Most product managers know the product roadmap can be your best friend, or your worst nightmare. When used in the right way, the roadmap can help explain how you’ll achieve your vision. And when used in the wrong way, the roadmap can sink you with endless PowerPoint updates, meaningless features, and commitments that can never be delivered.
At a recent meetup, I sat with a diverse group of product managers, to get to the heart of the roadmap issue. The folks in the room came from corporate and startup and had a range of experience. Most were working locally in Sydney, Australia, but we were also joined by an expat who was on sabbatical from Silicon Valley.
In two hours, five key insights emerged around the problems that can make roadmaps ineffective and troublesome.
1. Your Organization Has Too Many Priorities
One participant shared with us that his startup had seven KPIs they were tracking, essentially seven priorities… as you can imagine, this was making his job as product manager incredibly difficult. How can you prioritize development when you’re trying to move the dial on seven things at once?
In situations like these, it can be easy to fall into the trap of building a little bit of everything, to somewhat satisfy each of the KPIs. But it’s also easy to fall short on every single one of those priorities and create a Frankenstein product in the process.
The hard road is to push back and work with the team to identify a single clear priority, whether that be revenue, user acquisition, learning goals, or something else. This is a potentially confrontational discussion to have, but one that will pay off in terms of being able to get traction on that single goal.
2. Your Roadmap Isn’t Visually Attractive
This one may cause some debate. One of our participants recounted that his CPO claimed he’d never known an ugly roadmap to be successful.
Roadmaps are communication tools, so if good design results in the roadmap being easy to understand, that’s obviously an essential requirement. But of course aesthetics can go much further than that, and represent real beauty, design and style.
There’s a strong argument that aesthetics lend credibility. They give your document the sense of being crafted with care and attention. They suggest to the audience that you’re a professional who can be trusted to deliver on the vision. When the audience has that level of faith in you and the roadmap, it helps drive their future behavior to support those outcomes.
The keyword, of course, is audience. It’s common to create different versions of a roadmap for different audiences – a practice often focused on the content of the roadmap, but sometimes design too. Some personalities will value aesthetics, while others won’t. A product manager can deduce the preferences of the audience and consider the context to hit the right note on visual appeal.
3. Your Roadmap Was Created in a Vacuum
Stakeholder management is the bread and butter of product management. And I have a theory that the skill of being a universal translator is what lands many people in the product management field. (That means I think you’re pretty good at it already).
But sometimes, the need to own the roadmap drives product managers to produce it alone, or without the input of some parts of the wider organization.
This mistake is avoided with a balance of ego and humility. Product managers have to be humble enough to recognize the best ideas, even when they aren’t their own. They also have to be strong enough to push back on ideas that have no links to strategic objectives or the target customers.
By walking this balance, product managers can own the roadmap, while keeping stakeholders involved in the process. Ultimately this provides the foundation for the organization to deliver on the roadmap together. Alignment like that is a powerful force.
4. Your Roadmap Lacks Links to The Product Vision
A roadmap should describe how the product is going to move the product toward the vision. I hear this mantra a lot and our meetup group spent some time discussing this concept.
It’s not that product managers disagree with this one, it’s just sometimes hard to bring to life in the roadmap document. Some say we never see good examples from real companies, while others aren’t sure links to strategic goals can be concisely communicated.
Think of it this way. Your roadmap is not a list of features and functionality and it’s not a project plan. It’s the document that shows how your organization will get from where you are today to the product objective. Tell your product story in a compelling way. This story will include people (your users), the journey the product is going on (the roadmap), and why it’s important (the link to the vision).
5. Your Roadmap Changes Every Other Week
One of our meetup participants shared that his roadmap was changing on a fairly regular basis. This creates a lot of busy-work to keep the roadmap up-to-date, but more importantly, when the roadmap changes constantly it’s unlikely you’re getting any closer to those strategic goals.
Roadmaps can change, in fact they should change, in response to learning, shifts in the market, and sometimes competitor activities. But too many changes suggest indecision. They suggest the organization isn’t sure how to achieve its strategic goals.
If that’s the case, then it’s time to take action around that indecision. Dig into what’s driving it and set learning goals designed to reduce risks and doubts.
Ruined Roadmaps Saved…
There is no magic wand. Like our products, we need to iterate ourselves, constantly observing our successes and failures to improve the roadmaps we present. Many of the senior product professionals I meet say their on the job experience provides the most powerful learning opportunity, but talking with peers about the challenges they face also figures strongly in the way they build their capabilities.
Meetups – or getting the perspective of another product manager – can provide an alternate view on the roadmap, which just might help reveal you’ve fallen into one of these traps. We’ve all done at least one of these at some point in our careers (Yep, I admit to it!) And we’d probably like to avoid making the same mistake again.
About the Guest Author:
Jen Marshall is CEO at Brainmates, the Australian Product Management Training and Consulting company that organizes the Leading the Product conference in Sydney and Melbourne. In her spare time, Jen practices Vinyasa Yoga, dabbles in philosophy and listens to crime and mystery audiobooks.
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