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Handling Frustrating Feature Requests

Roadmap
Stakeholders

27 January, 2021

Michael Smith

Michael Smith

VP of Innovation at Omnipresent

Michael Smith, VP of Innovation at Hadean Supercomputing, shares how he successfully reframed the dreaded feature requests into a stakeholder engagement exercise that helped him sell and test his roadmap.

Problem

While acting as a PM at Google, I was having an extremely stress-filled day. Then a very smart and influential salesperson stopped and said, "Hey, I have an idea for a product feature - can I pitch it to you?"

"Great," I thought to myself, "as if I didn't have enough to prioritize already, and now I have to manage this random idea for a feature. I'd love to tell them 'no,’ but perhaps they're going to escalate; I don't have time for this." My anxiety increased as I felt my backlog increasing, deadlines slipping or a huge amount of expectation management queueing up.

Since then, I have seen many PMs with this same problem: a stakeholder or even the CEO comes at them with a feature. Most of the time, this feature request is in the form of a proposed solution in light of a perceived customer problem.

I propose that this anxiety-inducing experience is an opportunity if you take the right actions.

Actions taken

I checked myself: why am I resistant to have people pitch ideas to me? Shouldn't I have space to listen?

I realized that fielding this request was my job. If a feature request hadn't come to me, then someone might have worked around me, either going to stakeholders or engineers directly. So I thanked the person who had the request, cementing my position as the gatekeeper in their mind. To myself, I celebrated that they were knocking on the "front door" of the team. Channeling the suggestions of Stephen Covey ([ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People#5_-_Seek_first_to_understand,_then_to_be_understood]), I thought: "Seek first to understand, then be understood." So I "leaned in" to the request and said what would become a staple of my communications from then on: "That's an interesting hypothesis!" I asked the requestor to tell me more: why believe that would be useful? What user and/or business issue are you working to solve?"

I listened very closely. They explained the feature and what it did, but I pressed the requestor for the "why": what was the customer problem that they thought they were solving? Once I understood the "why", I could tell them how this customer needs fits currently into my mental model and roadmap. I had another solution queued up in the roadmap that I believed might more elegantly tackle the underlying customer issue: how might their suggestion be better than what I had proposed? Did they agree with the items that I had prioritized before then?

Once we discussed all that, the salesperson felt heard, and I had a thought partner to pragmatically test my roadmap. I only had minor changes to make, and they only significantly helped my roadmap! Win-win!

Lessons learned

  • Always engage with incoming feature requests, but do so by digging into the underlying customer need.
  • My experience me to a framework I have since built for handling feature requests:

a. Acknowledge. Thank them and tell them, "that's an interesting hypothesis.” Put yourself into an open mindset.

b. Understand. Ask them about the customer problem they're solving.

c. Respond. Explain how their proposed solution might or might not already be solved by your existing roadmap, your reasoning on this, and solicit their opinion.

  • But above all, embrace incoming feature requests as opportunities to learn more about users, build rapport and share information with your stakeholders.

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