Are your roadmapping habits holding you back? Is routine the enemy when you plan out and communicate your plans for products? In many cases, this could very well be true. But while breaking a habit isn’t easy, sometimes it’s definitely worth it. James Clear’s 2018 book Atomic Habits explains that our atomic habits are created as a coping mechanism. Coping mechanisms that we use for the product systems we operate in. As we get more comfortable, we keep doing it to get the same positive outcome. Clear’s advice proves useful for product managers to implement his philosophy into their own atomic roadmapping habits.
Good habits make us more productive and efficient. In contrast, others can hold us back. We often stop trying to improve and iterate. We ignore the changes in the system and ourselves.
Why Do We Form Habits
We should closely examine our routines based on their ongoing validity. This is hard, uncomfortable work. By taking the time to reflect and establish new habits, we can better work toward our goals. And for product managers, it’s important to develop your own atomic roadmapping habits.
Of course, we build habits in every aspect of our life. Whether it’s how we make our coffee or which route we take on our morning commute, we tried it a few times, it worked out pretty well, so we kept on doing it. We’re on autopilot. Even if there’s a new brewing technique or exit ramp, we should explore.
External factors affecting our atomic roadmapping habits
At work, our habits are formed by external factors along with our own tendencies. Someone shows us how to do something, so we do it the same way since we don’t know any different. We also bring along our habits from previous jobs. And we tend to recreate what we did in the past.
There’s nothing wrong with doing something the same way when it worked before. That is to assume you’re looking for the same result. Humans learn and adapt and progress to more complex tasks. Like a lab rat repeatedly conquering a maze, we use the same path to acquire what we crave. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This ignores the potential upside of a change. The net increased benefit might seem so insignificant. Because of the benefit, it doesn’t seem worth the effort or discomfort to switch things up. Yet, the consequences of remaining in a holding pattern add up. Even a slight 1% improvement in a process’s efficiency or efficacy compounds over time. The slight improvements lead to a meaningful shift within a few months or years. For this reason, you should implement your own atomic roadmapping habits.
This isn’t about goals. Winners and losers can have the same goals. It’s about how you try to achieve them that matters. And that requires establishing a system that looks at who you want to become.
With that endpoint in mind, you can begin changing your environment and habits to get there. Building better habits are all about becoming the best version of yourself. You need to trust that you’re staying on course toward that idealized version of yourself.
Learn how to set up your roadmap for success:
Building New Habits and Breaking Bad Ones
Neither creating a new habit or quitting an old one is easy. Think of all the discarded New Year’s resolutions that didn’t stick. All those people who struggled with quitting smoking or incessantly checking their social media feeds.
So let’s dissect each process. They both have the same four stops in the sequence. During the Problem phase, there’s the cue that kicks things off, followed by a craving for resolution. This leads to the Solution phase, where we have a response (our habitual behavior) and then the reward for completing that habit-driven task or process.
When we’re forming a habit, the cue is something quite visible. We see a problem that we want to address, which leads us to crave an attractive outcome. Entering the process with optimism allows us to respond to the situation and find a satisfying solution.
This can make us overly dependant on a habit because it’s an easy out. Over time, they become a crutch.
You know it’s time to break a habit when we don’t even realize the cue. You do it because, well, that’s what you do. It’s an unattractive craving that creates a disruptive dependency on routine. Even though we’re getting diminishing results, we keep on doing it because of the satisfaction we feel by scratching that itch.
4 Roadmapping Habits We Kick (and What to Replace Them With)
Our habits dominate our life, even though we don’t think about them very much. But with a little intentionality, we can shake things up for the better. And since roadmapping is such a pivotal part of product management, a few tweaks in our atomic roadmapping habits can have major benefits down the line.
1.) Using too many (or too few) prioritization frameworks
Determining items that make the cut for the roadmap and which lie dormant is an essential part of product management. Our survey found that a lack of prioritization skills were top complaints product managers had about their peers (23%). Thankfully you don’t have to rely on gut instincts or hunches to sort through things. There are dozens and dozens of prioritization frameworks at the ready.
But when you’re spoiled for choice, things can go sideways in two different directions. You can get a little overzealous and churn through frameworks too often. The issue with this is you can get stuck in a rut and rely on the same frameworks.
Both of these habits have their drawbacks. If you’re always using a new framework, there’s a learning curve every time. This isn’t the best use of your time. It creates a lack of consistency from one exercise to the next, which might impact the credibility of the process altogether and cause stakeholders to question the validity of the results.
