Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” It certainly applies today when it comes to a release of a product or service. The word “map” is appropriate. It describes its purpose as a guide to get from a vision to a realization. However, that path serves another purpose. It maintains the focus on the destination.
Managing a Product Roadmap Successfully
A product roadmap isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan. Project management often involves coordinating more than one team. Dependencies exist between tasks and business goals. The product roadmap sorts out the relevant from the irrelevant, the must-haves from the will-not-haves. Agility and flexibility are baked into a successful product plan.
Definition of a Product Roadmap
A product roadmap summarizes the necessary steps to create a plan for a real product launch or product release. Ideally, the product roadmap also meets all of these criteria:
- It incorporates the vision, the “why,” and the overall direction of your product.
- It puts all team members and stakeholders on the same page.
- It also includes a business strategy with milestones to track the development process.
- It uses many features of SMART goals.
- It is specific about what the desired outcome is.
- It is measurable with metrics that show its progress.
- Its goal is achievable, but it also is Agile to respond to unintended consequences, trends, and the changing marketplace.
- Its objective is to meet a consumer’s need or demand.
- It also has a timeframe, but it’s not dogmatic or inflexible. Its functionality includes the ability to pivot when required.
I believe a roadmap is best described as a prototype of your company’s or product's current strategy.
While it can’t account for every tailwind it may face, a product roadmap keeps the project moving by facilitating communication between teams and stakeholders. Everyone knows the product’s vision and the path forward to achieving it.
How the Product Roadmap Benefits Your Organization
One of the main benefits of a product plan like this is that it fosters accountability and collaboration. Team members know their roles in the big picture. Management and key stakeholders realize the objectives that they must meet. It builds trust within an organization when everyone understands that personal accountability isn’t just requested, it’s expected. This contributes toward your product being aligned with the company goals.
And when done right, it is your best tool for getting all the stakeholders on board with your great product!
For leaders, a product roadmap saves valuable time and money. It keeps everyone on point and reduces inefficiencies that could affect your bottom line. Having the process documented ensures consensus exists among team members. According to the Gallup State of the Workplace Report, individuals value clarity and are 2.5 times more likely to be engaged in the right environment and culture.
Of course, a product roadmap will look different depending on its audience. For example, leadership’s interests will lie with high-level initiatives and market position. Likewise, investors want to see value for the organization. Sales and development teams want clear expectations and information to achieve their objectives.
A well-designed product roadmap will satisfy these needs and streamline the process to fulfillment. It will coordinate task management between internal stakeholders. It brings all stakeholders into the process, allowing them to take ownership of the product's success. The process provides an excellent blueprint for developing other projects or business models.
Steps to Building a Product Roadmap
It’s essential not to rush into building a product roadmap. Instead, creating a successful and helpful product roadmap is a thoughtful process. That’s particularly true if you’re launching a new product. The uncharted waters make it even more critical to the process. However, the time you spend in the planning stage is well-spent if it will safeguard your organization’s bottom line and employee morale.
Step 1. Define the Product Vision.
A good product roadmap achieves its goals when all stakeholders can participate in the planning. Each group brings a new perspective that can add value to the plan. Therefore, the first steps involve the product vision. Ask questions like:
- What is the target audience?
- What consumer need or problem will it solve?
- How does it align with the company’s mission and Objectives & Key Results (OKRs)?
Remember that every product or service is a brick in the foundation of an organization’s brand. The aim is to do something better than the competition with your product. This collaborative goal-setting will provide the backbone for your product development.
Part of the development of a product roadmap is a clear understanding among everyone in the organization is how you define it. Determining what it means to your company and what it should contain should be discussed if it’s your first venture into this type of business planning. Know what the goals of the roadmap are before you start.
Step 2. Solicit Feedback from Stakeholders.
Information gathering is a critical element of the process. It’s easier if your organization is a psychologically safe workplace where everyone feels free to speak their mind. Everyone has their perspective on a product’s development and eventual purchase by customers. Development teams can provide insights into the feasibility and necessary tasks on their end to develop the product.
