On many teams, either a founder decides what to build or the product team does. This makes sense.
In early stage companies, founders are often the product leader.
The product leader should decide what should be built.
Or should they?
We often use the metaphor, the product leader as CEO of the product. But good CEOs don’t make all the decisions. Good CEOs empower others to make decisions.
How can we do the same in product?
If your workplace is like most companies, there is no shortage of ideas. Customers, employees, your neighbors, everyone has an idea about what you should build next.
If you don’t make all the decisions, how will you build a coherent product?
At some point, if you aren’t there already, your company is going to outgrow you. There are going to be too many decisions to make.
You won’t be able to know about every little thing your product does and doesn’t do. You won’t know the most about every nook and cranny.
When this happens, will you still be the best person to decide what you should build next?
Product management shouldn’t be about making all the product decisions. It should be about empowering others to make good product decisions even when you are not there. – Tweet This
Start by Framing the Problem
When you ask other people for ideas you need to draw clear boundaries around the area you are willing to explore.
The last thing you want is a pile of ideas you would never consider.
Take some time to think through what you really want. What type of ideas are you likely to say yes to? Which ideas will you always say no to?
We’ve already outlined some ways to think about this.
It starts with a clear vision. Everyone needs to know who you are, who you aren’t, and what you will and won’t do.
You need to have a strong goal. Everyone needs to be moving in the same direction, chasing down the same outcomes.
And everyone needs to know what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of how you’ll chase down that goal.
For example, do you have budget for user acquisition or should ideas be limited to organic growth? Where do you draw the line on invasive advertising like site popups and interstitials?
The more you can set boundaries on ideation the more likely the rest of the company will help you generate fruitful ideas. – Tweet This
Constraints are creativity’s best friend.
And, of course, you’ll need a great system for managing all of these ideas.
What Is Idea Management?
There are two key components: idea generation and idea evaluation.
And how you do both makes the list of critical decisions you need to get right in order to build great products.
The key element to both is to push the boundaries on inclusiveness.
You need to move away from a product-team-centered approach to idea management and engage your whole company. – Tweet This
More people generate more ideas.
More ideas lead to better ideas.
Groups do a better job of evaluating ideas than individuals.
Idea markets have been shown to be correlated with better product outcomes.
An idea market creates a marketplace for ideas. Ideally, everyone in your company should participate in the market. But we’ll get there.
Let’s start with idea generation.
Where Do Good Ideas Come From?
Many companies use brainstorming as a means for generating ideas. It feels inclusive. High-end design firms do it. You end up with a pile of ideas.
There’s only one problem. It doesn’t work.
Studies show that the same number of people working individually generate more, diverse, unique ideas than the same number of individuals working in groups running a brainstorming process.
To be clear, let’s start with what we mean by brainstorming. The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn, an advertising executive, who included the method in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination.
Osborn outlined four rules of brainstorming:
- focus on quantity
- defer judgment
- welcome unusual ideas
- combine and improve ideas
Osborn worked at a successful advertising firm. People admired his creative success and thus latched onto his rules and brainstorming quickly spread.
Decades later, research caught up with him.
Brainstorming Simply Doesn’t Work
There are four primary reasons why.
1. Social Loafing: Social loafing is the phenomena where individuals work less hard in a group than they would if they were working alone. If you alone are responsible for generating 3 new ideas, you’ll work harder than if you are in a group that is responsible for the same output.
2. Conformity: Groups conform. We’ve all experienced a group’s reaction to an odd-ball suggestion and watched as the suggester ducks away from their own idea. Conformity is great for establishing group norms and for creating cohesion. It’s less great when the goal is a diverse set of novel ideas.
3. Production Blocking; In most brainstorming sessions, people shout out ideas one at at time. This process is susceptible to production blocking. Production blocking happens when another person’s idea interferes with your own. You have an idea on the tip of your tongue right as someone else throws out an idea and suddenly your idea is gone.
4. Downward Norm Setting: This is the phenomenon where the overall performance of the group devolves to the performance of the lowest performing member. We like to believe that we can elevate the performance of groups. But research suggests this isn’t true. Groups tend to perform at the level of their weakest member.
You might be reading this and think this can’t possibly be true. I responded that way when I learned about this. I relied on brainstorming a lot and it seemed to work.
That’s because brainstorming falls prey to the faulty performance illusion. Groups that participate in brainstorming sessions feel like they are being effective. They do generate ideas. It’s easy to feel good about this.
But if you compare the output of a group session to the output of the same number of individuals alone, they don’t compare. Individuals generate more, diverse, unique ideas than groups following Osborn’s rules of brainstorming.
But this doesn’t mean that product people should ideate on their own. Let’s take a look at what we should do instead.
Sourcing Creative Ideas From Your Team
When tackling new problems, we each bring our own unique perspective to the situation, based on our past experience with those types of problems.
Each person on your team represents a unique set of experiences and thus brings a fresh perspective to the situation. Your goal should be to capture as many of those perspectives as possible.
We know brainstorming isn’t the right way to do that. So what is?
First, we know that ideas happen all the time. Not just when we brainstorm. You need to create a way for each member of your team to easily capture their ideas as they happen.
Second, we know that ideas spur more ideas. All ideas should be visible to everyone on the team. It should be easy for someone to view, extend, and comment on another person’s ideas.
Third, we know that diverse perspectives lead to more diverse ideas. Diverse ideas lead to better ideas. You need a system that will be utilized by the whole company. Not just your team.
And finally, we know that creative solutions are often generated when an idea from one domain is applied to another domain. Your system should make it easy for ideas to cross-pollinate. Ideas clustered around a particular problem should be accessible to people solving a different problem.
There is no shortage of ways to collect ideas. You can use your internal wiki, your social enterprise solution, or one of the many apps dedicated for this particular purpose.
I’m a big fan of Kindling because it’s not your typical enterprise solution. It’s simple and easy to use and does one thing extremely well. In the coming week, I’ll share a case study of how we used Kindling at my last company.
But before we do that, we need to explore idea evaluation. That’s coming up on Monday. Don’t miss it, subscribe to the Product Talk mailing list.