Innovation strategy: Prune the product tree

In his new book, Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play, author Luke Hohmann shares a very interesting group brainstorming exercise that can be quite helpful to teams that are trying to envision the future of their product or service offerings. It's called Prune the Product Tree, and here's how it works.

In his new book, Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play, author Luke Hohmann shares a very interesting group brainstorming exercise that can be quite helpful to teams that are trying to envision the future of their product or service offerings. It’s called Prune the Product Tree, and here’s how it works:

  1. Draw a tree on a large posterboard or flip chart. As you consider what kind of tree to draw, consider how your product is evolving over time.  Stable products can be characterized by broadly and consistently growing canopies.
  2. Gather a group of no more than 5 to 10 people for this exercise – internal team members or customers. Hohmann reports that this exercise works very well with small groups of customers, who may have a lot to say about your product’s features.
  3. Create leaves representing each of your product’s existing features or attributes and arrange them near the trunk of the tree, one feature per leaf. You can use Post-it notes to represent leaves, or you can use notepad pages that are shaped like leaves (which you should be able to find at many stationery stores).
  4. Provide a supply of blank leaves that participants can use to write down new product ideas.
  5. Remind participants at the shape of the tree represents growth over time. Existing features should therefore go near the trunk, as they are the oldest. The next closest leaves represent features to add in the near term. Leaves on the outer edges of the tree, at the edge of the canopy, are considered to be longer-term ideas. You can even make this more explicit by incorporating time frames, layers or other identifiers of product phases into the tree’s canopy.
  6. Invite your coworkers or customers to add new ideas to the tree, using the blank leaves. You may also want to invite participants to remove one or more existing leaves from the tree, representing features that they think should be eliminated from the current product.
  7. Encourage participants to discuss the placement of leaves, both for existing features and new ones. This debate will help the team to reach concensus on the desirability and timing of product features and attributes.
  8. You may want to display the tree in a common area of your office for a while after the brainstorming session, because it is very likely that team members will think of additional ideas days or weeks after the session.

There are several aspects of the Prune the Product Tree game that I think are notable. First, it helps teams to see their products from a very visual point of view, which could be a great catalyst for new ideas.  I also like the fact that this exercise can be a catalyst for discussion among the team members participating in it – about the ideas themselves, as well as their potential timing. Finally, it appears to be a simple exercise that requires a bare minimum of materials and set up time, and it’s easy for participants to understand. Why not try out Prune the Product Tree at your company?

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