In accepting a PM position with an organization that had no central place to capture and prioritize product-related requests generated from each department, I decided to pull together the lists from all the stakeholders into a common forum.
Of course departmental wish lists had been created over the years but were languishing as disparate spreadsheets, as bulleted lists in shared Google docs and as giant backlogs in our issue tracking software. These lists had not been kept current, were not being shared, and thus were impossible to synthesize for product planning.
What drove this decision
So what I really inherited was a bigger challenge and this was a known problem throughout the company. The lack of a central place to discuss product priorities had led to more than a few skirmishes and past product releases had been poorly received as various constituencies inevitably had begun to feel neglected or and complained that the Product Team simply misunderstood their needs.
I am now in charge of the Product Roadmap. As any Product Manager knows, this is a challenging assignment as it involves collecting, verifying, and prioritizing inputs from many stakeholders. To get started, I wanted to review any previous roadmaps and revisit the current backlog of requests from Sales, Customer Support, Operations, etc. The old roadmap was easy to locate but when I started asking around for the backlog, I was surprised to learn that there wasn’t one.
The decision: Introduce the team to Trello
I needed to (re-)create a forum where each department could list their own issues and make them visible to the other groups. It had to be conducive for collaboration and ultimately, allow stakeholders to collectively agree on the next set of priorities. But most of all, it had to be easy to use.
I decided we would begin planning high level product strategy using a shared Trello board. Trello is a flexible online tool that helps you organize lists and is very simple to use.
- The free version would more than suffice for the size of our team and our limited needs
- Those who chose to invest more energy in capturing their requests would have ample means to do so using Description fields and other Trello features
- Each card would have its own comment thread to encourage and preserve group discussions
- Users have the option to use card-level voting to avoid duplication and find common ground
- Plus, the good folks at Trello have made it work equally well in browsers, on tablets and on mobile phones
Plan of attack
I cannot share our company's product priorities here of course but you may adapt this approach for your company's own planning needs.
Build new board with a good name
I started by creating a new Trello board for our company and named it “Roadmap Priorities”. I chose the name intentionally as I knew I would need to push back on well-meaning folks who would get carried away creating cards that were important to them and the company, but ultimately unrelated to our product strategy. Instead, I encouraged them to create separate Trello boards for their own departments.
Create a list for the current release
To provide some perspective to the group, I created the first list on the board and backfilled it with cards that represented our current set of priorities, mostly to provide a model for what we would be aiming for in future strategy sessions. I made this the left-most list on the board so they would see it first and that proved helpful in on-boarding users who were new to Trello.
Prime the board with existing lists and examples
I created separate lists for each Department so that each would have a place to add their own set of cards. In an effort to prime the pump, I imported a few lists from existing spreadsheets that had been floating around some of the departments. For other groups, I created some sample cards to give them a starting point. In this way, I was able to accelerate the adoption of Trello and the roadmap planning discussions.
Use colored labels for Each department
I used Trello’s colored Labels to assign a unique color to each department. This has made it easier to identify the originating department for each request and, as we move over cards to create a single “Release” list, has allowed us to see the relative priorities of each department. Even better, by combining multiple departmental labels on a single card, we were able to quickly find common ground among common requests.
Invite collaborators to the board
I formally invited all the department heads to join the board. For some teams, it made sense to invite more than one person, especially where I anticipated some early, tool-related friction. Each collaborator received a friendly email invitation with a simple call to action to join the Trello board.
Even though Trello makes the sign-up process easy for new users, I expected and struggled with early engagement. As a precaution, I also schedule 15-minute meetings with each stakeholder to get them past the initial access challenge (e.g. logging in) and to provide a quick tour of Trello. The preparation (described above) went a long way to getting early buy-in. Stakeholders immediately identified with their department and were comforted to see familiar items in their own lists.
In explaining to the stakeholders how I would be using the board and the cards on each list, I also tried to motivate them by strongly implying that the best prepared departments would have a chance of seeing their priorities folded in to our roadmap.
The results for our company have been quite promising in these early weeks. Five of the six departments have been very active on our Roadmap Priorities board and that is making the planning for our next release much easier for the Product team. Trello deserves a great deal of the credit for providing such an amazing tool and we have witnessed its broader adoption throughout the company.