At ProductPlan, we love features, but we don’t always love them in our product roadmaps. Product management can usually see the value in this paradigm shift. However, getting the rest of the organization over the hump can be a challenge. Enter: feature-less roadmaps.
The Problem with Feature-Based Roadmaps
In our webinar on feature-less roadmaps, we asked some product experts to share their favorite reasons why product roadmaps utilize other formats other than features. We also delved into some of the reasons this switch meets so much internal resistance.
Product management is a balancing act of appeasing stakeholders that frequently want the product to include specific features.
“Unfortunately for product managers, they live in a world where their executives and their stakeholders require the roadmap, and they need to know what’s happening in Q3 and Q4,” says ProductPlan co-founder Jim Semick. “They wind up delivering these feature-based roadmaps because the executives need to know, ‘what can I sell, what do we need to support, what do we need to be talking about.'”
Those stakeholders aren’t necessarily unreasonable; it’s hard to market and sell a fuzzy concept or get investors and board members excited about vague generalities. Therefore, convincing the organization to embrace feature-less product roadmaps can take a while.
“There’s a real challenge for product managers to flip the roadmap and talk about the outcomes that they’re delivering and to group those into themes,” Semick added.
For Amplitude product evangelist John Cutler, he agrees there’s no magic bullet to convert everyone to this way of thinking. He advises product management to take the long view in building support for this new style of product roadmapping.
Cutler cited an example from one company that took years to come around finally. “It happened because of a series of wins at that company that got people more comfortable with that,” he said. “It’s often a long period of advocacy that gets teams moving in that direction.”
Jumping the gun
When anyone related to the product identifies the specific feature they want to include, they’re essentially cutting short the opportunity for innovation. Once you select a particular way of solving, the creativity spigot shuts off. Ultimately, this limits the potential for other solutions to emerge.
For panelist Abbie Kouzmanoff, a product manager at Amplitude, the rush to define the “how” prevents proper exploration and consideration of the best way to address the underlying “why.”
At that point, Kouzmanoff says, “you’re focused on output versus an outcome.”
It all comes back to goals. Does your product organization exist to ship features? Of course not! Features are a means to an end, and there’s usually more than one way to get there.
Settling on features too early in the process doesn’t necessarily get you the best way to achieve the business outcomes you’re trying to solve for, and may, therefore, fall short.
“It may not get you to the best solution ultimately,” Kouzmanoff added. “It also doesn’t set you up for really evaluating yourself once that feature has gotten out there.”
A feature-less approach to product roadmapping looks at whether they’re meeting the success criteria=, regardless of what you hoped and predicted the feature would achieve.
Another problem with feature-based roadmaps is that most decision-making takes place before many internal groups get an opportunity to contribute. If product management relies solely on executive input and market data to prescribe exactly what’s in each product release, other teams get shut out of the process.
“There is also a considerable organizational risk,” Kouzmanoff says. “You’re not using the collective brainpower of the team that you have. Designers and engineers have great ideas too.”
Not only does this stunt the development of the entire organization as a problem-solving machine. You’re also more likely to settle on a plan that’s not as good as it could be.
“If you’re just building a feature that you think is the right one, you’re not using that team,” Kouzmanoff added. “Is there a better, more creative solution to the underlying customer problem that’s there?”
This question gets back to the fundamental issue: whether a feature-based approach is solving for customer value and outcomes.
Feature-based product roadmaps don’t just stifle creativity; they also limit an organization’s opportunity to adapt.
Data-driven decision-making and customer-centricity require rapid responses to learnings, experimentation, and continuous user feedback loops. But if you’ve already set in stone what the product development organization will be building for the next six to twelve months, there’s no opportunity to incorporate those learnings, course-correct based on feedback, or pivot when things hit a wall.
A feature-less product roadmap provides adequate “wiggle room” to act on new information, try things out, and measure the results. There’s still a plan, but it’s based on the result of improving key metrics or achieving particular goals versus a predetermined execution.