Meanwhile, if you keep using the same framework or two all the time, you risk missing new perspectives that multiple frameworks might bring, not to mention the rut and boredom it creates for prioritization activity participants.
Breaking the habit of constant dabbling requires recognition that the endorphin rush of a new experience isn’t always worth the disjointed and incongruous output this variety creates. And for those willing to work an additional framework or two into the rotation, you must acknowledge that you’re leaving your safe space for the reward of something novel.
2.) Delaying tough conversations
While every roadmap will eventually get presented and reviewed, forcing stakeholders to get aligned, there are ample opportunities for product managers to build consensus before this step. In fact, gaining consensus on production direction was the top challenge for product managers.
Anticipating internal politics and tricky conversations
We often put this off because it creates many potentially uncomfortable moments and exchanges that we’d rather avoid, as internal politics was a major pain point for 27% of our survey participants. We can rationalize our delay by spotting a tricky conversation looming on the horizon because we prefer the alternative to our current state. But just like putting off a trip to the dentist to address an aching tooth, the longer we wait, the worse these conversations may go.
It’s one thing to broach a potentially controversial topic with a stakeholder in a more “theoretical” setting where you can bring up the merits of your preferred outcome while listening to their concerns. But it’s quite another dynamic when you wait until the last possible moment and then spring a plan you know will be poorly received in the final approval meeting.
By not laying that groundwork, you’re going to put that stakeholder on the defensive, where their reaction is likely to be more extreme and unpleasant than it might have been if you’d laid some groundwork and softened them up to the idea. Here’s where breaking the habit of avoidance and creating transparency and inclusivity can pay dividends, not to mention helping minimize feeling like an imposter, which frequently plagues 40% of product managers.
In these cases, product managers develop a groundwork that allows for open communication, which aligns product teams and prevents communication challenges. Develop effective atomic roadmapping habits can allow your team to develop a clearer product vision. Not only will it make this particular roadmap review go smoother, but it also sets a precedent that, while you may not always agree with all stakeholders, you’re willing to have those tough conversations and hear both sides of the case before you present your plans. This creates more trust and respect between all sides.
3.) Not tying roadmaps to the right metrics
Every roadmap should easily answer the question: “Why are we doing this?” But far too often, the rationale for a particular item snagging a spot is “because a customer asked for it” or it’s a stakeholder’s pet project or shiny object.
This is problematic because 64% of product teams say their primary success metrics are a business or product metrics, not how many customer requests were filled or how often you placated an executive’s proclivities. This schism between what matters and what’s happening requires breaking a bad habit and forming a better one.
A roadmap should encapsulate how the organization will execute its strategy, and the strategy should include key metrics that indicate success or lack thereof. That should translate to everything on the roadmap, either directly or indirectly positively influencing those metrics.
With a roadmap comprised of themes tied to goals and measurable outcomes, the “why” becomes obvious, and the motivations are clear. Product managers must stop building roadmaps intended to placate stakeholders and instead tell an inspiring story of how the plan helps the business reach the measurable goals they’ve already established.
Building a habit of visual roadmapping can be bumpy at first because it takes everyone out of their comfort zones, but it restores the focus to where it should be. Once the rest of the organization realizes they’re working toward a goal instead of crossing to-do items off a list, they’ll also rally around this new normal.
4.) Not using a purpose-built tool
Any seasoned product managed has likely built their share of roadmaps in spreadsheets and PowerPoint, despite the extra effort required to format and tweak them over time. They’re already on your computer, everyone knows how they work, so it’s just convenient enough to overlook how ridiculously unsuited and painful these applications are for the task at hand.
There are legitimate reasons for not making the switch to a purpose-built roadmapping tool. You need to pick the right one, fight for a budget, and overcome a learning curve. But these are becoming increasingly poor excuses not to take the plunge as the tools become more ubiquitous, intuitive, and feature-rich essentials.
Luckily, the tide is turning, and more product teams are breaking their old bad habits and adopting new ones that leverage these tools. The product stack has become the number one expense line among product teams, who now dedicate 30% of their budget on average to make themselves and their peers more productive.
Kick it with confidence
As you consider your product management habits and contemplate making a change, you can take comfort knowing that the unpleasant process required to change the status quo will be worth it. You’ll inevitably be energized by the change and newness of it all.
Great leaders don’t like a standstill. Successful strategies evolve and adapt. You can do the same.