Why I Switched From Spreadsheets to a Roadmap Tool, Featuring Product Director Jay Hum

Not every product manager is lucky enough to work with a purpose-built roadmapping tool. But those that do seldom return to their old methods of managing the product roadmap. The great benefits outweigh other roadmapping options such as spreadsheets and presentations.

When we asked Jay Hum, Director of Product for Autonomic, the first open cloud-based platform for connected vehicle data, about his experiences during a webinar ‘‘What’s in Your Product Stack: Roadmaps,” he expounded upon the pros of creating and maintaining roadmaps in a tool designed for the job. Not only does it make his job easier, but he sees how it helps the entire organization ç.

The 5 Key Pros of Switching from Excel Spreadsheets to a Roadmapping Tool

A purpose-built roadmapping tool is seldom among the initial investments a company makes. They typically only realize there’s a true need for this solution after finding cobbled-together workarounds lacking.

Starting out with the pain of long roadmap spreadsheets and presentations.

Hum’s experience at Autonomic was the same when they found the old way of doing things didn’t scale as the company grew.

“We started with PowerPoint and decks and of course Excel, which is the universal tool that does pretty much everything for everybody,” Hum said. “When I started at Autonomic we were a small, scrappy little startup and we’ve grown in terms of people and numbers of teams and spread out across geography.”

Hum found that even though Google Sheets were easy to share, the limitations of using a spreadsheet for roadmapping started to impinge on the company’s ability to execute and forced him into labor-intensive ongoing maintenance.

Finding a new roadmapping tool that is easy to maintain.

“It was really tough to communicate a really rugged and overall strategy across several teams and different offices, as well as to be able to quickly react to some of the changes that were coming up both from a number of these teams and with the customer,” Hum continued. “The last thing that anybody ever wants to do—specifically product managers—is go back and update roadmap spreadsheets every single week or every single month, and it is immensely painful.”

Startups and product managers can be the most resistant to investing in a roadmapping tool because it’s not where their attention lies.

“They tend to focus on action, the building, the writing of the stories, the testing, and the designing, like all the ‘fun, sexy stuff’ of being a product manager coming up with ideas,” Hum said. “Planning and looking at dependencies, it’s a grind, it’s tedious, it’s not the sexy stuff that everybody reads about in the blogs.”

Eventually, many organizations find their lack of a comprehensive tool leads to disconnects. There are too many inefficiencies when things get too big to keep all in your head or a spreadsheet roadmap.

“There’s a point of no return, where they’re building and moving quickly, but then the teams start getting misaligned because teams get bigger or they’re more spread out. Or there are more things they need to prioritize,” Hum said. “They need to go to a tool that’s more flexible and will actually help them drive the discipline to elevate the planning and the strategy and the communication thereof as a very, very high priority.”

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Pro 1: Building Alignment

Getting everyone on the same page is an essential task for product management. A well-designed roadmap can expedite this ongoing need.

“New product development, especially in startups, it’s messy, it’s ambiguous, it’s unpredictable, Hum said. “The roadmap or roadmapping tools really provide that North Star, not only where the company’s going but where the teams are going.”

With a roadmap providing the desired end state, the rationale, and the target audience, product management can loosen the implementation constraints and not be so prescriptive.

“You just want to show the high-level goal and get the hell out of that team’s way,” Hum said. “As long as you’ve given them that high-level goal and they know where to go and potentially when it should be delivered, that’s all you need to do, and let them go.”

Ideally, a roadmapping tool can elevate the product strategy to something inspirational.

“If someone comes to you with a roadmap that is fairly defined for the next three-to-six months, then I see that as very inspiring to the team because you know where you’re going or where your angle is, what success looks like,” Hum added. “It allows the team to understand how either the product manager or leadership is thinking strategically and then how that’s broken down to allow them to execute methodically.”

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Pro 2: Saving Time

Now that Hum has a purpose-built roadmapping tool at his disposal; he doesn’t actually spend too much time using it. Every Monday morning, he holds an Iteration Planning Meeting, with the roadmap tool open alongside Pivotal Tracker.

He can make sure everyone knows the high priorities and whether they’re working on them, then dig into any refinements in Pivotal Tracker as needed. Other than that, he only spends time on the roadmap once per quarter for more strategic planning and prioritization. Not only has the tool cut down on manual tasks, compared to roadmap spreadsheets, but it’s saving him time in other areas as well.

Cutting down on meetings.

“It’s cut down on meetings and communication because, within the tool, I can really put in the cross-dependencies,” Hum said. “We have a number of different teams across a number of different offices and time zones, so sometimes just being able to jump on a call is very hard.”

