Once we have the purpose of the product selection defined, it's time to move on to defining the characteristics we need or want from our product. Up until this point in the process we have talked to people one-on-one or in small groups. Now that we have identified the core need or needs the product must fulfill, we are ready to expand that into the list of requirements and features by incorporating input from the wider group of affected people. We can use brainstorming to engage people as well as help them voice their expectations and evaluate the relative priorities of those expectations.
Step 2: Requirements and Features
We are going to bring everyone together in a meeting or set of meetings. The end goal is a prioritized list of requirements and features that we can use to evaluate potential products. This prioritized list will simplify the comparison effort and will give us an opportunity to enlist the aid of the people defining requirements to help us prioritize them and determine the line between nice-to-haves and must-haves. In addition it brings together the people with a vested interest in the production selection, engages them in the process, and provides us an opportunity to explain our process to them. This should help to bring up objections and additions sooner, when they can still be incorporated into the process.
In one step we are managing expectations from the beginning of the process, engaging the people that will be most impacted by the decision (which makes buy-in easier), and hopefully settings some people at ease and reducing potential emotional turmoil.
Prior to holding the meeting, send everyone a brief outline of the project and the needs that were identified in the prior step. Request that people spend 5-10 minutes brainstorming a list of features or ideas they have about the product and bring that to the meeting. It's unlikely that everyone will actually create a list, but it will help people get in the right mind-frame and the 2 or 3 people that do bring lists will help get the brainstorming session flowing. In the event that additional needs are brought forward, we will need to evaluate them and determine if they should be added to the list of core needs for the product selection process or if they reflect requirements or potentially an unrelated matter.
We want to prepare for this meeting. Having a high-level plan doesn't mean we have to necessarily stick to it, but it will help us think through what we need to achieve from the meeting as well as provide a tool to help keep the meeting on track. Some highlights of the meeting (or set of meetings) should include:
- An overview of the purpose of the meeting (get people on track early)
- A review of the overall process being followed
- A review of the initial purpose of the product selection
- A review of the list of needs (including new ones) the product will fulfill
- A brainstorming session, preferably on whiteboard or with markers on an easel
- A scoring or prioritization session
- A closing review and communication of next steps
Our preparation should include a clearly defined objective, a high level agenda, and a planned method to reign in extreme digressions or off-topic input. These meetings can go long, so we also want to make sure we have some breaks planned and we add that to our up front communication. If we are intending to have a followup, we should communicate that at the outset when we discuss the goals of this particular session. In some company cultures, using the a different word (such as session) instead of meeting may help attendance or initial attitude, we should use what we think would work best.
An effective meeting is one in which everyone walks away satisfied that the time was well spent and got a lot done. If the company does not provide effective meeting training, 10-20 minutes perusing the web can give some good input on how to help the meeting go smoothly. The more effective the meeting, the smoother it will go, the better your gathered requirements will be, and the higher the engagement level will be within the group.
The brainstorming phase is critical because it will provide us with the last raw ingredients we need to create our evaluation checklist. Based on personal experience I have found that using informal materials seems to help people get into the flow quicker. A whiteboard or pad of paper on an easel seems less permanent as a decision-making surface and can help people feel more comfortable about speaking out and making additions.
Just as we did when determining the needs the product will fulfill, we are going to have some suggestions that need further analysis. Whether they are shared due to a vested interest in specific products or as an attempt to work some extra responsibilities in, we still want to dig into these suggestions and try to find some root criteria. Even if the entire audience is against including the items, this is a brainstorming session and we include all input, even unpopular items.
It's up to you whether you allow the brainstorming to continue until it reaches a natural conclusion (the microwave popcorn method) or timebox it. However it ends, thank everyone for a successful session. This again will help engage them in the process and gives us a moment to help the group notice their own success (and be sincere, how many product selection processes have even made it this far?).
Up until now we have hopefully been able to manage the groups emotions fairly well. Everyone's input has been welcome, everyone has been included and has had their opinions valued. Unfortunately that may change as we move into prioritizing or assigning scores to all of the suggested criteria. At this point it may be useful to start transferring everything to a spreadsheet on an overhead so that all of the items are visible to the group but can also be re-arranged quickly.
One of the most effective selection tools I have used is a Cause and Effect Matrix. Often used as a tool to prioritize risks during a Failure Modes Effect Analysis, a Cause and Effect Matrix helps us score options against a range of criteria that each have a relative weight or priority. For product selection this helps produce a scorecard we can use apply to each product that shows which products score best against the criteria selected by the people in this room.
To use this tool we will need to go through the criteria the group has brainstormed and assign a relative score to each one. Whether we have the group do this together or return to their desks and submit an individual prioritization is a matter of taste. Working together in the room provides the advantage that people can explain what the criteria meant when they suggested, attempt to influence others, and potentially vote to remove criteria altogether. The potential downside is that we are inviting emotional discourse and there could be some hurt feelings (only a problem if it gets out of hand). Asking people to vote on relative weights or averaging the priority they assign individually should give a weighting to each individual criterion and allow us to build a scorecard.
If the items are scored individually, it is critical to bring everyone back together again to discuss items and to help people communicate their meanings to the wider group. Just as non-IT people will not find it obvious how expensive it could be to buy software for an operating system than IT doesn't have the in-house knowledge to support, there is also that same potential to misunderstand the criticality of an item that a marketing, sales, or purchasing agent brings to the table. A follow-up allows people to discuss the items they feel uncomfortable with and attempt to sway the vote towards a more comfortable value.
As before, thank the group and congratulate them on another step successfully completed.
We should now have a list of the needs we are trying to fulfill and the criteria and scorecard we are going to use to score candidate products. Our next step is to select and evaluate those candidate products. Along the way we will pick up some missing criteria, identify costs and potential gaps, and hopefully narrow in on one or more solid options using the scoring mechanism the company has defined.