Declaring Roadmap Bankruptcy

Annie Dunham
Former VP of Product Management at ProductPlan

Declaring Roadmap Bankruptcy | ProductPlan

Is it Time to Declare Roadmap Bankruptcy?

Whether your product finds a market or falls flat, your team needs to understand why this outcome occurred. That way, you’ll know if your strategic plan is working and your roadmap is on the right track, or if it’s time to declare roadmap bankruptcy.

In my years as a product manager and product leader, I’ve seen many product teams draw the wrong conclusions from both failures and successes. Even a product that’s earning money and pulling in new customers can be enjoying that success for reasons that have little or nothing to do with what the product team is prioritizing at the time. In fact, those can be the costliest misjudgments. They could lead the team to misallocate resources away from work that could build on its successes and focus on things that don’t move the needle at all.

In this post, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about when you might need to make major adjustments specifically to your product roadmap—whether your product is falling short of expectations or exceeding them. Then I’ll suggest a few steps you can take to build your roadmap in such a way that you won’t have to declare it bankrupt in the first place. If you’re curious, I’ve also written my thoughts on when it’s time to declare backlog bankruptcy.

3 Signs that Declaring Roadmap Bankruptcy is a Fit

1. Fundamental realities have changed since you last updated it.

For this example, we’ll use ProductPlan ourselves as a case study.

Throughout the 2020 COVID crisis, we closely monitored customers’ usage data around the world using our product roadmap platform. Based on those data trends, we found that product teams are shifting their behaviors and priorities according to new realities brought on by the pandemic. Our product team has updated our own strategic plans and priorities on our roadmap with this new information.

No, ProductPlan didn’t need to declare roadmap bankruptcy. We needed only to move certain initiatives higher on our priority list and shift others to our backlog.

But if we were not paying close attention to how our customers were using our product, we might eventually have found that our existing plans—now based on a changing paradigm—no longer supported our business objectives.

Another example: If fundamental realities change for a product’s key persona or industry, those changes could render the existing roadmap no longer viable. At that point, the product team might need to find a way to pivot its product or focus on a new solution.

My take: The pandemic and the lockdowns led to such serious disruptions across so many industries that any company’s pre-COVID product roadmap will benefit from a fresh look in light of the new realities. Declaring such a roadmap ready for an overhaul might not be nearly as harmful to your business as insisting on continuing with a product strategy that fails to account for the major shift we all just experienced.

2. Your work on the product is not contributing to your KPIs.

Whenever you build a new product or update an existing one, your team might set any number of key performance indicators (KPIs), or success metrics, for it. For example, you might be hoping the product will:

  • Grow your market share relative to a key competitor
  • Win over a new type of user or  buyer persona
  • Help your company earn customers in a new market
  • Increase monthly recurring revenue (MRR) from an existing market
  • Increase free-trial signups

You might be releasing new product features and enhancements regularly. You might be aggressively advertising to your target markets. But if all of those efforts are not translating to a boost in the specific success metrics you’ve established, you might be misallocating your resources. While product metrics are not an exact science when all signs point to a downward trend, it may be time to declare roadmap bankruptcy.

At a minimum, it might be time to review your strategic priorities in light of this. If most or all of your initiatives fail to achieve the objectives you’ve set for them, it might be time to declare roadmap bankruptcy.

Note: As you might have noticed, this type of warning signal can be present even for a product that succeeds in the market.Maybe you’ve released a new version of your product, and it receives a lot of free-trial signups. But if the roadmap initiatives your team completed for this release had nothing to do with that KPI, there is a disconnect between your roadmap and the market’s priorities. For example, if your team prioritized bug fixes and eliminating technical debt in the product.

In this situation, you can’t simply declare success because you saw a spike in trials. You’ll need to review all of your company’s efforts to figure out what led to the spike in signups. This includes efforts across all teams—marketing, advertising, sales, or social media activity. You’ll also want to review your roadmap to determine if your team is working on the wrong things.

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3. Your product team is falling for the “post hoc” fallacy.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase meaning: After the thing, therefore because of the thing. It’s a logical fallacy that confuses sequence with causation. To use a silly example: I took a different route home this evening, and it rained overnight. Therefore, when I deviate from my normal drive home, it rains.