The sales team can contribute how well product features meet customer needs. They may also offer advice on marketing and pricing strategies. Even employees working in customer service can add to the conversation. After all, they are on the frontline, getting buyers’ feedback firsthand.
It’s also MANDATORY to get input from your external stakeholders, such as your customers (i.e. customer feedback). Surveys (satisfaction, NPS, etc.) and discussions on social media can provide a wealth of information about the features they want in a new product. This information gathering can help your organization prioritize tasks to streamline product management in the long term.
Step 3. Figure Out Your Priorities
A helpful framework for prioritization is the MoSCoW methodology. It stands for must-have, should-have, could-have, and won't-have. The feedback you receive can help you determine the overall value of various features and whether it’s worth the effort for your product team to explore them. It can also guide the development of product goals and an updated timeline.
Other popular prioritization frameworks include RICE (Return, Impact, Confidence, Ease), QFD (Quality Function Deployment), and WSJF (Weighted Shortest Job First). Product development isn’t an easy venture. Neither is the path to the product goals. That makes this piece vital to the success of a launch.
Step 3. Develop a Product Strategy.
The input you’ve received with your product’s vision in mind will provide a solid foundation for creating your product strategy. Undoubtedly, it will vary with the team. Developers and engineers will work on a more granular level and be less focused on revenue. Marketers will look toward how to sell a new product to consumers and make a case for its problem-solving features.
You can create different versions that align with their objectives. Nonetheless, with its vision and strategy, the product roadmap will keep the product on track. Once you have your list of priorities, you can begin building your plan.
Step 4. Determine a Broad Timeframe for Its Launch.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it was that things could change on a dime. It’s impractical to plan too far into the future. Instead, set the focus to 4–6 months. Prioritize your tasks to get the most important ones completed first with an actionable roadmap.
I also recommend getting feedback from your staff on reasonable workloads. Unrealistic expectations are the birthplace of employee burnout. An underlying goal of a product roadmap is to generate enthusiasm for a project—that won’t happen if your people are overworked and facing a strict deadline. Time comes to the forefront again when deciding the overall timeframe of the plan.
It’s worth noting that a product roadmap is a work in progress by design. The need to occasionally re-prioritize initiatives just comes with the gig. That’s where flexibility comes into play. Think of how many companies had to redraw their plans when supply chain issues and labor shortages threw the proverbial wrench in the works! A critical business strategy you should incorporate into your product roadmap is the ability to pivot.
Step 5. Build the Product Roadmap.
Building your plan involves creating a visual diagram of your timeline. It should be easy to read and understand. Remember that its purpose is to guide the process and ensure everyone is on the same page with their tasks, milestones, and key objectives.
If you are bootstrapping your startup, you'll probably look at free product roadmap tools. However, there are many tools for building product roadmaps that will give you powerful features for a low cost. If tools are not your thing right now, you can also make your own using a template or spreadsheet.
The Product Roadmap Management Best Practices I Swear By
A product roadmap is unique for every organization and launch. These steps are only the beginning of the process. Here are some of the habits for managing product roadmaps that have served me well in my career.
1. Tips for Sharing with Stakeholders
The roadmap will do little if it isn’t visible. That’s why you need to share it with all the stakeholders. I highly recommend using a web-based tool, including one that integrates with Jira or your SDLC tool, so you can sync progress in real-time. If that is not an option, using tools such as PowerPoints, Gantt Charts, Google Sheets, or MS Excel online could be a good way to have a centralized place for updates to live. Or, if you must, you can use a non-cloud medium such as Excel or a PDF, to distribute and collect feedback.
The vital thing is that everyone has access to it. This is the core principle for Agile teams. Seeing it reinforces its message. It’s also an opportunity to edit or amend it if something was overlooked in the development phase.
