One of the biggest idea management headaches in a product manager’s life is this question: “Are we developing the right product ideas?” The answer can get overwhelming—especially when there are way too many sources for ideation available for product managers to tap into.
Product managers need to have a well-defined idea management process in place in order to answer that pesky question and feel confident in the decisions they make for what the team should build next.
What is idea management, exactly?
To put it simply, idea management is the qualitative process that a PM has in place for gathering, defining and storing the ideas that come from different sources and stakeholders. Idea management is the work PMs do before running their ideas through a more quantitative prioritization framework (which we get into here).
The core of a good idea management process is this: product managers have to go beyond capturing and cataloging feedback and research into one big bucket of ideas. Ideas should be defined by a set of guiding standards that you defined with your team, your stakeholders, and your customers. And, as redundant as this sounds, your ideas should be good—but what makes a good idea is also something you need to define with your stakeholders.
We spoke to a bunch of seasoned product managers with diverse product backgrounds about their idea management process. In general, they had a top-down approach for how they dealth with it.
It’s simple enough:
Start at the highest level by defining your business values and product strategy (some people call this a North Star). You need to be able to trace a direct line between every idea and the company mission.
Focus your ideas on user problems (not solutions). This allows you to have deeper empathy for your current users.
Don’t ignore stakeholder input (and eliminate the concept of “bad ideas”). Define which stakeholder input—internal and external—will best serve the product, and have an idea management system or software for keeping track of those. When a stakeholder has a “bad idea”, don’t just reject it, present your reasoning for the rejection.
This philosophy doesn’t guarantee perfect ideas, it just keeps PMs and their teams on the right path for organizing and keeping track of the right product ideas.
When you have a solid foundation like the one above for defining what makes a good and valuable idea, you can feel more confident that you’re making the right choices for the business and the product.
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Tie idea management to your business values and product strategy
The idea of defining the right North Star for your product has been discussed endlessly. North Star statements are the vision statement of the company, complete with how exactly you’ll go about achieving that vision.
In terms of idea management, you should be able to trace every idea back to the company’s vision and mission. You should be defining your features, projects, and tasks based on those intrinsic values of the company.
The way you define the core values of your business, and the impact you want your product to have, depends on the specifics of the work you do. But in general, your company’s mission should answer these questions:
- What are you fixing or solving with your product?
- How will your product impact its industry?
- How will your product impact your customers’ lives?
- What are the overarching goals for the company?
Answer these questions in collaboration with your team and stakeholders. That way, everyone will have the same set of guiding parameters for what makes an idea the right idea for the company and the product.
By having everyone on the same page, you’ll know that you’re working on the right ideas and staying away from features that will sidetrack you from getting the results that really matter to the product.
“When deciding what ideas or improvements to prioritize, focus should be placed on finding the items that can bring value to the user but that are also aligned with the company’s goals in the long run. You need to be able to determine the overall impact of a decision. How many users will this update actually impact? And how does it support the company’s overall business goals? For that, it’s important that the Product Vision is defined and that all areas of the business are aligned. Once you know what the ecosystem needs to be, you can build the Product to match it, making sure to iterate and validate it through ongoing user testing and feedback.”
In order to define and assess actionable ideas with clear objectives in mind, you need to get close and personal with the company’s high-level goals and ambitions. That way, you can apply them to how you manage ideas. What’s your product trying to be, and to whom? Depending on the size of your company and the industry you work on, that question can be answered in a bunch of different ways.
But what everyone should have in common is this: is this feature or product idea aligned with the bigger goals of the company? Before it becomes an actionable task on the roadmap, is this idea directly tied to the company’s mission, vision and values? If you can answer yes to these questions, and explain the how, you can then start to think of the idea as actionable.
For example, if your product is trying to be the simplest version of your competitors, then it doesn’t make sense to push every single feature idea in your backlog. It’s better to focus on just one or two ideas that you intend to deliver in a way that no one else has.
The why of your product should be answered using your product vision and strategy—and they should also define your idea management strategy. A good idea management process needs to involve a cross-checking of:
- The company’s definition of intent (mission): What are the intentions that drive your mission? Is it a good balance between objective parameters and lofty ideals?
- What are you doing for your customers? Part of managing product ideas involves a constant reminder of the value you intend to bring to your customers.
A well-defined product and company vision and strategy will create an environment where the team feels like their efforts are making a difference in the product, the industry and in the company.
“Every time we talk about an idea, we build it up not to be a feature talk anymore, but it has to be something that impacts the business. PMs should figure out the business metrics that matter and that the team can work with to define and manage ideas. At Too Good To Know we tie ideas to business metrics. We try to solve problems with an open mind. Then, when engineering or design or sales comes with to the Product team with ideas, we know that it's part of those business metrics that matter. Reinforce the pillars of your business and reinforce that transparency for why you and the team should choose certain ideas over others.”
Idea management should be guided by specific customer problems
Defining a product's audience is one of the elements of product planning that PMs spend a lot of time fretting over. Defining who those clients are—their needs, day-to-day challenges, their professions—isn’t a “Set it and forget it” task. One of the times it should come to the forefront of decision-making is during the idea management process. When you do a shoddy job at empathizing with your customers, you can end up building the wrong product that doesn’t resonate with anyone, especially not that ideal audience you didn’t take the time to understand at a deeper level.
