Alec Mountain

Alec Mountain is an internet entrepreneur based out of Seattle WA. His work specializes in marketing and brand development.

Re-Launching the Product Roadmap for Success: Requirements for Optimal Outcomes

In the product development world, roadmaps often face criticism. They’re blamed for unrealistic deadlines and missing market opportunities. As many might say, “A product roadmap isn’t meant to survive contact with reality.”

Let’s take a step back and look at the origin of product roadmaps in the first place. From a technology standpoint, Motorola began using the term ‘roadmap’ in the 1980s to align technology and product development. These roadmaps became widely accepted in the 1990s in the semiconductor industry and eventually were adopted by leading tech companies like Microsoft and Google. Roadmaps existed to inform stakeholders of when major upgrades to products were coming, so purchases could be planned many months in advance. Especially in hardware-focused businesses, planning still continues to be essential. However, with the explosion of software along with the adoption of lean and agile practices that preach data-driven product decisions and rapid release cycles, the traditional roadmap has served as unwieldy. This is because tech becomes obsolete, dates change, priorities shift, customer needs evolve, and there’s increasing competition. As a product person do you stay the course of a plan that doesn’t make sense several months later or do you break promises to your customer?

The reality is that traditional roadmaps don’t map to today’s product development efforts. Having static release dates and feature requirements planned far in advance is unrealistic and has resulted in the abandonment of product roadmaps in general. Though, what if we revamped the core of the product roadmap to better accommodate lean and agile practices? Criticized for not being able to survive contact with reality, the modern roadmap actually isn’t meant to. Initial prototypes and MVPs are likely to get ripped apart in feedback sessions with your early customers. The roadmap should operate in the same way and adapt as you learn more. It shouldn’t be a promise-delivering document that serves as a commitment to your customer, but rather a prototype for your strategy. It’s a tool that will help align and guide the vision of the company, while serving as an excellent way to gather feedback from customers.

Traditional roadmaps have provided the positives of setting a vision and direction, but they need to be updated to better adapt to current methodologies of software development.

As previously stated, a solid roadmap today is not a project plan with definitive dates and features, but rather serves as a strategic communication tool with intent and direction. It’s how you intend to achieve your product vision and focuses on the value you expect to deliver to your customer and organization.

To create a successful roadmap today, here are necessary requirements you’ll want to have included:

 

Have the organization’s plans put in a strategic context

The roadmap should articulate why you’re focusing on a certain product, it’s importance, and how it’s absolutely critical to success. Traditional roadmaps were too focused on deliverables, which resulted in leaving out critical context as to why the organization is focused on those specific things to begin with. Product people spend large amounts of time strategizing the specifics of a product through research, design, architecture, and more. A failure to clearly explain their thinking to the people involved in the execution will result in a lack of similar vision with those in departments such as marketing, sales, and finance. This will negatively impact coordination efforts. The roadmap should be tied to a compelling vision of the future that demonstrates what it will mean to be successful in terms of the customer, the company, and even the world.

 

Focus the roadmap on delivering value to customers and the organization

Though teams have started measuring the actual effect of additions and (or) changes to their product as it relates to business results, these themes often don’t make it to the roadmap. There should be real estimates or expectations for business results and customer behavior on the roadmap, rather than just product release dates. Because if the only criteria for management to judge success based off of is whether the team shipped on time, does being on schedule even matter if it had no effect on customer satisfaction or business results? Negative consequences of just focusing on release dates in a roadmap include a lack of providing customer value, which doesn’t increase customer satisfaction or positively impact business KPIs. Instead, focus the roadmap on delivering value through solutions to customer needs and problems.  

 

Embrace learning through your roadmap  

Executives and customers are known to demand commitments. That presents itself as problem when a deal is committed to (in a form of features or services), but something changes in the business where it’s no longer reasonable to follow through with it. A way to avoid these situations is to have conversations related to outcomes rather than output. Conversations about values and goals, rather than specific features. That way you as a product owner can be more flexible down the line with the actual output you create, as long as it’s still meeting the criteria of what the customer deems important from a value standpoint. If you can properly articulate the value you intend to deliver, then the specific details of how that’s going to be delivered is less important. If you commit to a single solution too early, you constrain your options. But when you can create relationships based on trust in providing value, customers will understand when you have to change your direction or priorities on the roadmap.

 

Have the roadmap rally the organization around a set of priorities for the product(s)

For each component in the roadmap, it’s important to explain the value of it to both the customer and the organization. Getting alignment on priorities in the roadmap is critical to execution. Organizations that lack alignment miss out on market opportunities based on problems such as marketing not knowing how to explain your product or the sales team continuing to sell last year’s offerings. Instead, involve various departments in the decisions that will affect them. This means sharing your thinking early and gathering their input. The product team is responsible for taking input from all relevant departments in the organizations then coming to consensus on what the product should ultimately be.

 

The roadmap should get customers excited about the direction of the product

If customers aren’t excited about your new features, then that’s a problem. That’s because just hitting your target dates for feature releases is not a guarantee of market acceptance or business results. To establish what needs to be built requires a solid amount of experimentation through communication with the customer. With a roadmap essentially being a prototype for your strategy, it’s a must to allow customers to view your roadmap and allow them to offer feedback. Sharing a roadmap with customers might sound scary for worry that anything they say will be held against you in the future (which could happen), but communicating effectively the product direction will allow you to better address their needs and make sure you’re on the same page. Otherwise, you risk customers not using the features you put large amounts of efforts and (or) sales don’t meet expectations (because you’re not bringing anything of true, validated value)! Use the roadmap to reality-check your direction with customers. Having conversations about the roadmap allows product people to verify their understanding of the market needs before investing into development.

 

In Conclusion:

If you can successfully create a modernized roadmap for today’s software development practices, it will better steer the company toward a unified strategy that aligns with the organization’s mission. It’s not about creating a project plan, but rather a strategic communications tool that demonstrates intent and direction.

As a recap, here are a few key takeaways to building a proper roadmap:

  • Establish a product vision that relates to your company vision with goals to help measure your progress
  • Focus on outcomes rather than features and dates
  • Prioritize based on ROI (business and customer value)
  • Use input from all stakeholders to drive alignment (marketing, sales, design, etc.)
  • Clearly communicate ongoing change through sharing the product roadmap

If you can follow the above, it’s very doable to set clear direction, while embracing the uncertainties of product development in the modern era.

Thanks for reading!