What is a product roadmap? Simple enough question. Most product managers would say that a product roadmap lays out the future. But then ask to see that product roadmap and what do you get? A few technical bits about what is planned, captured in a spreadsheet or bug tracking tool.
This is not a roadmap. This is a collection of feature stuff — no strategic theme, impossible to understand how the work ties into the company’s goals.
The disconnect between strategy and work in so many organizations is one of the reasons that we founded Aha! — to help product managers build a real roadmap and connect it to a higher-level vision. All so you can focus on building a product that customers love. Even better, so you can maintain some control and be happy while you are doing it.
No matter what it is you actually build, it is important to know why you are building it and where you want to end up over time. This was true in 2013 when we launched the company and is as true today. It might even be more important as businesses and consumers have more choices now.
The companies that will succeed in 2018 will be the ones that lead with a bold vision and disciplined execution — connecting strategy to work. The ones that have a real roadmap.
You might think this is easy for me to write. After all, I am the co-founder and CEO of a company that provides roadmapping software to many of the world’s best-known technology companies. Some days it may feel as though it takes all your effort just to capture those technical bits, right?
I can understand. Perhaps you work at an organization with a nascent product management discipline or are a new product manager yourself. Or there are layers of dysfunction and a lack of true strategic vision.
But you can still strive towards building a real roadmap. Here is what I suggest:
Start with “why”
You have technical bits planned, but no grounding answer why those are the right bits. You need to start here, with “why” — so you can center your product themes and prioritize the details of your roadmap around a strategy that is market and customer driven. Remember: Strategic thinking is not something that is reserved for VP titles.
Set some goals
Your company might not put goals first, but you can lead the way. Set quantifiable goals for what you want to achieve in the next year. Then frame out the initiatives that will get you there. And here is the big part — when you identify those heavy boulders you want to move, consider both the current capability and mindset of your organization as well as the future of what could be.
Now you have an idea of the “why” behind the “what.” But you need to share your approach and get feedback from the stakeholders in your organization. Know that there is a balance to driving alignment — you cannot afford to delay decision making by waiting for unanimous agreement. But you also cannot afford to steamroll people. You want to work towards building a shared understanding. This takes diplomacy, strength, humility, and kindness (in near equal parts).
Articulate exactly what your customers need and write it down. Write all the details down. And use language that explains the functionality based on what it will help end users achieve. Do not assume your high-level concepts will be understood if you do not think through and share the specifics. What are the problems customers are facing and how can your product help them? Describe and refine the desired features. Leave the technical implementation details and how the work will be done to the engineering team.
You know where you are going and why. You have some organizational support. And you have put in the effort to explain what is needed. Feels good, right? Harness that momentum and build out the details of your roadmap. Once you have those key themes and understand how they will benefit customers, you can begin to fill in the nitty gritty with confidence. And you will be well prepared to firmly say “no” to shiny new ideas that do not align.
When you get it right, a strategic roadmap is a powerful tool for aligning the team. But you will not get there by jumping straight into the technical details.
As one of the best managers I ever worked with told me, “She with a plan wins.” So set a clear direction by presenting the high-level themes and how they benefit customers. Explain your thinking and show how the plan fits into where you (and by default, the product) are headed. Then share your plan so everyone on your team can win together.
Do this and you will be well on your way to a real, actionable product roadmap.
What do you think is in a perfect roadmap?