This isn’t just about dogfooding. It’s also about putting customer needs before anything else; before MRRs and ARRs, before external pressure on what feature you should build next, etc.
When you make a conscious effort to understand the problems your customers face, you can then feel confident that your solutions are the best way to solve those needs.
“I find it easy to get caught up in the hype of trying to “innovate” and to build some shiny new thing. But I believe that, in certain scenarios, it is more important to focus on the core user experience. Product managers need to make sure the product’s core is as solid as possible before venturing into building something new. More often than not, companies try to build on crumbling infrastructure or hack their way into building a new product or feature with the hopes that it will be a silver bullet. To solve this problem, a PM should always go back to their users, to the people who are actually using your platform, both internally and externally. They will, quite often, be able to pinpoint the gaps and help find the problems worth solving. That’s why I usually put myself in our customer’s shoes. I always take the time to understand the product from their perspective so I can be more objective when making a decision on what to work on next.”
Focus your idea management strategy on uncovering problems worth solving. Look for the ideas that will contribute to solving that problem that the customer initially had when they sought your product. When you define who these customers are and what their problems look like for you to solve, you’re providing an answer to the question: Who are you building this product and for who? The more thoughtful the answer to that question, the more clearly you’ll be able to to visualize what are the goals you need to get to the best version of your product.
One of the ways that can help you define what product ideas are worth pursuing is by asking yourself: “Are these ideas directly tied to the customer problems and needs that will bring the most value?” When you shift your thinking to that, you’ll know you’re building stuff that gives your customers not just the most valuable solution, but the solution they needed the most to address those specific problems.
“My thought process starts by asking: What are we trying to accomplish for the business and for the customers that we have? Do we understand who our customers are? What are the big important themes to be defined? Come up with a framework to define those themes, distill that down into some sort of a metrics dashboard for the big picture, and prioritize those things.
You're going to come up with big themes when you do that. They’re going to come out of conversations like: “Okay, we have to double down on this particular market. No, we've got to double down on building a more robust product just for this type of need or this particular type of use case.” In terms of idea management, Product Managers need to make a decision on those theme definitions at the high level before they get into updating a product. Start with that and resourcing those themes as best as you can with that top-down approach. After you do that, that’s when you can get into managing, assessing and reviewing your backlog of ideas.”
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Ideas should involve more than one stakeholder
The ideas that you eventually turn into action shouldn’t come from a PM vacuum. After you’ve done all the market and industry research, collected the feedback from the customers and the executives, you can’t miss the most important step in the idea management process: talking to your team.
Have an idea management system or software for your team to submit ideas to. You can use intercom, Jira, trello, or ad hoc tools like google docs and Survey Monkey.
Everyone, from the customer-facing sales and customer service to development and design, should have some input on approving which ideas the company works on next. This not only ensures that you get the perspectives from your customer-facing team members whose insights are different than a product manager’s, but it creates and environment where everyone feels heard and acknowledged.
Different PMs will have different strategies in place for this process. Some like to hold one-on-one “idea management” meetings with each relevant team, others set up slack channels, keep up a whiteboard with post-its or they use an idea management tool like the ones we mentioned earlier (Jira, Trello, Intercom, ad hoc tools, or an internal system rigged specifically for the purpose of idea management).
“Make sure that, one, you’re asking the questions that will get you answers that consider all perspectives and two, you’re documenting the responses on an ongoing basis. Take special care to note passionate responses. The most important aspect of conversations, is making sure that you're interacting with the right people. As a PM, you recognize you can't know everything—there are things you need to leave to domain experts. Managing a product, you need to have a surface understanding of a problem, but when it comes to the details and working toward a solution, it's less likely that you, as the PM, are the person that knows what that is. You'll hear several solutions, and it's up to you to decipher the incoming responses with the knowledge you have to choose the right course. Throughout several documented conversations, you'll be able to review your notes and, oftentimes, notice recurrences.”
Having an internal idea management feedback system also allows you diffuse any internal stakeholder tension. When you create an environment where your team feels like their ideas will be stored and considered, you’ll have easier idea management meetings and conversations.
Define the qualitative aspects of what makes a good idea. Every idea that comes through the pipeline, either from customer feedback or financial stakeholder input, should be tied to your company mission and vision. Define what you company values the most; when you specify this and teach it to the team, and use it to justify why some ideas are more valuable than others, your decisions won’t feel biased or dismissive and instead, they’ll be rooted in a real framework everyone can cross-check and reference.
Build features with empathy for your customers and the problems they want to solve with your product. When you create an environment that’s focused on understanding a problem or pain point from every angle, and whether that problem is experienced by a significant portion of your customers, you naturally build more sustainable products and features with long-term value. (Also known as Don’t Fall Into The Feature Factory Trap)
Listen to all your stakeholders. Build an internal and external idea management system using specialized software and apps (Jira, trello, intercom, ad hoc tools). When you explain why someone’s idea isn’t good, use the qualitative measurements you defined with your company mission and vision.
PS. Try Roadmunk's free (+ boardroom-ready) product roadmap template and make it your own.