Consider product innovation for a moment. How do you go about deciding what features and functionality to build into your next release? How do you ensure you’re developing and building technology in accordance with your customers’ needs? Do you even have an innovation process?

I recently lobbed these and similar questions to several of my fellow CTO Forum members during a recent meeting. Most were still following what I consider to be a traditional process: Hire product managers, have them talk to customers and gather feedback. Then add some analysis of the competition and a dash of salt, and out pops what engineers refer to as a "groomed backlog," a list of prioritized features that should be built into future products.

Sound like your company’s approach? It seems like a sensible strategy, but why does it fall short and often fail? Here are three primary culprits, and how new ideation system technology can address them.

Three Reasons Why Product Innovation May Fall Short 

1. Product Manager Olympics

This is where product manager bullies bench-press their latest ideas and kick sand in the face of lesser product managers. These “bullies” have greater say in what ideas are acted upon -- usually their own. Many times they want to implement their new idea for the idea’s sake. They “know” it will be a hit with customers, but they don’t have any real evidence to back it up. Without evidence from the community, these product managers often see their ideas fail. If you build it, customers won’t necessarily come. This approach is also very demotivating for engineers, with rippling effects throughout the organization and customers. Ingenuity and creative spirit are often lost when engineers are building speculative technology.

2. We are only human

Let’s be frank. We overlook and forget things sometimes. We might cut corners in the essence of time. For instance, product managers might not talk to enough customers, which limits visibility and insight into customer needs and wants. Or they might talk to the wrong customers, such as those who don’t have much experience with the company’s products. They can severely skew product managers’ perspectives. Companies need ways to ensure that everyone in the user community can speak up, have a voice and vote on what they want to see in upcoming product releases.

3. Follow the leader

Product managers often request features that mimic their company’s competition. This can be great for the current release because it can provide a near-term competitive edge. But it can lead to big problems in the future if the product management and engineering teams don’t fully understand where the feature is going and what value it’s supposed to provide users. They risk designing it incorrectly because they lack user-based context. As a result, the feature might not scale in future releases. Future improvements can also be more difficult to build due to lack of insight into and validation of users’ needs when the feature was originally designed.

The Benefits of Using Ideation or Idea Management Systems

What’s missing from this approach is a system that extracts the voice of the customer in a structured, ongoing manner to let companies develop product roadmaps that continuously deliver a competitive advantage and help generate revenue. Increasingly, these are ideation or idea management systems.

These systems bring the voice of the customer community into the development process. They let customers submit their ideas for new products or product enhancements, review other customers’ ideas and vote on them.

Feature enhancements are vetted and endorsed by customers, not just product managers. This provides product managers with ideas ranked by customer preference, which saves time and removes the guesswork in prioritizing ideas. The system lets customers do it for you organically.

This also eliminates product manager politics of promoting their own ideas, because product managers can now enter their ideas in the ideation system and get immediate, undeniable feedback from the user community.

Bad ideas are voted down and good ideas become surrounded with rich dialogue and context, letting engineering teams design features with confidence that customers want them. This is crucial for fostering motivation and creative spirit.

An ideation system also reduces "we are only human" issues because the process is open and transparent. Customers are encouraged and motivated to enter ideas, vote for good ones and explain why they think other ideas are not so great. This open and inclusive process avoids skewed results.

However, this is not to say that the product innovation process should now be a customer free-for-all. Inappropriate submissions can make their way into the system. So some ideation systems also let product managers moderate idea content.

This lets them keep the system clean because they can eliminate ideas that are duplicated or don’t have traction. If the system is clean, the signal-to-noise ratio is high and ideas are easier to find. As a result, the customer community tends to use the system more.

In addition, ideation systems can help foster customer interaction because they let customers provide further insight into why they voted a certain way on a particular idea. It’s not just about how many votes an idea has, but what the idea really means and where it can go in the future.

Active product manager participation and engagement with customers can facilitate this dialogue and produce this insight, as well as listening to customer-to-customer dialogue.

Final Thoughts

These concepts driving ideation systems are not new. Working closely with customers to develop new technology that suits their needs has long been regarded as a crucial component to product innovation. What is new are the platforms available to achieve this.

Ideation systems are increasingly helping companies ensure they are innovating in directions that are important to their customers and eliminating much of the politics surrounding the productization of bad ideas.

Company involvement and support are crucial to making the ideation system work. The more they put into them, the more they can get out of them to confidently drive their product development and innovation processes.

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