can compare two items or concepts that are not apparently related, in order to stimulate idea generation.

To use this approach, the team should select two items of interest. Then, they make a list of components or features for each selected item. The note-taker transcribes this data into a table where the rows list the components for one item and the columns list the components of the other. In this table, each cell corresponds to a combination of two features from each of the products.


Item 2

Item 2 feature

Item 2 feature Item 2 feature Item 2 feature …
Item 1

Item 1 feature

Item 1 feature

Item 1 feature

Item 1 feature …

Next, the team can cross out any matrix cells that correspond to existing products; then they identify any cells with natural market potential. Finally, they can look for any cells that look thought-provoking that can be further developed into workable ideas.

With the help of the leader or note-taker, all ideas are read, discussed, filtered, classified, consolidated, and prioritized.

Using a larger version of the table below, one team used HIT to arrive at new product ideas for their cafe. After they built a version of the table below, they spent some time discussing the intersections, and they ultimately decided to create two new market offerings: a mini version of their classic lemon scone and a bacon-flavored scone. They introduced their new products in a test market and eventually the items were added to their regular menu across all stores.

  Bacon Jerky Plastic wrapped 4 pieces
Scone Scone, Bacon Jerky Scone, Plastic wrapped Scone, 4 pieces
Lemon icing Lemon icing, Bacon Jerky Lemon icing, Plastic wrapped Lemon icing, 4 pieces
Triangle Triangle, Bacon Jerky Triangle, Plastic wrapped Triangle, 4 pieces
Palm-sized Palm-sized, Bacon Jerky Palm-sized, Plastic wrapped Palm-sized, 4 pieces


Product managers are constantly challenged to deliver better products and new solutions to solve their customers’ problems – and now you have an arsenal of new tools to help you and your teams innovate. New products, new ideas, new approaches to old problems – can all benefit from some disruptive thinking!

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