I originally wrote this article for Fast Company
At Yesware, the future of new products and innovations rests squarely in the hands of employees and a unique system involving nothing more high-tech than poker chips.
At Boston-based Yesware, a four-year-old startup that creates software for sales teams, there’s an internal goal to make working there everyone’s “best job ever,” and that mentality starts with giving its employees a stake in the company’s decisions.
“There’s no single point of decision-making—no one has to be the smartest person in the room for the company to succeed,” says Jake Levirne, VP of product at Yesware. “There’s a lot of good places for ideas at Yesware, so I wanted to make sure we had a process that could gather that input.” Here’s how Yesware does it:
At the beginning of each quarter, Levirne and his prioritization team put out a solicitation for ideas on what tools or services Yesware should have, or improve, in their suite.
“There’s no way our five-person team is the most informed about all the things we should build,” Levirne says. “I have a team of customer support reps who spend their entire day talking to users. We have a sales team that’s on the phone or out in the field every day hearing feedback. We recognized as a prioritization team that the best ideas are going to come from the people who interact with our users day in and day out.”
Levirne says he took a page from Pandora by framing call-outs for suggestions as “What would we be stupid not to build in the next 90 days?”
“A lot of people have a lot of ideas and that phrasing gets everyone to think of the most critical ones,” Levirne says. Over the past three quarters, Levirne’s team has netted more than 330 ideas, which, given the fact Yesware has around 60 employees, seems pretty effective.
Once the ideas are in, the prioritization team groups them into themes (email features, new software, etc.) and breaks employees into groups as well by who submitted similar ideas. Then they hold open-door, 10-minute pitch sessions where each group presents their concepts to the prioritization team and anyone who cares to attend. There are no limits to how ideas are pitched: One group rapped their pitch to the tune of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
After the pitches are made, a cost estimate is performed and Levirne prints out each idea with its rough overhead on individual cards that are laid out across the conference room table, floor, and even windowsills.
“One of the hardest things for any company, especially a smaller company, is to focus. There’s a natural desire to want to do everything,” Levirne says. “That physical session where the cards are printed out and strewn across the room gives a sense for the scope and volume of the things we’re thinking about.”
The volume of ideas are whittled down using poker chips as a form of valuing ideas as something worth pursuing. The prioritization team hands out the chips and it’s up to the employees to walk among the 100+ cards and place their bets on the best ideas. “It’s a much more fun, game-like way to do a prioritization or ranking than just sitting there looking at a spreadsheet,” Levirne says.
When all the chips are in, scrum teams are assigned to build out the winning ideas with Levirne’s team tracking success rates by monthly recurring revenue and usage.
Lervine admits maintaining the poker chip system as Yesware expands will be a challenge. He’s hoping to adapt the concept at scale by creating mini-prioritization teams among employees to have a more autonomous role in the vetting, pitching, and implementation of ideas. But with successful pitches like “mail merge,” a feature that allows you to send personalized messages in bulk, Lervine believes there’s something to be said of a meritocratic approach, versus relying solely on one team or hard numbers proving one idea more valuable than the others.
“I could say we’ve got the formula figured and we sit down crunch through a database and apply some statistical analysis, but any process that claims to do that ends up being more of a rationalization for a set of decisions that have already been made because you bake your biases into that,” Levirne says. “Instead, we have this process as a way to tangibly represent our gut.”