Now he can tell them to go into the tool and add their comments to see everything and coordinate asynchronously. There’s less room for interpretation and lower chances of things descending into chaos with things written down. It also gives him more time to spend on more valuable tasks.

“Creating and communicating a roadmap is a high-level task in terms of thought process,” Hum continues. “But manually going in with these small little steps is not a high-value task, and having a dedicated roadmapping tool allows product managers to leverage their time much, much better.”

Working across multiple teams.

Hum cherishes the flexibility roadmap tools provide, as well as how quick it is to make changes.

“I work very closely with engineers, and we’ll get into the nitty-gritty details, but then half an hour later I may turn around, and I have to give a presentation to the leadership around what is our Q2 and Q3 objectives,” Hum said. “Being able to quickly go into a tool and change the view and hide stuff where I know they don’t need to know about or I don’t want to show them because they’re going to ask me irrelevant questions for a particular thing is an excellent advantage of having a dedicated roadmapping tool.”

Pro 3: Single Source of Truth

Deciding what item goes into scheduling or the backlog can be a major source of contention within a business. Everyone has good intentions, but a lack of clarity can lead to factions, mistrust, and doubt.

Hum uses the roadmapping tool as a single source of truth to minimize these issues. Issues idle in the parking lot before a prioritization exercise, which includes weighting via customer feedback in the tool itself. This leads to greater transparency in the entire prioritization process.

“It’s important to figure out the ‘why’ of what makes it on and what doesn’t and really communicating the matrix or weighting system,” Hum said, emphasizing the importance of having that context come through in the roadmap. “A roadmap will allow you to show that visually, and most tools will allow you to drill down just by clicking on it, and you can add little notes or the rationale behind a certain priority.”

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Pro 4: Adapting for Different Audiences

According to our most recent product management survey, 56% of product managers are unhappy with their process for communicating product strategy. Finding that Goldilock’s sweet spot for a roadmap presentation requires a solid understanding of what your audience cares about. Give them too much, and they’ll be bored or derail the conversation with detours, but if it’s too skimpy, they won’t have enough context to assess its merits properly.

“When you’re talking to the executive level, they’re thinking more in quarters and the three big objectives that you’re trying to achieve,” Hum said. “They don’t really need all this fine-grained detail.”

In contrast, crafting these customized versions of roadmaps in spreadsheets can take up hours and produce outdated artifacts before the meeting’s even over.

“We work very closely with external partners and customers, and we want to be very transparent with them,” Hum continued. “As we go higher up concerning the seniority, we are summarizing more and more of our roadmaps.”

However, not every presentation warrants exposing the audience to the roadmapping tool itself.

“We’re looking just to hit the really high notes or the big epics or big features that we’re trying to do within a particular quarter,” Hum explained, referring to why he sometimes uses other presentation tactics. “That’s why it would just be two or three bullet points in a deck or just showing quarter out where the big features will land.”

Pro 5: Empowering Engineering

Hum’s product management approach is based on the simple premise that “alignment enables autonomy.” His goal is to empower individuals so they can make their own informed decisions and execute.

That means they need three things:

  • What: What are we building
  • Why: What is the purpose of this thing we’re building, and what that end state means (i.e., users saving time, the business increasing revenue)
  • Who: The target customer

“Engineers want to go off and solve the hard problem,” Hum said. “So you provide that independence and, obviously, you’re working with a lot of smart people, so get out of their way. Let them work on what they need to work on because they’re all aligned. They have that North Star.”

Proving the context behind the product story.

This runs counter to more traditional product management. This is not where a product manager writes many user stories and schedules each feature release.

“If they don’t have the proper context, they may go off and blindly build something because this is what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to go build,” Hum continued. “But if you give them the proper context and end goal, you’re allowing the engineers a bit more freedom and a bit more creativity to think about how they would actually approach the problem that they are trying to solve without you being too prescriptive.”

But that freedom only comes when engineering is aligned with the business and understands the rationale behind product managers’ direction. Hum says many product managers make the fatal mistake of thinking that they’re responsible for the solution, but he doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m responsible for the problem… I’m just defining the problem. You go figure out which way you want. Here’s the outcome that I want. The rest is up to you,” Hum continued, adding that while he may provide ideas and feedback, that’s not the main part of his job.

“My whole goal as a product manager—and especially with roadmapping—is to lay out that grand vision, where we go and what’s aspirational,” Hum said. “I’m not here to draw out every single little path and dot to get there. That’s not our job as product managers.”

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