Getting stakeholders comfortable with this flexibility and relative uncertainty isn’t easy. Still, without some leeway to change things up along the way, teams get stuck building something that seemed like a good idea six months ago but has since been disproven or is in question thanks to more recent findings and early results.
Squandering your agility
Organizations have invested countless hours into embracing Agile, valuing the short bursts of development, rapid deployment, and continuous feedback loop this framework offers. But a feature-laden product roadmap discards many of the benefits Agile offers.
Chunking up projects into sprints and interim releases have their value, but, from a product strategy perspective, you’re squandering much of Agile’s upside by remaining locked into feature-specific plans. The opportunity to learn and adjust to user response, competitor activity, evolving business goals, and other fluid factors runs counter to the detailed prescriptive expectations set by a feature-based product roadmap.
Of course, being Agile doesn’t mean it’s a total free-for-all. It can actually be quite a predictable environment for some product teams. But a feature-less product roadmap leans into Agile’s strengths and benefits far more than the alternative.
What is a Feature-Less Roadmap?
A feature-less roadmap is a roadmap designed to function as a strategic blueprint. Feature-less roadmaps enable product managers to deliver a product that both solves customer problems and supports the broader goals of the company.
In contrast, a product roadmap arranged as a list of features will fail to accomplish the central objective of any roadmap: to articulate a strategic vision and plan. However, when they adopt a feature-less roadmap—and plan their development around major strategic themes and goals—product teams can be more outcome-focused and successful.
When is the Right Time for a Feature-Less Roadmap?
There are many situations in which a feature-less roadmap will make more sense for a product management team. Here are a few of the main reasons.
1. You want to communicate strategy, not tactics
For most product managers, the goal is to align the cross-functional team around a big-picture strategy for the product. Therefore, you will want to build your roadmap on a foundation of broad strategic themes, not features.
2. You want to keep your team flexible and able to adapt to changing realities.
At any point, user feedback, a competitor’s product launch, or other new realities could demand your team pivot and adjust your strategy. So, when you arrange your roadmap as a strategic story rather than a set of features to build, your team can focus on the big-picture strategy. That means they’ll be in a better position to adjust that strategy if necessary quickly.
3. You want your team to have a strategic blueprint to guide their development
The main reason not to build a feature-laden product roadmap is that such a roadmap fails to answer the big-picture question: Why? Why is your company building this product? Why should the market care? Why would a customer find the product useful enough to pay for it? This is the reason you develop and share a product roadmap in the first place: to align your team around a high-level plan to solve a market problem and build a product that makes money.
How to Build a Roadmap Without Features
We’ve discussed not developing a product roadmap as a list of features. How should you build it? There are many ways of arranging a roadmap to convey strategy. A couple of examples:
In roadmapping, a theme is a high-level objective for the product. In the sample roadmap screenshot above, all of the strategic goals lead up to a single theme: “Customers complete first purchase faster.”
Most theme-based roadmaps have a few themes presented on the product roadmap. Ideally, themes describe customer value—what customers will receive or the job you’ll help them accomplish. The themes answer these questions: What problem are we looking to solve for our customers? Why does our team feel this problem is worth solving? Why should we prioritize this problem over others?
Each theme should have a measurable goal and expectation that tie up to your company goal. Then, each theme will have supporting features prioritized underneath them. The themes help you stay strategically on track because each initiative that you’re delivering (features and enhancements) must be tied back to a specific theme. Collectively, these themes will have a more significant impact than any one-off feature.
North Star roadmaps
With a North Star roadmap, the team sets a single strategic goal—called the North Star Metric. Then, they can judge every roadmap activity according to whether or not it advances that metric.
A North Star roadmap connects the customer value you are trying to create as a product team with the business impact that the executive team in your company ultimately cares about. If a project, feature, or initiative doesn’t improve that metric, then its value must be questioned for its lack of relevance. Because it generates such a sharp focus around a single objective, a North Star roadmap can significantly improve all of the team’s decision-making throughout the product’s development.