You can find examples of the post hoc fallacy everywhere, and falling for its subtler versions is easier than you might think. Let’s say your company releases a new version of your product. Let’s also assume your team packed this update with cool new features. Six months later, the overall revenue from the product is up. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Not necessarily.

What if…

  • The spike in revenue had nothing to do with the new release?
  • Your sales team hit on an effective new strategy for presenting the product to customers in demos?
  • Your marketing team created a brilliant piece of social media content that went viral?
  • A persona in an industry you weren’t even targeting somehow discovered your product?
  • Word got out in that industry, and the orders flooded in.
  • Word got out in that industry, and the orders flooded in.

If you’re not monitoring these details carefully, you might make this pervasive post hoc error: We did a lot of work on the product and released it to the market. Product revenue increased. Therefore, our work on the product led to an increase in revenue.

By the way, the post hoc fallacy works for the opposite outcome as well. Your team might just as easily attribute a product failure to a poor sales presentation or a badly designed eCommerce experience. But those things had nothing to do with why your solution failed to find a product-market fit.

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3 Steps to Developing a Bankruptcy-Resistant Product Roadmap

As I pointed out above, sometimes a roadmap becomes bankrupt, not due to anything the product team does but simply because external realities demand a new approach. For many companies today, the fallout from COVID might have caused such a shift.

I bring this up again to note that no matter how carefully you build your product roadmap, you might need to declare it bankrupt in the future because of the ground shifts beneath you. In other words, you can’t create a roadmap that is truly bankruptcy-proof.

But the following steps should help you develop a roadmap that’s at least bankruptcy-resistant.

1. First, make sure you’re actually solving a real market problem.

You should never begin developing a product roadmap until you’ve determined—based on evidence—that the product idea addresses a market problem worth solving.

Here’s the easiest way to find yourself in roadmap bankruptcy. Start with a product idea your team is excited about but that you haven’t also vetted with a ready, eager market.

Now, even if you have vetted your idea, your team can still fall short in executing the details. But if you don’t first make sure you’re building a product that solves a real problem for real people—one they’re willing to pay to solve—your roadmap won’t stand much of a chance of success.
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2. Set specific success metrics for each initiative.

Okay, let’s assume you’ve compiled data supporting the case that your product idea is worth pursuing. Your next step will be to start building the roadmap itself.

For each theme, epic, and other strategic initiatives you add to the roadmap, you’ll want to make a note of the key reasons it belongs there. As well as the success metrics you’ll be monitoring to determine if it’s serving its purpose.

This is one of many reasons to use native roadmap software instead of spreadsheets or slideshows to build and maintain your roadmap. You’ll find it much easier to attach a strategic note to each item on the roadmap with a click than by having to create your own color-coded legends and tags.

ProductPlan Roadmap Bankruptcy

In this screenshot of ProductPlan’s roadmap app, you can see how easy it is to add a strategic goal to each container or bar you drop into your roadmap. You can also review each initiative’s goals and share them with your team, with a single click as well.

Remember, specificity is the key to gaining the only business insight that matters. Is this project we’ve prioritized on our roadmap moving the needle the way we hoped?

If so, then it’s worth the continued effort and resources. If not, it might be time to scrap this initiative, or at least shelve it for later, and shift those resources to another project with a better chance of meeting your goals.

3. Check on your data regularly.Assigning success metrics to each item on your product roadmap is the best practice. But those metrics can guide your team as to the effectiveness of your roadmap only to the extent that you look at them—and often. Remember, the ground can shift under your plans for any reason, at any time.

As you release a new version of your product, for example, you should have a specific set of KPIs for anything you’ve added. This includes new functionality, product enhancements, an additional pricing option, etc.

Then, you’ll want to check in at some point after the launch, review all relevant data, and check those data against the KPIs you’ve set. Is the new functionality leading to the added trial downloads as you’d hoped? Great! Are the enhancements helping to slow your churn rate? Also great!

But if you’re not analyzing your data with this level of granularity, you can’t expect to know which initiatives warrant continued resources and which don’t. You also won’t know if, for whatever reason, it’s time to declare your roadmap bankrupt.

Sign up for our email courses or watch our roadmap webinar “Common Roadmap Communication Challenges” for additional support in creating your product strategy.

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