I’ve been talking with product managers lately about how the concepts of “essentialism” can help them focus their efforts on what matters. I distilled the advice a few months ago in my book The Essentialist Product Manager and have recently been giving talks and workshops on the topic.
This article tackles one of the areas that gets the most interest from product managers: how can they use an essentialist approach to create and communicate better product roadmaps?
First, let’s recap what essentialism means. The concepts were popularized in the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. According to his book, an “essentialist” lives by design, not by default.
An essentialist isn’t reactive but rather makes choices deliberately by separating the few most important things from the hundreds of other less-important things. To achieve this, an essentialist must say “No” a lot.
As a product professional for over 20 years, this philosophy resonates with me. And it’s resonated with other product managers too. We already know that it’s not about getting more things done; it’s about getting the right things done. To ensure you’re adding the right features and initiatives to your product roadmap, I’ve outlined several suggestions here.
How to Roadmap like an Essentialist
1. Start with the product vision.
To begin, an essentialist has a clear vision for the direction of the product. This product vision describes the overarching long-term mission of your product. Vision statements are aspirational and communicate concisely where the product hopes to go and what it hopes to achieve in the long term.
This vision is a guide for you and a reminder to your stakeholders about the shared objective they’re trying to achieve with this product. Your vision statement should also answer the question of your product’s “why.”
Why are you creating this product in the first place, and what do you hope to accomplish? It’s your compass for where you’re going.
From an essentialist perspective, a clear vision creates alignment. It helps you and your team take a top-down approach to decisions, address conflicting priorities, and determine what initiatives land on the product roadmap. From the vision, you can draw your goals and objectives.
2. Think “Minimum Product.”
A minimum product is the opposite of the “it’s all-important” mentality. I’ve written a lot about the minimum viable product (or the minimum sellable product) that provides customers value. If you’re a product manager or part of a startup, you’ve likely heard about the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept for getting products to market faster.
But please don’t confuse the term “minimum” with essentialism. In my opinion, product teams often misunderstand the concept of an MVP, and I’ve seen entrepreneurs and product teams misinterpret it with unfortunate results. Those that take the concept of “minimum” at face value run the risk of releasing a thin set of features that may get their product to market quickly yet deliver a poor customer experience and ultimately fail.
Sure, it’s certainly a way of reducing a product’s scope to get it into customers’ hands faster. But the MVP also must be a set of features that provides customer value and customer delight. You need enough customer value/delight that it stands out from alternative solutions. And enough amount that a customer is willing to pay for it (or use it).
I believe that “perfect is the enemy of good”
A great example of this mindset was when I was part of a team that launched GoToMeeting’s online meeting software. Our team concluded that we could get our MVP to market with half the features. Yet, that wasn’t enough to have a product that stood out from a vast field of online meeting competitors.
Through our customer discovery interviews, we learned that we could differentiate GoToMeeting with several innovative “features.” First, we made it the easiest-to-use product on the market. We also introduced what was at the time an innovative all-you-can-use monthly subscription model – something that disrupted the market.
To me, this is essentialist product management in action – focusing on what matters most to customers.
3. Discover the most important things to build.
You might be asking yourself, “how do I choose the most important things to work on?” I believe that part of the answer is through customer discovery. Customer discovery is a way of engaging with your customers to find pain. And it’s this pain that leads you to the solutions that are the things that matter.
People buy products to reduce pain or create a gain. Through customer discovery interviews, you can learn what it would mean to a customer if you solved that pain. Your goal is to uncover the value proposition of solving problems. A value proposition represents the value that the customer gets out of using your product. So a value proposition could mean: Saving money. Saving time. Making money. Lifestyle benefits or professional benefits such as looking good in front of your boss.
Through an ongoing customer discovery process, I’ve learned that the right things to build bubble up to the top of your priority list. While there may be a debate about exactly what to build, learning from your customers, their greatest pains will point you in the right direction.
You can read more about Customer Discovery in my book, Find ‘Product-Market Fit Faster: Lessons for Product Managers.’
4. Prioritize what’s most important using a framework.
Prioritizing is a key part of a product manager’s day: Prioritizing the product backlog, prioritizing the sprint backlog, stakeholder planning meeting, building a product roadmap, triaging bugs, and much more.
If you have non-essentialist habits, you’ll soon drown in all the decisions to make and things to prioritize.
To help, you can use various frameworks to evaluate what to work on – the methods abound, and the exact method you use is not as important as having some mental model for prioritizing what’s most important.
Think value versus effort
Essentialist product managers have a mental model for looking at features and opportunities. Typically this model is based on customer value and its relative complexity to implement. Based on our conversations with product managers, this is a common approach. Many product managers go through this assessment instinctively every day.
The matrix is simple: The initiatives with the highest value and the lowest effort will be the low-hanging fruit for your roadmap. These are the opportunities in the upper left part of the quadrant pictured above (High Value, Low Effort). As an essentialist, you’ll want to include many of these opportunities on your roadmap. The lower right opportunities (Low Value, High Effort) you will probably never work on, so don’t spend any effort debating these.
Based on dozens of interviews with product managers, at ProductPlan we arrived at a quantitative model for our product’s prioritization model. The Planning Board is tied to the roadmap. It uses the value versus complexity model but layers in scoring to arrive at an objective result. This model, shown below, is a way of introducing a framework for decision-making into your prioritization.
ProductPlan Planning Board Prioritization Framework
By using a scoring method to rank your strategic initiatives and significant features, product managers can facilitate a more productive discussion about what to include on the product roadmap. While many inputs ultimately go into a product decision, a scoring model can help the team have an objective conversation.
