How to foster good ideas from the inside

Cultivate a space where employees can make your product better for all

box of lightbulbs

We use Slack all day, every day — shocking, we know.

But if you think about it, there are probably fewer companies than not whose day-to-day operations 100% rely on the product they make. In a way, we’re building the very scaffolding we stand on. We are our own customers, so if Slack isn’t as good as it can be, we feel the pain.

The flipside is that because we work on this product literally all the time, we have an acute sense of how it can be better. There isn’t a person at Slack who doesn’t have an idea — or three, or 16 — for improving a feature or creating a new one. The trick is fostering a culture (and developing a process) where ideas can come from anywhere, and the best ones can bubble up.

We’ve been collecting employees’ feature requests for about three years now, and here are a few things we learned along the way.

 

Anyone is welcome

Transparency is first and foremost. We make sure that the venue for collecting ideas (in our case, a Slack channel) is open to all and avoids hierarchy. We’re all in this together is the underlying motto.

The best ideas could come from designers with an epiphany, coders that always wanted a shortcut, or a marketer that shares a daily mistake they’d like to avoid in the future. You never know — your next big idea could come from an accountant that tried to use your mobile app one-handed as they juggled a newborn.

Anything goes in terms of ideas. It’s good to encourage them even if they’re ultimately impossible or impractical, because even those can lead to other ideas that work.

 

Show your work

The more thought that goes into an idea, the better chance it has of getting into the product. When laying ground rules, ask people to provide full context, their proposed solution, and its potential impact. Below, we’ve provided the template we use at Slack, but go ahead and define your own fields that best suit your company and culture.

 

submit an idea

 

Gather votes

Devise a system where other employees can say “yeah, we should build that” in the most simple, low-friction, non-noisy way (in other words, spare people long email or comment threads just to say they like something). You can gather votes in a spreadsheet cell, tally the number of members attached to a Trello card, vote with emoji reactions, or anything that works for you.

Here’s an example. Below you’ll see Britt ask for the ability to convert a Group DM into a private channel (we called them Multi Party DMs internally at first). He got handfuls of votes on it, some discussion followed, and soon after it was coded up and rolled out to all users.

 

idea pitch

 

If you love something, help it out

Beyond voting for ideas you like, help others out by mentoring your favorite ideas to help push them forward. If you know who would be responsible for the changes necessary to make something a reality, connect them with the person that proposed the idea. If you’re good with Photoshop, kick out a quick mockup of how something might look in the product to support an idea someone else proposed. If you’re a developer and a fan of an idea, share how quickly and efficiently changes to the product could happen if it were fast-tracked.

 

Treat newcomers like gold

There’s something magical about new employees and anyone else in your organization new to your product as they get up to speed. They can approach your work with fresh eyes and perspective, so any ideas they have to make the product better are coming from a special place. Their vital feedback will be closer to first-time users than veteran developers and designers, so make sure they’re aware of the feedback process early. New hires’ wishes may already exist in the product, but even that is valuable feedback for whomever on your team handles user education, documentation, and user interfaces.

Restraint!

Finally, it’s good to remember everyone is already busy working on existing features, upcoming projects on the roadmap, and that everyone’s time is valuable. Slack’s first rule of any feature request channel is everyone must search for their ideas first in the channel history. This means being extra courteous and searching every variation you can think of to describe your concept to be sure it hasn’t already been discussed.

With that out of the way, it’s good to keep in mind in these are practical discussions that shouldn’t go too far off on tangents or end up in strings of jokes. Both can quickly waste everyone’s time and should be discouraged in this specific venue. At Slack, over 250 people are present in a features channel, but on most days only 2 or 3 ideas are floated out of respect for everyone’s time and attention. It’s social pressure to only post a few good ideas each day, but it’s that social pressure that works to keep it manageable for all.


Matt Haughey has posted 227 times in Slack’s new features channel, which, frankly, seems like a lot.

Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.