Product Roadmaps Are Necessary for Product Success
A product roadmap visually depicts how your product will evolve over time to realize your product vision and achieve continual value for your customers and business. (I define the term product to refer to a software application, system, device, service, or a combination that provides value to customers and business partners).
A product roadmap should be designed to adapt continually, guide decisions, and promote action.
Product roadmaps done well serve to align and motivate a variety of internal and external stakeholders to act as product partners to achieve shared outcomes, assist in obtaining funding and other resources, promote customer loyalty, and steer what to include (and what not to include) in your product backlog.
A product roadmap illustrates how you intend to solve customer problems or leverage customer opportunities. Roadmaps need to be continually revised based on ongoing learning and validation, market and customer conditions, and organizational capacity. The roadmap clearly identifies the “why” behind all product development.
Your product roadmap is a decision-making framework that shields against reactive product development such as one-off features promised by sales, HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion), responding to one-off customer complaints, and reducing a list of low-value bugs.
Most importantly, your product roadmap becomes a communications and collaboration tool, rallying everyone toward shared outcomes.
Why Most Product Roadmaps Fail
But, product roadmaps can have a bad reputation.
A product roadmap fails when it is perceived as both a contract and commitment between product development and the rest of the organization. As time and market conditions change, product roadmaps that are inflexible could easily become irrelevant. A static roadmap fails to incorporate ongoing learning and real market events.
Product roadmaps that don’t work may also appear to be disconnected to the product vision or desired outcomes. I’ve seen roadmaps that display a list of stories or features in a Gantt chart format with no context showing the significance of features or who they serve.
Bad roadmaps can also occur when the process to create the roadmap is flawed. This can happen when it was created in a vacuum by a product person eliciting information based on one-on-one conversations. What is worse is that these conversations usually don’t include the collaborative voices of customers, internal product partners, and product delivery teams.
The Ingredients of a Successful Product Roadmap
Creating a flexible product roadmap—an agile product roadmap—is the answer. A good agile product roadmap provides context for the product backlog—your tactical tool for eventually achieving goals identified in the product roadmap. There are seven ways to make your product roadmap agile:
1. No specific dates. Contrary to popular thought, don’t lock in scheduled milestones but identify time horizons. I like to use Big-View (longer term, a year or more), Pre-View (based on your release cadence, be it a month or more), and Now-View (next sprint or iteration). Since scheduled dates are a guess and rarely achieved, stick with broad time horizons specified by a beginning and ending date range. This invites flexibility.
2. Specify outcome-based metrics. Identify measureable outcomes to achieve for each time horizon. Define them as either objectives key results (OKRs), key performance indicators (KPIs), planning language using precise scale and meter parameters (Planguage), or simple measurable objectives. Regardless what you use, be sure the outcomes are testable.
3. Nix the features. Resist the urge to list a bunch of small features or stories on your roadmap. Features and stories evolve as you iterate through discovery and delivery. Keep your roadmap strategic and avoid tactics. Leave your backlog as the place to manage ongoing product options.
4. Use strategic themes. A theme anchors what you will deliver to a common, unifying purpose. A theme is usually represented as a short phrase that captures the essence of the core user behavior, product capability, competitive advantage, technical improvement, parity imperative, or problem for a specific time horizon.
Themes such as performance improvement, platform expansion, or registration self-service communicates intent and avoids locking you into specific features or stories. Themes gives you the flexibility to revise the how—the specific features or stories needed to deliver the theme and desired outcomes—based on capacity and feedback.
Themes can also serve as a decision-making filter for tactical planning sessions. “Does this story (or features or epic) that we are considering for the next sprint (or release) align to the theme?” If it does, prioritize. If not, don’t invest in it.
5. Your roadmapping process is collaborative. It’s about the roadmapping, not the roadmap. The process requires engagement and involvement with product partners. That means customers (real users and choosers), technology partners (e.g. engineers, developers, testers, architects), and business partners (colleagues from sales, marketing, customer service, all departments involves from launch to support) are engaged in collaborative conversations, workshops, reviews, and feedback on the roadmap.
Roadmapping shouldn’t be a one-time only event. Plan on this taking place over and over again.
6. Make it visible, visual, and accessible. Part of the purpose of a product roadmap is to communicate and obtain agreement for action. That means that multiple diverse stakeholders align themselves to contribute toward achieving common goals and outcomes.
Use hallway walls to make product roadmaps available to everyone to see (barring confidentiality issues), even as it is being developed.
Furthermore, make your roadmaps compact and visually interesting by using visual clues such as colors for icons themes or product areas. This invites people to explore the roadmap, ask questions, challenge, and engage.
7. Link everything to the “why?” (vision, goals, objectives). The first and final test for roadmap greatness is that it provides a coherent path toward your product vision and the outcomes you seek.
Receive the Benefits of Agile Product Roadmaps
Agile product roadmaps continually guide your product toward successful outcomes. Use these seven tips to help make your product roadmap a strategic tool you can use to guide day-to-day action, act collaboratively, and deliver shared product outcomes.