You can use a modified version to publish on your organization’s website or on social media. It can go a long way toward creating buzz about a new product and help drive early sales when it launches alongside your internal roadmap. I suggest using it as a platform to reiterate your brand’s mission. However, I also recommend refraining from specifying dates with a very broad audience. A Now/Next/Later roadmap can be perfect for high-level updates.
A short but to-the-point disclaimer is a wise plan. At minimum, you have to say, “Subject to Change.” The chances are that your consumers /stakeholders/development teams are used to the issues facing the delivery of Epics/Stories/Tasks, as software development is highly complex.
2. Value > Features
The main selling point for a product should rest with its value instead of its bells and whistles. That will fuel the buzz and generate customer feedback and interest in its release. The roadmap should emphasize this point throughout the development and marketing process. After all, the primary objective is that the product succeeds. Making value a priority will ensure its success, particularly in a crowded marketplace.
3. One Roadmap = One Owner
The value of a product roadmap is its timeline and focus on meeting its initiatives. While the former may change due to circumstances in the short-term, the latter should remain the same, barring something unforeseen.
Therefore, it behooves you to ensure only one user or group has edit access to the final internal roadmap document. That can eliminate the possibility of someone moving the goalposts or the dreaded "too many cooks in the kitchen" scenario.
It’s worth mentioning again that different teams will have varying objectives. While not necessarily in conflict with others, some may try to speed up the process with tasks with which they are not involved. Limiting access to the roadmap will nip that issue in the bud.
4. Update the Roadmap Frequently
Flexibility comes into the game when it comes to revisiting your product roadmap. Remember that your team created it without the benefit of knowing the outcome of various initiatives. Things happen, and then things change. It’s much easier to correct a minor issue than one that has gone unnoticed for a while. It also reinforces the product goals.
I suggest making the habit of a monthly or even a bi-weekly review, depending on the nature of the product and the work involved. You should also send the word out to your staff when the roadmap is updated. You should also encourage your team members to consult it frequently so that everyone stays on course. Much of this can happen automatically if you use an online roadmap tool that syncs with your project management software.
5. Mind Your Backlog!
Some initiatives probably didn’t make it into your product roadmap. However, you shouldn’t ignore them. As you meet milestones, you can free up resources to tackle tasks by re-prioritizing your backlog. It can offer excellent fodder when updating your current plan. It’s essential to revisit them frequently so that they don’t get lost in the black hole of forgotten ideas.
Circumstances, trends, and the collective mood of your customer base evolve. What may not have worked at the onset might be the next viral element. Those could-haves can easily become must-haves.
6. The Importance of a Deep Relationship with Engineering
One commonly overlooked dynamic with a company’s process for creating a product roadmap is the level of alignment needed with engineering. It’s critical for product teams to develop a deep relationship with engineering around your internal roadmap. This will ensure new features are planned out according to their level of effort (LOE) and estimated time frame. Also, this allows the business to ensure they navigate each sprint or product release understanding the level of risk.
7. How to Say “NO!”
Another key point to remember is that it's healthy, and even necessary, to say “NO” during the roadmap process. Specific features will not meet your product's vision, your customers' needs, or the broader needs of your product. Remember, it’s okay to say "no" because by saying no, you’re saying yes to what is a priority on your roadmap and protecting the time of your development teams.
The success of a product often depends more on the run-up leading to its launch than the release of the item itself. A product roadmap provides an ideal way to develop a plan and strategy that optimizes the skills of your team. It ensures clear communication and expectations to minimize avoidable problems. However, it’s also a living document that responds to changes. It is Agile and flexible. Remember, it’s a prototype of your company’s current strategy. A tool for you to use to incite feedback and bring people together.
While the focus is on the product, a roadmap offers many indirect benefits to an organization. It fosters a culture of collaboration while building trust and accountability. Employees working toward a common goal cultivate teamwork and strengthen morale. It can be one of the most important documents that your company creates.
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