Interview with Suprasanna Mishra, Product Manager of Buffer Publish.
"Good ideas come from anywhere in the company"–says Suprasanna. Buffer is one of the leading social media management solutions in the market. A team of 82 people, working remotely across 15 countries, who work hard to not only talk the talk but walk the walk. Their hard commitment to transparency and sharing their knowledge has always fascinated me. Despite their wildly popular social management tool, they also own one of the most successful SaaS blogs, where they share lessons and insights on the topics in marketing, company culture, and product.
Naturally, we were interested in what kind of processes are helping Buffer to keep on innovating their product and fostering their open culture. To answer these and many more questions, we reached out to Suprasanna Mishra (Super), the Product Manager of Buffer Publish, who is deeply involved in Buffer’s ideation processes.
Aukse: Maybe a good way to start would be if you could tell us a little bit about Buffer and your role in the team?
Super: Yes, I would be happy to. Thanks for having me. Great to be here. So, Buffer is a company where we help other brands build their communities online and help them sell their products and services. Today, we primarily do that through social media tools. We have three different products: Buffer Publish, Analyze and Reply. As a company, we are about 80 people distributed worldwide. We don't have a home office, we work completely remotely and we serve about 80k customers today.
I'm the Product Manager on Buffer Publish. So, that's one of our products that help you get your content together for all your social media channels, plan it with your team, send it out on your chosen schedule and then, look back and see how you want to change your strategy.
A: Sounds great. As I mentioned before, today we're going to talk about ideas and how your team works with ideas internally. So, how do you work with employee ideas at Buffer?
“The common thread across all the ideas, I would say, in terms of importance, is that good ideas come from everywhere in the company.”
S: Yes, that's a great question. I think we think about ideas in different contexts, so it sort of depends on what the idea is around. But the common thread across all the ideas, I would say, in terms of importance, is that good ideas come from everywhere in the company. I think we all have heard that as a saying and a phrase but it really is true.
I think the harder part might be for most companies to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing those ideas. I think there are a few different key things that cultures need to have in place, before teammates feel really open and willing to share those ideas with the rest of the team, with their bosses, with whoever in the organization who is equipped to make that change.
A: I think that’s a very good point. What do you think are the key factors in creating this open culture where people are comfortable to share ideas?
S: Yes, I can share a few notes from what we've found, it might not be right for every team but I think that, at least for us, these are the key things around getting people to share more openly. The biggest one is having a high sense of trust and psychological safety in the team.
Google has done a lot of great research showing that psychological safety is the number one contributor to a happy and productive team. Psychological safety is even more important than having the right talent or training on board. It's just crazy how big of an impact that has on team's culture and productivity.
So, I think that is the key piece for anyone who's looking to get more ideas from their teammates and employees–see how comfortable people feel with their teammates when it comes to openly sharing their actual thoughts rather than saying what they think is the right answer or what they think other people want to hear.
In order to do that, I think, the other key piece is normalizing the act of sharing ideas very frequently. The goal is to create a culture where ideas come up often, where people share them openly and it becomes very okay and normal to say that's a great idea but because of XYZ reasons, we're not going to do that right now.
If that is something that happens once every month, then naturally people are going to feel a little scared and a little hesitant to share their ideas because they know there is a chance that it gets shut down and then they're the only ones that suggested an idea which didn't get acted on. However, if you're in an environment where people are sharing ideas every week, there are new things coming up, sometimes they get to build, sometimes it's not the right choice for the company at the time. Then, it really becomes just a normal part of day-to-day life.
The same goes for feedback. For example, if you're in a team, where you give each other feedback all the time–on things that are going well, as well as, things that could be improved–then, it just becomes a normal part of the day. But if you never get feedback, then any little thing that you hear might hit you really hard. For instance, if someone says–"Hey, in that last meeting you mentioned this but probably it would've been better if we presented it this way."–if that's something you just don't hear very often, it might hit you hard.
I think, ideas are very similar. If you have an environment where ideas come up really frequently and it becomes okay and normal that most ideas probably won't see the light of day and that's totally fine, it encourages people to share more openly give insights as they find them. Great ideas and insights really come from every single person on the team because everyone has their own unique perspective.
