People come up with ideas all the time. Whether they’re in the shower, eating lunch, or having an in-depth conversation, there’s no shortage of imaginary light bulbs going off above millions of people’s heads all the time. Sometimes we even hold brainstorming sessions dedicated to nothing else but bringing forth new ideas. But coming up with ideas is the easy part. What you do after that is where things get tricky. For this reason, product teams need to develop a process for idea management.
The two biggest challenges for idea management are efficiently and consistently recording and organizing ideas followed by actually making good use of them. These difficulties stem from the sheer ubiquity of ideas and how hard it is to keep track of them all.
But grappling with the influx of ideas and instituting a system to handle them is essential because they sometimes have much to offer, even if it’s not right at the moment.
Here are four good reasons to take idea management seriously.
1.) Ideas are fleeting
Ideas come in a flash, but they can disappear just as quickly. That epiphany you had while walking the dog? Lost forever after you run into a neighbor and strike up a conversation. That nugget your CEO tossed off after a sales call? Ignored for months because they then turned their attention to a more pressing manner.
We might comfort ourselves with the knowledge that if the idea was that great it will come back to us. There are no guarantees. Ideas need nurturing to take root and grow.
2.) Everyone comes up with them
Your sales team probably doesn’t sketch up database schemas in their spare time and your programmers hopefully aren’t spending too many hours dreaming up catchy marketing slogans, but there’s no shortage of sources for ideas. Every employee, customer, prospect, or partner has ideas, even when they’re canceling their subscription. You probably even get suggestions from friends and family when you discuss your job and products.
3.) We don’t know what the future holds
Some ideas may have promise but don’t fit in with the current strategy, funding level, or development bandwidth at the time. But that doesn’t mean an idea won’t be relevant and intriguing in the future.
That idea might have longer odds to reach fruition, but there’s nothing but upside for keeping it around for later.
4.) You want to keep them coming
The entire product community—staff, partners, customers, prospects, and even analysts and members of the media—all might have ideas worth considering.
Closing the feedback loop for every idea and letting them know the status indicates that each one is taken seriously, and individuals will continue to provide innovative ideas.
Why Should Product Management Take the Lead on Idea Management?
Product management’s central role within the organization makes it a logical owner of idea management. Product managers already ingest, parse, and make sense of feedback from numerous channels, so it’s a natural fit.
Additionally, product management ultimately drives what gets included in the product roadmap. Product management is also intimately aware of the product development team’s overall capacity and the simple fact that not every idea is a winner, so you need to pick the ones with the best chances of success.
They may take the lead but that doesn’t mean they’re making a unilateral decision on each idea that gets surfaced. Product management must embrace a collaborative approach for assessing these ideas and figuring out how much energy to put into fleshing them out now or in the future. The input of other stakeholders on their priorities and pain points should inform the entire process.
What Does Idea Management Look Like?
Step 1: The Sanity Check
Ideas are free and unencumbered by reality, so the first step is vetting their basic viability. For example, “What if we gave every citizen a million dollars?” is an idea. At first, it seems like an amazing idea that will lift people from poverty and free everyone to pursue their dreams and live their best lives.
But then Economics 101 kicks in and we realize all those extra trillions of dollars floating around will cause demand to rocket past supply, creating instant shortages and inflation. Not to mention that lots of people simply won’t show up to work once they’ve got a seven-digit balance in their bank account, so we’ll quickly run out of labor to make, deliver, and provide the goods and services everyone can now easily afford. In short, it would ruin the entire economy in moments.
Your company’s business model probably doesn’t hinge on handing out gobs of cash to everyone, but this over-the-top example illustrates the need to game out the various consequences and repercussions of any idea given serious consideration.
In product development, that closer examination will touch on things like adjustments to the cost of goods sold, technical feasibility, and time to market, not to mention any tradeoffs that come with prioritizing one idea over another. This in-depth scrutiny may not occur right away, but eventually, each idea—even those irresistible shiny objects—must be put through its paces before advancing through the process.
