When you’re creating a new product or trying to improve an existing product, you rely on a steady stream of ideas to move your product forward.
But if you aren’t careful, that steady stream of ideas can quickly become a flood that inundates your team and makes it impossible to get anything done. Without idea management, you’ll quickly find that you spend more time wading through ideas than creating a winning product.
Of course, there’s not just one way to do idea management.
You can follow a centralized approach that establishes a clear standard for idea management and establishes a corporate team responsible for managing ideas. Alternatively, you can take a decentralized approach where each team handles idea management differently.
To understand the difference between these two approaches, it’s helpful to consider the who, what, and how of each approach.
Who: refers to the role responsible for managing ideas. We’ll refer to this role as the idea champion. Some organizations refer to this as a category manager. In other cases, an organization does not have a specific name for this role, and idea management becomes part of another role’s responsibilities.
What: refers to the system (or systems) an organization uses to keep track of ideas it receives. You could use a shared online folder or network drive or a product management app specifically built for tracking ideas.
How: refers to the process an organization uses to collect, analyze and prioritize ideas. You may have a clearly defined set of rules and procedures or a general set of guidelines.
Here’s a look at the differences between centralized and decentralized idea management based on the who, what, and how.
Centralized Idea Management
The easiest way to describe centralized idea management is “same people, same system, same process.”
Who does it?
In a centralized idea management approach, there are one or more people whose primary role is the idea champion. Each idea champion looks for ideas related to a specific topic and shepherds those ideas through the entire process.
There is also a cross-functional steering committee comprising of leaders from across the organization, who evaluate ideas and determine which ones the organization will proceed with.
What do they use?
Organizations using centralized idea management have a single system to collect product ideas (both internal and external). The company directs all feedback to that single system and uses it to manage ideas throughout its idea management process.
The system should be transparent, meaning that it’s visible to everyone who submits ideas so they can see the status of their ideas and that people can provide feedback and even vote up or down on ideas.
How do they do it?
Centralized idea management drives a defined, consistent process for managing ideas similar to the following.
Idea champions monitor the idea management system for ideas related to their area of responsibility. They analyze those ideas for viability and do further research for those ideas that seem incomplete.
Once the idea champions flesh ideas out, they take the ideas to a steering committee that decides which ideas the organization will implement and which team or teams implement those ideas.
As part of this process, the idea champion keeps the original submitter updated on the idea’s progress.
Things to consider about centralized idea management
A centralized approach drives an overhead expense for the team of idea champions and the idea management system. The size of this team grows as the organization grows and receives an ever-increasing number of ideas.
Centralized idea management gives the head of product an overhead view of ideas and how they fit into the targeted outcomes of the product teams.
A centralized approach also makes it clear where ideas should go, regardless of what aspect of the product they are about or where the ideas come from.
Decentralized Idea Management
If an organization uses decentralized idea management, it leaves idea management up to each product team or business unit.
Who does it?
Product managers typically take on the role of idea champions for ideas dealing with their area of responsibility.
There usually isn’t a separate steering committee that determines what ideas the organization will implement, so it’s up to product managers to collect, analyze, and prioritize the ideas that fit within their purview.
What do they use?
An organization following a decentralized approach may use the same system for idea management but use it differently. Or, different product teams may use completely different systems for tracking their ideas.
How do they do it?
Because each product team does their own idea management in a decentralized approach, an organization does not have a standard process. The organization may have some general guidelines for teams to follow, but it’s usually up to each product team to figure out the best process.
Things to consider about decentralized idea management
A decentralized approach to idea management avoids overhead expenses by having a specific idea management team. There may not even be a cost for special-purpose idea management software because the product teams may repurpose tools they already have.
Since there is no common system or common process, the amount of information available about ideas across the organization can vary widely. It may be difficult, if not impossible, for the Head of Product to get a clear picture of ideas across all of their products.
Some ideas may get lost as some people inside or outside the organization are not sure where to submit ideas.
How to decide which is best for your organization
Several factors play into which approach for idea management would work best for your organization.
Three key considerations
1. What size is your organization?
If your company is small, say less than 200 people or only has one product person, a centralized idea management may make more sense.
A centralized approach works in smaller organizations because you’re able to have discussions with a small group of people to evaluate ideas from all perspectives, and you’re able to get through all the ideas submitted within the time available.
If your company is between 200 and 500 people or has multiple products, you may find that a decentralized approach works better. Idea management becomes decentralized because the number of ideas the organization collects could overwhelm a central decision-making committee, and each product team may find more.
As your company grows and the number of teams increases, you may find that some business units use centralized idea management, and others take a decentralized approach. The decision for each business unit often depends on the next two considerations.
2. Does your team have the expertise to assess your ideas?
If your product is complex and you need expertise outside a single product team to assess an idea, consider a centralized approach for the teams working on that product. This ensures you get people with the knowledge and perspectives looking at ideas, even if they aren’t all on the same product team.
If your product teams have all the knowledge they need to assess ideas, then a decentralized approach is probably sufficient. This allows you to avoid the overhead and potential delays from reviewing ideas with a central steering committee.
Are your product teams empowered?
If your organization has implemented empowered product teams, you may find that a decentralized model works better. You can leave it up to each team to evaluate the ideas. Which ideas they get are determined based on the problem they’ve been asked to address.
If your organization is hierarchical, your product leaders will probably prefer a centralized idea management approach. A centralized approach means your product leaders assign ideas to specific teams to implement.
There is no one right way to manage ideas
Not only is it important for you to manage your ideas, but it’s also important to give some thought as to the best approach for your organization.
Pick the wrong approach for your situation, and you may find yourself worse than if you did no idea management. By understanding the differences between the two approaches and when each is appropriate, you can pick the best approach for your organization.