A: From what I hear, you’re saying that while finding a process that works is important, it is also not something that you can do just once. It really has to be engraved in the company’s culture, which then becomes the new norm.
S: Yes, I think so.
A: So, I know that at Buffer, you do a set of things to manage ideas and there's especially one I wanted to talk to you about today, which is called “Growth Ideas Log”. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that?
S: Yes, happy to do that. So, as I mentioned earlier, we follow different idea management processes depending on what type of idea it is. So, Growth Ideas are ideas on how to guide our customers in finding Buffer’s product or plan that is right for them, as well as, ideas about how to help customers to stay on the plan and product and continue to get value.
We look at growth specifically through MRR, so Monthly Recurring Revenue is the way that we measure our growth. So, if anyone on the team has an idea for something specifically that could help impact our growth, then we ask them to add it to the Growth Ideas Log.
"Impact, confidence and effort."
Our Growth Ideas Log lives in Dropbox Paper. So, it's really just a list of ideas. You just add your idea in there and put it in any phrasing that you like, explaining what you think the idea should be and why do you think we should be implementing it. Everything goes into this giant list. Then, every week, a few key people get together, look at those ideas and think about any new ones that we want to bring in. If there are ideas that stand out, they will evaluate them on a simple framework–ICE (impact, confidence and effort).
A: Could you explain to us the basics of the ICE framework?
S: So, the "impact" is how big of an impact does this idea have. So, for example introducing a brand-new product obviously is going to have a massive impact. So, 1 out of 10 that might be a 10. Changing copy on a page that is not very well-trafficked could be a 1, where it's just not going to have that big of an impact.
"Confidence" is how sure we are that this is going to have the impact we think it'll have. So, if we're looking at MRR, how sure are we that this thing would have the growth that we think it will, so that again is from 1 to 10.
Then, the "effort" is how much effort would it take to develop this idea. So, again a brand-new product that we're bringing to the market might be a 10, a feature might be a 5 or 6 and some copy change might be a 1. So, what we do then is we get those different scores and then we average them together for that idea and that average becomes the number for that specific idea.
I think something important to note is that it's not crazy scientific. There's no precise way to know if something is a 5 or a 6, it's just calibrated against the other ideas that you and your team look at. So, in that sense, I wouldn't sweat the details of how do we define a 5 or what exactly makes a 7. In the end, what you're looking for is not a precise score for this specific idea. When you have dozens of ideas in front of you, you're looking for a way to see which ideas have an obviously bigger impact and which ones have a much lower one.
So, that might be my advice to anyone starting off or even as you get going–don't get too bogged up in the details of what exactly the score should be, just get started and some trends will naturally emerge around which things seem more impactful than others.
A: What about the ideas that don’t get implemented? Do you openly share the feedback about what happens?
S: Transparency is one of the biggest values at Buffer. Since we're a remote team, it's especially important for us to be able to share everything openly, so everyone has the context. All the little conversations you would have in person while grabbing lunch or walking through the hallways just doesn't naturally happen when you're fully remote.
So, to counter that what we've done is really lean on everything being very transparent. We have transparent email, transparent financials, basically, every document in the company is transparent. That really helps everyone have a broader context of what's going on. And we try to extend that to the ideas process as well.
We weren't always good at this. We used to have a process where our customer advocates could submit ideas for the product team to consider and they would just add ideas to it as time goes on.
What we eventually found is that we weren't acting on many of those ideas. A small percentage of ideas would get built but the rest of them would really have no answer and that got to be very frustrating for some of the teammates. I would feel the same way, if I was throwing ideas into this black box, essentially, and have no information on what's happening with them. It can feel pointless after some time.
So, in that context, now when customer advocates give ideas around specific features, we always try to loop back with an answer. And the answer often is–"We're not going to build this and here's a quick reason why." I think that's totally fine.
People are used to knowing that not every idea they have is going to be prioritized at the company level. However, they just want to be able to share that idea, contribute to the team and be heard. I think a lot of great ideas actually do come from that.
So, again, as long as you can normalize that experience–make people feel that their ideas are being considered, and actually have a framework to consider them and then communicate back if it’s not going to be built–then, I think that works out better for everyone. That's why I think that the communication loop is key.