Step 2: Captured & Cataloged
If an idea survives this gauntlet of challenges and questions, then the product team will catalog and keep track of it. For this reason, product teams need to rely on a centralized, structured idea management solution.
But a long list of ideas turns into a management nightmare pretty quickly. One way to create some order from chaos is by establishing broader themes and then tagging each item with which particular theme (or themes) they fall under.
These groupings not only create some structure but also make it much easier to actually put these ideas to use when the time comes. When the corresponding themes make their appearance on the product roadmap, the related ideas help form the basis for how product development uses those themes to enhance and improve the product.
Step 3: Reviewed
Just like we groom our backlogs, our idea repository is also deserving of a regular review.
Some ideas may strike a different nerve today than they did when initially suggested, while others grow even less relevant or possible over time. Ideas that provide value remain the strongest contenders for a real investigation and exploration.
Scheduling a regular meeting for this activity with representatives from different groups across the company is an efficient way to handle this monthly or quarterly based on the volume of ideas submitted.
Step 4: Saved for Posterity
Eventually, most ideas end up collecting dust. That’s fine because lots of ideas aren’t all the good, to begin with, or applicable at the time. However, keeping them around has a few upsides:
- Creating a Paper/Digital Trail: There’s nothing worse than looking like you aren’t taking suggested ideas seriously. Entering them into an idea management system that includes who suggested them and when creates a permanent record. Now when someone asks whatever happened to their brilliant epiphany, you can quickly see where it stands versus fumbling with a response while scouring your memory for the answer.
- Avoiding Duplicate Work: By keeping ideas around in an organized system, when a “new” idea comes on the scene you can quickly identify if anyone else has already come up with something similar. If the original idea was scrapped or put on hold indefinitely, the reasons why are handy and there’s no need to run through that exercise again. The initial record gets updated if there are any new, worthy details to be added, the dupe gets scrapped, and the idea’s progenitor gets the feedback that a similar idea is already in the system.
- Providing Inspiration for Future You: While some ideas are simply bad, for some their primary problem is their timing. The product doesn’t need to support Bitcoin payments when there isn’t even a shopping cart yet, nor does it need double-byte character support when localization isn’t even on the roadmap at this point. However, months or years from now, those ideas may increase their value and relevance, serving as excellent fodder for the product team when the time comes.
A Precursor to Roadmapping
Creating a roadmap without an idea management solution in place runs the risk of excluding capabilities and functionality that add customer value, increase revenue, decrease costs, boost adoption, etc. No product team wants to leave out something great just because no one remembered it.
By managing ideas and organizing them into themes, roadmapping is easier and produces better outcomes. Delivering these larger chunks of functionality all aligned with achieving specific goals is far more efficient and effective than trying to pick off individual ideas one at a time. It also simplifies messaging for customer success, marketing, and sales teams so they can concentrate on a few major changes instead of a smattering of seemingly random improvements and tweaks that may or may not align with the overall strategy.
How and where to manage ideas
While there are tools dedicated to idea management, your product stack likely already has a tool that can be used for idea management.
You could capture and track them using an issue tracking tool—such as Atlassian’s Jira—since it has the basic capabilities and the product development team is already familiar with it. You can designate an “issue type” for ideas and label them appropriately and even let people vote on each idea for another layer of feedback.
When the product team implements a new idea, the team can change the status to alert the development team. However, most organizations don’t really want the “business” side of the house in those tools due to the cost of extra seats that don’t really get much use.
Alternatively, purpose-built roadmapping tools can also serve as platforms for idea management as well. The backlog features in tools such as ProductPlan are perfectly designed to store and organize ideas as they emerge and keep them top of mind during strategic planning and roadmapping.
Simply carve out a lane within your backlog designated for ideas, enter them as they come, and use tags and themes to keep them organized. When one finally does make the cut, it’s a snap to include it as part of the product roadmap while keeping everyone informed about its status.