Product managers are the navigation system of a company. Think about it like GPS. When you enter an address into GPS, you get the final destination — as well as a list of the turns you need to make in order to get there. Product managers essentially do the same thing for an organization.
You set a high-level course for the product direction and then organize the actual work needed to make the vision a reality.
You do this with a strategic product roadmap with corresponding release plans. The product roadmap will help you think about the big picture, while the release plans will show you the step-by-step details that will help you deliver a Complete Product Experience.
Your product roadmap visualizes the high-level strategic initiatives along with major bodies of work that you will do to achieve those initiatives. It encompasses areas of innovation and investment to help your product win in the market and in customer love. Release plans then drill into the details of how to reach each short-term destination.
But release plans are not just lists of tasks. Solid release plans consider the cross-functional work needed for the team to deliver new functionality, from marketing efforts to customer support documentation to sales training. As a product manager, you are not the one completing that work. But you need to include these phases and milestones to ensure a cohesive experience for customers.
In other words, the product roadmap is the “why” of the work and the release plans describe “when” you will deliver the “what” (the actual features). You need to have both before you can steer your product plan to the “how” — the implementation done by the engineering team.
Though product roadmaps and release plans are different, as a product manager you are responsible for both. So you need to understand those differences.
Here are the main differences between the product roadmap and the release plan:
Product roadmaps visualize how the team will work to accomplish business objectives. They show the direction of the product, as well as the high-level initiatives or themes of work. Product roadmaps also serve as a communication and trade-off tool. Teams can share the roadmap to keep internal and external groups informed, as well as to evaluate requests against planned work.
Release plans detail the things the team needs to build or realize in order to accomplish the goals. These plans show phases of work and any dependencies that may impact the release date. They help keep cross-functional teams who are responsible for delivering a new customer experience aligned and accountable. Just like a product roadmap, a release plan is an essential communication tool.
Product roadmaps often include the following components:
- Product goals
- Strategic initiatives
- Releases and features that deliver on the goals
- Master features (or epics)
- Major user stories
- Overall timeline
Release plans often include these components:
Product roadmaps can be tailored for internal teams like marketing, sales, and engineering — or for external stakeholders like executives, advisory boards, and customers. For internal teams, roadmaps can help facilitate cross-functional coordination and keep everyone on track. For external teams, you can give a high-level view of the product direction and areas of investment.
Release plans are for the internal product team and other cross-functional contributors. Having a comprehensive plan that details each phase of a release will help the team plan and track the details of upcoming work. The goal is to avoid surprises and missed deadlines.
Product roadmaps typically include dates that can range from weeks or months to quarters and sometimes even years. The time scale used depends on the type of roadmap and the level of detail required for the audience. But the type of roadmap we are using as a concept here would show a longer time frame and highlight strategic initiatives. Keep in mind that a product roadmap is not a one-off. Updating it should be a continuous process as you collect features and requirements from internal teams and customers.
Release plans typically lay out a shorter timeline. Depending on how frequently a company launches new products or releases new functionality, a release plan may be 30, 60, or 90 days. Some organizations with complex technology or infrastructure may release quarterly or even annually. No matter the time frame, as changes to the product roadmap happen, the release plan needs to be updated as well.
Think of your product roadmap as the overall direction you want to go and your release plans as the details for the specific stops you will make along the way.
After all, you cannot reach your destination without knowing where you want to go and what you need to do to get there. So plug in your desired coordinates, think about the route you want to take, and enjoy the journey.
How do you use product roadmaps and release plans in your work?
The road to building better products starts here.