Roadmaps are scary. For product managers, a roadmap is the most widely discussed and circulated document. Despite being one of the most essential parts of their job, many product managers are afraid of their roadmap.
I don’t mean the actual roadmap is spooky or terrifying. But maintaining one, defending one, and owning one is daunting. Moreover, the magnitude and importance of roadmaps can be downright intimidating.
But let’s unpack why a roadmap seems scary. When we understand how to take on roadmap challenges, we can embrace how powerful a roadmap can be.
5 Reasons You’re Afraid of Your Product Roadmap
It’s time to face your roadmap demons and break down the elements that might make a product roadmap seem so intimidating.
It’s crucial to keep roadmaps up-to-date. An old roadmap still in circulation creates false expectations and confuses customers and stakeholders. But roadmaps don’t update themselves, which means you’re on the hook for keeping it current.
Creating a roadmap means you’re signing up for an ongoing commitment. Roadmaps aren’t temporary, and they don’t go away. Once they exist, multiple teams and stakeholders depend on them to dictate their priorities and activities.
Knowing that this single document is driving so much activity can be daunting. So is the pressure to ensure its ongoing accuracy. With so many moving parts, this might seem hopeless to manage the chaos that ensues once it makes its debut.
2. Stakeholder friction
Committing your plan to paper opens it up to criticism. A roadmap lays out precisely what’s supposed to happen. It forces everyone to reckon with the hard choices and trade-offs required to set a course forward.
Seeing everything spelled out is likely to rankle a few feathers. It could stir up some drama if stakeholders weren’t previously aligned. Pet projects and personal priorities may have been delayed or left out entirely. You could end up directing resources towards initiatives not everyone loves.
The product manager ends up in the middle, defending the document and justifying why everything is where it is. This defense can be uncomfortable and intimidating for anyone, mainly if some stakeholders are vocal and aggressive in their dissent.
3. Putting your stake in the ground
Many roles in an organization don’t require such a public declaration of intent. A roadmap is unique in that respect.
While other teams may have plans that they need to gain approval for, a product roadmap tells the entire organization what’s going to happen (or at least what’s planned).
A roadmap exposes product managers to criticism, comment, and questioning that few others will ever face. And you’ve got to do it regularly since as you make progress, priorities shift, and strategies evolve.
4. Minimizing your work
Product managers wear many hats. They have an array of responsibilities in their portfolio, yet the product roadmap is often the only work product that some stakeholders and other teams will ever see. For those unfamiliar with the role of a product manager, they might think that creating a roadmap is the only thing you do.
Summing up all your work into a roadmap, which is often fitted on just one sheet of paper, might make you seem like a one-trick pony. I mean, you put one of these out once a quarter then what are you doing the rest of the time?
Since product management can be so misunderstood, it’s scary to think coworkers believe maintaining a roadmap is all you do.
5. The sheer weight of the commitment
To create a roadmap, product managers have already had to do a lot of tough things. They’ve had to say no repeatedly, shooting down the hopes and wishes of stakeholders with the aim of advancing the overall corporate strategy. They have to balance competing priorities, using frameworks to score and rank the various development options, whittling things down to the most vital and prudent initiatives.
But after sifting, sorting, scoping, and slotting, a complete roadmap broadcasts a vision for the future. Despite the very real possibilities of things getting switched up due to outside forces, roadmap readers expect the initiatives on the roadmap to happen.
This assuredness exposes product managers to future criticisms and doubts. Things may not proceed according to plan, even if those extenuating circumstances are no fault of the product manager themselves. Yet people are counting on what’s communicated via the roadmap to play out. When they don’t, the fault often falls on the author, damaging their credibility.
5 Reasons to Not Be Afraid of Your Product Roadmap
Just because you may be afraid of the product roadmap process, doesn’t mean you can’t tackle it efficiently. Let’s discuss how to confront these challenges and roadmap with confidence.
1. The roadmap to your roadmap
If your roadmap is in a silo and you base your priorities on intuition, you risk opening yourself up to criticism and resistance.
That’s why you must view your roadmap as the culmination of a lengthy, collaborative process. Involve stakeholders and multiple data sources in the information gathering and prioritization process. Your roadmap should be more of a synthesis of many viewpoints rather than your personal vision of the future.
If you’ve checked in multiple times with decision-makers, previewed potential sticking points, and prepared for possible objections and complaints, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.
2. Don’t drown yourself in details
A fatal mistake many product managers make is turning a roadmap into a sequential list of features with dated deadlines. But, there are two downsides to this.
The first is that things will slip. Your dates will cause you to over-commit and under-deliver, and you’ll have to shift and swap specific features. You risk failure when you include that level of specificity.
The second point is that roadmaps are not the same as a schedule. We recommend that you elevate the scope of the roadmap by using themes. Outcome-based roadmaps free you from focusing on implementation specifics. Instead, it shifts the focus to how to achieve goals.
“There are better ways to motivate people about your aspirations than to create a big list of features that you don’t know anyone wants and assign arbitrary dates to them,” says Cody Simms of TechStars. “Plus, when you inevitably (and magically) “vanish” things off the roadmap after good experimentation proves them not valuable, there’s a decent chance your credibility takes a hit even when you are actually doing the right thing.”
Driven by the product vision that stakeholders should already be aligned around, themes are highly visual and adaptable as the actual implementation unfolds. Use them to build consensus and support. Leave the features and functionality out of the document.
3. You’re taking a one-size-fits-all approach
Do a customer, an executive, and an engineer all care about the same things? No. So why give them the same roadmap?
A common misstep we see is viewing the roadmap as an all-purpose document that must serve every possible constituent that comes into contact with it.
Tailoring your roadmap to specific audiences can make things much less scary. When salespeople and customers don’t have any dates, they can’t complain about things being late!
While an executive cares about strategic objectives, an engineer wants to understand technical interdependencies. Each group deserves its own version of the roadmap, tailored to their interests and limited to the information they need.
4. Remember that you’re solving customer problems
Product managers are responsible for building valuable products that solve customer problems. The vision and strategy of your roadmap is key to turning that goal into a reality.
Put on your customer-centric hat and think about all the people that will benefit from the product plans you’ve devised. While you might be scared of things going sideways, your roadmap is the driver of future customer delight!
5. The roadmap is your chance to shine
Product managers don’t always get a large forum, but roadmaps are one of their few chances to share the fruits of their labor with a broad audience. If you’ve done your homework and put in the effort, you will be proud of your roadmap.
Presenting it to others—or simply knowing others are referencing it—means your hard work is paying off. Your roadmap guides your product to future successes and growth. You’re inspiring others to do their best work and make your vision a reality. Don’t let your worries rob you of this opportunity to accomplish your goals.