Idea Management Rant

Let’s talk a little bit about idea management. Idea management is great if you can get people to give you meaningful suggestions in an ad hoc way. This is much more likely to happen if you are building a product for internal usage – that is, if you are an IT person. If you are building a product for external users – i.e., a product-for-sale – then you are much less likely to get a good stream of ideas. And in fact, what you really need to do more is to go out to the market and proactively talk to customers, non-customers, and prospects to learn about their problems, and then do affinity mapping and other things to figure out what are the most important problems, and then use the internal team to figure out how to solve those problems.

I don’t think that ideas are actually worth all that much. On the other hand, if you were to put up a “problem reporting system,” or something that was “this is not important enough to call support, but here’s something I’m annoyed or frustrated by,” that might actually be able to start a conversation.

But here are some specific problems with idea management:

  • There’s not a one-to-one mapping from idea to feature
  • Customers usually provide solutions rather than problems, so you always have to go and talk to them about what the problem is that they’re trying to solve

I think there are other problems as well. But the key point is that again we are mixing up things that work for IT, but don’t really work for products-for-sale. The scale is different, the conversation is different, the contract is different, and so on.

I mean, some of these things are issues for a large IT organization as well – multiple requests will come in about the same underlying problem – and most idea management tools do a crap job of helping you work through the ideas to get to the underlying problem.

Even if you find the underlying problem, then that still doesn’t necessarily drive a single feature. It might be a module, or it might be a bug fix. So you need to be able to map to both of those entities, and then do traceability back as well. Although I don’t think traceability is all that important in reality. It’s much better to associate the feature (and the idea) to the customer(s) who initiated it or will benefit from it, and then have a conversation with them later about how you’ve addressed or fixed that problem. That’s a conversation that can result in some money, so you want to have it.

If you’re talking B2C indirect sales, perhaps you don’t have that conversation in person, but if you have the linkages, you can automate it to some degree. Hey, here’s our new release, and here is the overall story, but here are some specific things that you have expressed interest in that we have done. How valuable is that? Very!

This can go into my system of record idea as well – if your system of record contains linkages to the customers, then you have multiple prongs by which you can communicate to those customers about how you’re responding to their needs and desires.

So, here’s the thing for me. What does an idea management system need to have, to be powerful for a product company?

  • It needs to understand customers – at least have a place to indicate which customer requested something, and ideally which customers, plural
  • It needs to give me a way to combine multiple ideas, which are overlapping, into one
  • It needs to give me a way to relate the ideas to a problem that I will or can solve – that is, I don’t create a feature for an idea, I create a feature that solves an underlying problem
  • It understands that ideas don’t necessarily come directly from customers entering them, but from me scouring my conversation notes for snippets that I enter – and need to attribute
  • It understands that one of the ways I come up with features to do, or modules, or products, is to work from this list of ideas/snippets to determine commonalities, map them together, abstract the ideas, and divine problems that I can solve. It’s really really not a 1-1 situation at all.

So, that’s a little bit of a manifesto – I don’t think any ideas management system can handle all that stuff, and I bet they all get bogged down in that old “IT-oriented” way of thinking that makes this all seem simple. But it’s not simple, and anyone who has done product management should understand that it’s not simple. It constantly amazes me how simplistic all these tools are. It’s like it’s the 1990s, not the 2010s!

There have also been some failures in idea capture for product companies. Both Dell and Starbucks had high profile idea capture systems, and I think they basically found the same thing. The signal was overwhelmed by the noise. In particular, they couldn’t take action on what they heard, because ideas are always at least one abstraction away from problems, usually more than one. And problems is what we deal with as product managers.