5. Invest in Customer Delight features.
The Kano model is one way to think like an essentialist about the features you add to your product roadmap. With the Kano model, product managers can look at potential features through the delight a feature provides customers versus the potential investment you make to improve the feature.
In this model, there are some basic features that your product simply needs to have for you to sell your product in the market. You need to have these “threshold” features, but continuing to invest in them won’t improve customer delight dramatically. Don’t spend much energy here.
There are some features (like performance) that give you a proportionate increase in customer satisfaction as you invest in them. You can continue to invest some energy and resources over time in this category.
Finally, you want to invest in some excitement features that will yield a disproportionate increase in customer delight. If you don’t have these features, customers might not even miss them; but if you include them and continue to invest in them, you will create dramatic customer delight. This might be the one area to test and then support to achieve a significant result – the very definition of essentialism.
Delight features can be small.
Delighter features don’t need to be substantial. They can be small and perhaps user interface features that make a difference in the customer’s experience. These “small wins” are important for an essentialist product manager. They allow you and your team to celebrate progress and keep the team’s energy higher for the more significant, more long-term projects—your customers benefit, as well.
In the case of ProductPlan, one of our early delighters was our visual drag-and-drop interface for building a roadmap. We spent a lot of time and engineering resources, making that 2-second experience of dragging an item onto the roadmap into delight. Ultimately, we created delight through our overall ease-of-use to create, collaborate, and share a roadmap with a team in minutes.
If you cut features back to only the “must-haves,” you have a recipe for a weak product that doesn’t succeed. Like a non-essentialist, you would be scattering your energy in multiple places to achieve a limited result.
6. Plan using “themes.”
An essentialist product manager plans what they work on based on high-level goals. This translates well into planning your roadmap, which should also be high-level and strategic.
This is why your first step when roadmapping is determining the most critical high-level objectives. By organizing your roadmap by themes, you’re guiding the decision process for your top priorities.
Themes help you narrow down the options to a handful of areas you want to improve for your customers. Use them sparingly, and you’ll be able to make significant progress. If you have too many themes, too many goals, your energy will be scattered, and you will make less incremental progress that may not give your customers meaningful value.
Themes are the higher-level objectives on the roadmap – and they should represent successful customer outcomes. For example, an e-commerce company’s theme might be “improve the shopping cart experience to speed up the checkout.” Themes help you stay on track with the bigger strategic picture for your product.
Rather than creating a list of arbitrary and disconnected features for your product, instead, focus on what your desired outcome is for customers – what is the goal you want them to achieve? By focusing on an outcome-driven roadmap using themes, you (and your team) have room to think about new possibilities, about different and possibly faster ways of achieving the goal.
7. Use OKRs to focus your efforts.
Essentialist-oriented product managers work with their teams to create Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for setting business goals and measurable outcomes. OKRs are often used for quarterly planning, so they are much shorter timeframes and more measurable than a product vision.
These measurable objectives keep employees and stakeholders on the same page. They’re not set in stone. The objectives are reevaluated and adjusted regularly to ensure organizational alignment. OKRs are ambitious direction setters, singularly focused on the company’s ideal destination.
At ProductPlan, we have themes that we drive towards during the year, and our management team reevaluates them every six months. From these themes, we set specific OKRs that we review and revise quarterly. The OKRs are cross-functional in that one or more teams implement them. Some are very product-focused, while others are not.
OKRs serve several valuable purposes. First, they foster a discussion among stakeholders and help us arrive at an agreement about what’s important—this creates alignment. They also serve as inspiring goals for employees, keeping them excited. Helping them focus on what matters. And of course, the key results are measurable ways that the business or product is improving.
8. Get executives in alignment with your roadmap.
Finally, building consensus among executives can be one of the most challenging aspects of a product manager’s job. Part of the solution is to get upfront agreement around your organization’s strategic goals and be transparent about your prioritization process. It’s important to make sure all parties in your organization are on the same page.
Roadmaps are a culmination of a lot of work, customer conversations, and experience. The most common mistake product managers make in the roadmapping process is assuming they know exactly what to build without building consensus. Of course, you are the customer expert, but leading with the assumption that you alone know the ideal priorities has consequences that might sabotage your well-intended roadmap.
Have informal discussions with executives and other stakeholders before the executive planning meeting. That way, you’ll present a roadmap with the right priorities and align those to its business goals. It will help you to have a seamless review and approval process.
Flexibility is a friend of the essentialist product manager. If you must create a roadmap with delivery dates, try to keep broad timeframes such as quarterly. Things are always more complicated and take longer than you and your team think. It will help your cause if you educate executives over time to know that you can only estimate fuzzy delivery dates and that priorities will undoubtedly shift.
Another characteristic of an essentialist product manager is the preparation that goes into planning the roadmap. This preparation comes in many forms, such as reviewing prototypes and concepts with customers early, working with the team to groom features well ahead of the sprint, and well-organized stories ahead of sprint planning meetings. In contrast, a non-essentialist product manager will be working on these things at the last minute and will be hoping for the best.
9. Use a visual roadmap.
Using a visual roadmap to connect the roadmap to the strategy behind it is helpful. It ties the roadmap initiatives to actual customer value, business goals, and meeting real needs. Executives have a lot on their plates and generally try to stay as high level as possible.
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that there are unknowns. Communicate your level of certainty for each initiative during the presentation. Of course, the further out you go, the less certain things are for everyone. You can mitigate this by creating roadmaps that don’t extend as far into the future. This focus and great communication is the hallmark of an essentialist product manager.