Start with a clean slate
I don't know this for sure, but I would be willing to bet that most groups that want to brainstorm breakthrough new ideas begin with an existing reality. Take for example the humble ball point pen. It could certainly be described as a product approaching commodity status (if not already there). If you worked in R&D or marketing at a ball point pen manufacturer you would at some point be charged with figuring out "what's next" in terms of new product offerings. In this capacity, you might bring together a group of your most creative and visionary coworkers in an effort to brainstorm the future. So far so good, right?
What happens next is what could either allow you to generate that breakthrough idea, or keep you trapped in the world of incremental improvement. The following two scenarios will depict what I am describing.
You kick off the meeting explaining the urgency of developing a line of new products. Then you hold up your existing product and you ask the group, "How can we make this better?". As the group considers your question, they immediately begin to generate ideas. Some will focus on the appearance; "We could make it thicker", "We could make it longer", "We could change the aesthetics of the pen". Others will naturally focus on the performance of the pen; "We could put make the pen last 50% longer before it runs out of ink", "We could make the printed line smoother". There's another part of your team that would focus purely on quality; "Let's increase the strength of the spring so the pen will last longer", or "let's replace the pocket clip with a more durable material". By the end of the session, you could easily have twenty-thirty new ideas. From a pure volume standpoint, that seems great! But let's face it, there's not a breakthrough idea on the entire list.
The meeting opens in the same way. However, instead of starting the brainstorming with your current pen in hand, you begin to ask different questions of the group such as, "What role does our current product serve?". Before you ever get to new product ideas, you have the group focusing on the job the pen serves. You might hear answers like "It helps people capture thoughts from their head on paper", or "It helps a person to communicate with others in a remote location" or even, "It serves to document what's going on now, so that it can be a historical reference later". With these jobs in mind, the brainstorming question now becomes "In what other ways could we complete these jobs?"
You see where I'm going with this. Scenario 1 is inherently limited to incremental ideas that certainly don't break away from the commodity issue. But scenario 2 could literally point the company in a bold new direction. (Think about it, an ipad could have literally come out of a session like this). There's no question that the first option is easier and much faster. And that alone probably explains why it is the recurring choice of most companies. But does your market really need a pen that's just a little thicker?
Next time you're faced with a challenge to come up with new ideas, think of the ball point pen, and what it really could be. Don't start with what your product currently is, start with what it currently does. Then brainstorm ideas that can perform that task in a bold new way.