There Are Always More Ideas for Product Managers

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one —Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

A sales guy stopped me in the men’s room with a new feature idea. A few weeks later, he came to my office to check on the status of his feature, having committed it to a client.

“Huh?” I said. “I wasn’t taking notes!”

Product managers are never short of ideas from others. We get “must have” emails from clients; we get “drop ins” from our leadership; we get “deal-breakers” from our sales people; we get “wouldn’t it be cool if” from development. And, of course, we get our own ideas: we talk to clients, review competitors’ products, watch industry trends, and get inspired.

But that inspiration can be short lived. PMs receive more ideas than we can handle. Let’s say you are getting 10 ideas a week and your product team can deliver five stories a week. You will soon have a list of hundreds of ideas that cannot be — or at least have not been — delivered.

So how can you learn to manage ideas? Know what separates your product from others, gather customer feedback continually, and learn to prioritize.

Know What Separates Your Product

I recently replaced a fire alarm in my dad’s house. It was “chirping” all the time, even with new batteries installed. I went to buy a new fire alarm and was surprised to see prices ranging from $15 to $150…for a fire alarm!

Some had voices, others had an iPhone app. I assume that all the alarms detected smoke and fire. But my requirement was simple: I wanted to find another version of the existing alarm — with the same wiring harness — so I would not have to re-wire anything. And my dad’s requirement was simple, too: cheaper is preferred.

Ease of install was my requirement; ease of payment was his. And while we were at it, consistency from room to room was valued. We did not want this one to be different than the rest.

How much do the vendors understand these requirements? Are they really building innovative products? Or are they just looking at what the others are doing and copying them? And if they are looking at you and you’re looking at them, you will build a whole bunch of features that appeal to vendors — but not to customers.

Make Customer Feedback a Team Effort

Sales people are constantly in touch with non-customers. They call them “prospects” — people who are not using your product and can tell you why they are not customers yet.

Is your product missing a feature? Is it too expensive? Are they even aware your product exists? For many product managers, the sales channel is their only market feedback. These prospects can all have seemingly inexhaustible needs for “one more feature” — which, of course, adds up to many features.

But be cautious of using salespeople as your primary source of information. As a friend said, “Sales people don’t listen to learn; sales people listen to sell.”

Perhaps the best source of ideas is your existing customer base. After all, they are using your product to help them accomplish their goals. And if you are going to build what they love, then you need to speak with them directly.

Spend time with customers in order to deeply understand their requirements. Make a commitment to call or visit at least one customer a week. This might be intimidating at first. But you will soon be armed with great information about what your customers truly value.

A product manager once told me that she spent a week on the customer support line to get up to speed on the product and the customers. She learned more in one week than she had learned about customers since she came on board.

While product managers should definitely spend time with customers directly, they should also leverage the product support team. After all, your product support people interact with countless customers every week — it is their job to do so! Just be sure that the information you are getting represents issues faced by a set of customers, not just one.

Learn to Prioritize

Good ideas can be found everywhere; the key is to focus on items that benefit most of your customers. You do not want to add features to your product that will only benefit the loudest or largest customers.

Still, product managers have more ideas than resources. So how do you deal with more than can be done?

Get really good at prioritizing. Do not work on a hundred things. Instead, work on and finish just a few. Identify fewer than 10 things to work on and excel at them — regardless of which prioritization technique you use.

For each new idea, consider how the feature will benefit your market of customers — not just the customer who requested it. Will this new feature help your customers achieve their goals? Will it increase their revenues or reduce their costs?

Most importantly, how will it benefit your company? Will this request enhance company revenue or roll up to high-level business objectives? Will it make your product easier to promote, sell, and support? I use these factors in a technique called “quick prioritization.” It is a simple tool that helps you rank ideas based on value to your customers and your company.

Ideally, each product release should contain something that appeals to buyers and something that appeals to users. This will keep sales and support teams happy. Likewise, include a feature to further your company strategy (for your executives) and something to support future developments (for your engineers). This keeps everyone involved in each release. It also keeps technical debt in check.

Focus on collective needs when reviewing each release, but prioritize based on what will have the biggest impact. Combining key feedback from clients, teams, and stakeholders alike and vetting it against where your product is headed is key to building great products.

This is a guest post by Steve Johnson. If you are looking to be a great product manager or owner, create brilliant strategy, and build visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha!

Steve Johnson is a recognized thought leader and storyteller within the technology product management community. At Under10 Consulting, he helps product teams implement product management best practices in an Agile world.