“Don't start with every single person in the company.”
A: Yes, that sounds like a very important point. I think there is another very important lesson in the story that you just shared with us. It sounds like it’s not enough to just have a process for collecting ideas. That’s just a first step. The process that follows afterwards is equally important. Just a pile of ideas isn’t that valuable after a while.
S: Yes, I agree. And that's a lesson that we learned from, that is if you're starting to collect ideas, it almost feels a little counterintuitive, but this is my personal opinion, don't start with every single person in the company. Unless, you're very small and it makes sense.
It may be really challenging to go from 0 to 100 that quickly. The process evolves over time depending on your personal company, your context, where you are, what your goals are. So, doing all of that at once, might be overwhelming and make everyone sort of feel like “Oh, I took this time to share these ideas, but nothing's really happening with them” and it might feel like a waste of time. But if you start smaller and say–“Okay, what's one of the key company initiatives we have that we want to focus on?”
So, if your goal is growth, or shipping a new product, or landing a new customer, or whatever that might be–crowd-source some ideas around that specific thing, from key people who are involved in that product, from different teams, in different parts of the organization. See how that goes, try something out. Maybe the ICE framework, maybe something else that works for your company.
See how that goes through one round of iteration. Reflect on it after you try that and then, as you iterate on that process, as you get more comfortable with it, then, you can open it up to more and more people, as you feel like you can handle the volume that might come in there.
“If you restrict yourself by saying that only these people can come up with ideas, then you're hampering the whole business and the whole team.”
A: That’s a great tip! Could you give us some specific examples of the value you added to your business because you were open to collecting ideas?
S: Yes, no problem. So, I'd say in software companies, especially in fast-growing startups, sometimes there's a sense that most of the ideas come from the product team or the CEO. I'd say that actually isn't always the case and maybe most of the time it comes from different people as well.
Your customer support team, your marketing team, your engineers building the product–all of them might find something interesting that could serve the customers. So, ideas can come from anywhere and I would say if you restrict yourself by saying that only these people can come up with ideas, then you're hampering the whole business and the whole team.
So, yeah, it's your point about opening up to ideas and collecting them from everyone is not just about including more people but it makes great business sense too. It's sort of a win-win on both sides–internally and on the business objectives overall.
A: Do you have any more tips you'd like to share or maybe some important lessons that we haven’t touched upon?
S: Another one could be–having some sort of frame for what types of ideas you want. So, if you just say–“Give us your ideas”–you don't know what you're going to get. It could be all over the place, it could be really difficult to sift through and maybe some of them are not that helpful for what the business needs at that time.
But think about the contrast between sharing ideas and just seeing what comes in vs. saying “We want to improve our new MRR this month by X percent and serve this exact target customer, what ideas do you have around how we can do that more effectively?”. That is going to get you a lot more focused around what the objective the business is going towards.
In this way, you could really help your team think about brainstorming the right way and they know that the ideas they are providing are going to be more relevant and they're probably going to be more willing to share it because they know it's focused on the objective that you set out.
“Having some clear objective that you're collecting ideas around feels like a really important step.”
So, having some clear objective that you're collecting ideas around feels like a really important step. Then, just start collecting ideas and reflect on the process, iterate on it, improve on it and it'll get better over time. But there is no magic solution where you're going to spend six months thinking about this idea process and then roll it out and it's going to be perfect from day one.
So, avoid wasting that time if you can and just get going knowing that you're going to make some mistakes, but it's totally fine you can improve and iterate on it over time and it'll get better.
A: Absolutely! Thank you so much for your time, Super. I feel like we touched upon some very specific and actionable tips that I hope other teams and businesses can take away and actually apply it and collect great ideas. So, thanks so much for your time.
S: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. Great to chat through this. I hope that was helpful for your readers and followers and hope they get started with some process.
Hungry for more?
This blog post is a part of our new interview series–Debunking Innovation, where we introduce our readers to the many faces of innovation, ideation and everything in between. Debunking Innovation strives to get down to actionable tips and tricks that you can apply in your team and get better at bringing new ideas to life.