Brainstorming is simple. You come up with a lot of ideas, use meaningful criteria to prioritize, and then select the cream of the crop. But there's a problem--brainstorming is just a process.

Just because you brainstorm doesn't mean you'll get good ideas that elevate your business strategy. Unless you give your team a tangible focus and relevant data to clearly understand the problem you're trying to solve, ideas will fall flat.

That's where painstorming comes in.

Painstorming is the process of uncovering pain points to create bigger and better ideas. Unlike many brainstorms that jump to ideating solutions, painstorming reveals the fundamental drivers of new opportunities: customer pain points.

Ascension, for example, once had a big patient pain point--lots of patients were missing appointments because they couldn't always get reliable transportation to the doctor. So the health system created a partnership with Lyft. Another example is when OXO invented the slanted measuring cup, solving the problem of being able to accurately fill the cup to the exact measurement line.

That's all to say that if you don't understand your customers' pain points, your ideas will miss the target. If your products and services address real pain points, people will love them. That's why many people buy products and services in the first place.

The next time you want to brainstorm, do a painstorm instead. The approach involves four simple steps. Move through each step in sequence and answer the following questions, capturing notes along the way.

  1. P - Persona:  What is the customer "persona" you're innovating for? Who are they? What are their characteristics, issues, and challenges?
  2. A - Activities: What activities do they do and why? Where do they spend their time?
  3. I - Insights: What are the things they struggle with most? What irritates them or brings the most joy?
  4. N - Needs: What are their priority needs? What are the needs that, if addressed through new products or services, would make them really happy?

After you get through the four steps, you're ready to generate ideas. Make sure your ideas are focused on the persona, activities, insights, and needs from the painstorm so they aren't just relevant, they zero in on the most critical pain points that customers experience.

The goal is to get people thinking about whom you're serving, what their needs are, and how you can solve for their "pain" through meaningful innovation. Painstorming might not be as easy as just throwing ideas on the wall, but it's well worthwhile.