6 Questions to Ask Before Planning Your 2016 Product Roadmap

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

—Winston Churchill, British prime minister

The best lens on the future is the past. It’s not perfect, but there are trends that it will reveal. Ultimately, that means the plans you make for next year must be guided by your results from this year.

Throughout 2015 you have been communicating your product plans to others. But how often do you reflect on what you planned versus what you delivered?

Just as your development team adjusts its expectations of delivery based on velocity, product managers should adjust their plans based on the realities of recent history. Absent change, you’re likely to see the same results from the past in the future.

You made last year’s plan with a set of assumptions: what customers need, the size and skills of your product team, an expected rate of customer acquisition and retention, a level of funding for marketing and sales programs. Now it’s time to re-examine those assumptions and revise them based on your results.

Before you finalize your 2016 roadmap, ask these six questions about your 2015 roadmap first.

Were your goals meaningful?
Always start with your goals. And I will challenge you to take them one step further. Rather than simply analyzing whether you achieved your goals or fell short, ask yourself whether these were the most meaningful goals you could have had in 2015?

Take all your prior commitments out. If you had to do it all over again, would these still be your top goals for the year? This will ensure that the goals connected to your roadmap will drive the right strategic initiatives, and ultimately the right features and requirements for next year.

Did you live up to your promises?
When you start looking ahead to the next phases of deliverables, take a moment to see where you’ve been. Comparing roadmap items that were planned versus delivered can show you where to focus further attention.

One company’s roadmap that I worked with showed planned delivery of major new functionality each month. But the team didn’t gel as quickly as expected and the product manager soon realized that the team’s productivity was less than what they had anticipated. As a result, the new functionality was delivered “late,” not every month as planned.

What did you promise to the teams that depend on you, like sales and marketing? What commitments did you make—intended or not—and did you keep them? Consider their work in the context of your own. Your success (or failure) affects more than just the product team.

Did you leave out any key areas of the business?
When performing a retrospective, look beyond the technology of the product; analyze the business of the product as well. Review its development, marketing, sales, and support — all the resources that it received. Ask yourself if you missed a key functional area of the business on your 2015 roadmap.

For example, a company review of successful client implementations revealed some common aspects of their customers — information that was not previously captured on their roadmap. By looking at past successes of the support and customer success groups, the product team was able to update their persona definitions. The result? More targeted focus on development and promotion in the upcoming year.

Who were your best customers and why?
Asking this question allows you to revise your roadmap to prioritize the features that will drive the most value to your customers. It also means you can examine your product capabilities, promotional methods, and sales programs to find areas of improvement.

If you listen, your customers will tell you what they liked, loved, and are willing to pay for. This allows you to deliver more of what works for your unique product and market.

Was your product team able to stay on track?
If items on your roadmap fell short, was it because the team could not deliver them? You must answer this question honestly if you want to have success in 2016. I am not talking about placing blame; this exercise involves understanding your team’s limitations.

Be careful not to underestimate or overestimate your team’s ability to deliver the functionality you have committed to. Embrace what you all can accomplish — and plan accordingly in 2016.

How was your roadmap actually used?
For many organizations, a product roadmap is not seen as a plan — it is a commitment. Salespeople and customers assume that items on the roadmap will be delivered on or before the dates you’ve shared. But when a roadmap is a commitment, we cannot adapt to changing market conditions.

How is your roadmap being used in the selling of your product? And has this caused negative effects to your plans? Roadmaps paint a crucial picture of where your product is going. But you have to have a deep understanding of how they are actually being utilized by your company and key stakeholders.

Remember that results from this year should strongly influence next year’s planning. That is why it is important to look back for a moment before turning your focus towards the future.

These six questions have helped me work with clients to improve performance. I hope they will improve your chances for 2016 roadmapping success as well.

This is a guest post by Steve Johnson. If you are looking to be a great product manager or owner, create brilliant strategy, and build visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha!

About the author
Steve Johnson is a recognized thought leader and storyteller within the technology product community. At Under10 Consulting, he helps product teams implement the latest methods for today’s business environments.

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