Product managers should not create their product roadmaps with a one-size-fits-all approach; each audience needs varying levels of detail and transparency. The dates you show customers may not be the same ones shared internally. The product development team requires more granularity than salespeople, and a customer-specific roadmap prunes away anything irrelevant to the client in question.
When it comes to an executive-facing roadmap, it’s all about staying at a high level and focusing on what moves the needle. Prepare to go deeper if there are questions, but the goal is to keep things general and directional versus drowning them in detail. However, before building the roadmap there are a few crucial conversations you need to have.
So how do you boil everything down into a snapshot that conveys what’s necessary while shedding anything extraneous? Here are eight tips on making it happen:
1. The less text in your executive-facing roadmap the better
Product roadmaps are meant to be consumed, not read. Your roadmap shouldn’t be a repository for every factoid, assumption and implementation detail related to your product plans… no one wants to sift through all that, especially executives.
Instead, stick to the most important elements:
- What’s being built
- When it will (approximately) be released.
If you need to provide color commentary, save it for an in-person executive presentation instead of dense, wordy slides.
2. Keep your roadmap presentation short and sweet
Most product managers focus on presenting the upcoming next nine months with executive stakeholders.
While you can certainly pontificate on where things are headed beyond that, most industries are so dynamic that predicting what your product or company will need 12 or 18 months from now is likely a fool’s errand. You don’t have much to gain either since there’s a high probability they’ll fall off or move around in the interim, which you’ll then have to explain later.
The exceptions to this are businesses with hardware components that have much longer lead times and typically require a longer roadmap scope and some really complex products (such as major enterprise systems) must plan further ahead than a few seasons.
3. Offer a holistic view in your executive-facing roadmap
When your company has more than one product, it’s helpful for the executive team to see the entire picture and not dwell solely within the silo of a given product. That’s why it’s a wise move to create a portfolio roadmap that shows the entire product line, even if you’re not managing them all.
This obviously may require coordination with other members of the product team, but a master plan is much easier to evaluate for executives than an array of discrete roadmaps that don’t share common timelines, nomenclature, and structure. Of course, if your company is really big, you can limit the master roadmap to the related family of products. All in all, the more context you can provide, the more useful your roadmap will be.
4. Cluster features within themes
Plenty of roadmaps consist of a seemingly random assortment of features and enhancements assigned to tentative release dates. While this may be what actually happens during the product development process, this chaotic approach has no place in a strategic executive plan for the product.
Instead, you should center each major product development cycle around a single theme tied directly to the company’s strategic goals and KPIs. Beneath each theme should be two-to-four major features or enhancements supporting the theme.
Theme-based roadmaps bring logic and structure to the roadmapping process and show your executive team your ability to turn the grand plan into action. When you center releases around themes it also creates a clear narrative for how the product is maturing and growing over time instead of continuously chasing after various opportunities and needs. I recommend this frame of mind in all roadmaps you create.
Executives are the audience most appropriate for this type of roadmap organization. This roadmap format will meet them and communicate where the company needs to move as a whole.
5. Be transparent about your roadmap certainty
The further into the roadmap timeline you go, the greater the chances that things will be changed accordingly. As a best practice, we recommend that you specifically call out your confidence in each item on the roadmap and their timelines.
A great way to communicate that is with a legend and color-coding each element according to the team’s level of certainty in both its priority and its release date: High Certainty, Medium Certainty, Low Certainty and Uncertain. The features and releases you’re working on right now usually fall into the High Certainty bucket, with things typically becoming less certain the further in the future they reside.
Highlighting your confidence in each item’s likelihood of being built and when it will be released draws a clear line in the sand between commitments and plans. Without this type of demarcation, execs might interpret the roadmap as set in stone in their entirety or “tentative” as a whole.
Since the truth lies somewhere in the middle, make sure that comes through by noting each item’s certainty right from the top. It won’t bode well for you if your executives walk away with false assumptions about the delivery of items nine months.
6. Get out ahead of any executive objections
Chances are you already know which elements of your roadmap are likely to get the most scrutiny and questions. Perhaps it’s a significant delay of an eagerly anticipated enhancement or an entire release cycle dedicated to technical debt and architectural overhauls that won’t directly lead to new business or talking points.
Your executive team will ask about those disappointments or controversial decisions. Address them head-on and frankly explain why you made those decisions. The best way to keep the conversation productive is to include supporting evidence and a rationale that centers on big-picture thinking versus short-term wins.
And if you need backup slides or supporting materials in case the questioners demand more details, have them ready (although they shouldn’t be distributed in advance).
It’s certainly possible you’ll still get blowback, but bringing these items up yourself lets you set the tone and acknowledge these are problematic areas requiring a thoughtful and nuanced approach. The team will appreciate your directness even if they’re not thrilled with the outcome.
7. Keep your executive roadmap current
Roadmaps are often out of date before the digital ink has dried, but when you present something to the executive team it should represent the latest and greatest thinking. Review everything beforehand to make sure it’s as accurate as possible and commit to providing updates when necessary ASAP.
Given that it’s quite likely an executive roadmap review will result in some modifications based on the feedback they provide, plan ahead on a quick revision following the meeting so they’re not still staring at an outdated version at your next review.
8. Remember your objective
Whether you called for a review or you’re simply responding to a request from the executive team, keep in mind what you want as an outcome. Typically, this falls into one of a few categories:
- Basic approval—“Here’s what we’re planning, you’re cool with that, right?
- Strategic buy-in—“We’ve put a lot of thought and energy into how this will advance the product and help the company achieve its goals, so we want to be sure everyone agrees with this approach and is supportive.”
- Strategic direction—“Based on our research, data analysis, and assumptions, we think this is the best way to go, but we’re open to ideas and looking for your insights and opinions to help guide this process.”
All are acceptable and appropriate—unlike the unlisted fourth option: “Look how smart I am, now heap praise upon me for I have solved all of our problems”—but each requires slightly different table setting. If you really want a lot of feedback, you might need to come right out and ask for it. If your goal is to escape the review with everything unchanged you must project confidence and certainty in the presentation, backing everything up with facts and sound reasoning.
Creating a roadmap for executives might feel intimidating, but it’s really your opportunity to shine as a product manager. All the work, planning, conversations, analysis, creative problem solving and strategic thinking have gotten you to this point… and now you get to show it off!
Just remember that you’re dealing with busy people who don’t live and breathe the product as you do. Keep it relevant and out of the weeds so they focus on what’s important instead of inconsequential details.
Your roadmap’s format and contents will set the tone for their entire discussion. With a successful roadmap, you will convince the executives that the product is in good hands. So follow our tips above and knock their socks off.