The 37 Signals blog about how you don't need a product roadmap spawned a great discussion in my company. We all sorta kinda all agreed that while having a published roadmap is dangerous, we do need to communicate a product "vision" to our customers. The function of aggregating and analyzing all the features that go into a roadmap is also still necessary for product planning stages. Especially the features that clients have submitted themselves.
I personally argued that having a running list of client submitted features not only tells you what your clients want in the software, but you could also possibly glean patterns of how they use the software simply by analyzing what they've requested.
I don't feel that way anymore, and here is why.
I've had the most mind-numbing task lately. I've had to review a list of approx. 200 feature requests for the product planning phase of our next release. As I'm reviewing each and every complaint...I mean feature request, I realized something. None of these are real feature requests. Sure, technically, renaming a button from Submit to Save or adding a column onto a report are feature requests. But those are more like product improvements then real features.
I attended a webinar from KnowledgeInfusion the other day, and Jason Averbrook said something that really crystallized what we really need from our customers. I'm paraphrasing here, but the message essentially was that the real winners in enterprise software development are not the ones who automate existing business processes, but are the ones who revolutionize existing business processes.
That got me thinking. Feature requests that clients submit essentially try to improve the product so their existing business processes run smoother. They don't tend to submit requests to change their business process because the people who have permissions to log in and submit a request are so focused on the project (i.e. go-live), it forces them to think short sightedly. I have yet to really come across a feature request that says "Look, we've been doing this like that for so long, and it ain't working. What we really would like to see is.......".
So I want to stop reviewing the list of "features" now. But I can't because, you know, management would kick my ass. But I have to admit I truly believe I'm wasting my time here. This is what you get when you don't work for a company driven by research. If your company depends on your customers telling you what next to build, you're probably an enterprise software company that does not employ thought leaders in that space (which is actually OK if its run properly). However if you have industry leaders who simply know the space inside and out, I'd wager that relying on them to drive your product forward is just as good as asking your clients.