6 Ways Roadmaps Help You Be Better at Your Job (and Your Career)
As product managers, creating and maintaining product roadmaps are regular duties. Product roadmaps enable us to do our entire jobs easier. It only requires...
Since releasing both a webinar and book on the impact of feature-less roadmaps on your product strategy recently, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about why we’re so hostile to including features on product roadmaps. Features have long been the basic unit of measurement that product development teams track. Are we anti-feature? Of course not. But we do believe there is a far more effective way to arrange a roadmap than as a list of features. To illustrate why consider the following scenario.
Imagine you’re a software executive, and your product team has asked to present to you their new roadmap. You’re eager to see the product strategy they’ve come up with. You drop everything and head into the conference room where the team is setting up.
As they bring the roadmap up on the screen, you’re disappointed to discover it’s just a list of features. The product team talks you through each one. They explain the new app will let users copy and paste content from one area of the interface to another. It will allow customers to view two blocks of text side-by-side on the same screen. And a user will be able to invite a friend or coworker to view the content they’ve created in the app.
When they finish running through their feature list, the proud product managers look at you for approval. But you can’t offer any. All you have are questions—basic questions that this product roadmap presentation should’ve answered but didn’t. For example:
Because they created their roadmap around a set of features instead of according to strategic themes, your product team failed to inspire you about this product’s potential. You’re not giving them the green light to move forward with development.
To earn your buy-in, the product team will need to return with a roadmap that persuasively explains three components:
None of the other reasons to use a feature-less roadmap will matter if your team doesn’t get the go-ahead from your executives or investors to proceed with your product strategy.
And as we pointed out above, you’re far less likely to inspire those key stakeholders if your product roadmap is just a bullet-point list of planned features.
Creating and presenting a theme-based roadmap is a great way to build enthusiasm and buy-in from stakeholders. Were you organizing your roadmap as a list of features? Not so much.
As a product manager, you’re going to receive what seems like an endless series of requests and ideas for the products your team is developing.
If you base your roadmap on features, you won’t have a broader sense of the product’s purpose. That will make it more likely for your team to fall into the “shiny new thing” trap. You’ll act on what sounds like a great new idea—even if it has nothing to do with your original plan.
But if you have a strategic blueprint—captured in your product roadmap—you’ll always know whether a new idea or request will support that blueprint or distract you from it. And you’ll be able to make better strategic decisions.
Focusing on features can give a product team tunnel vision. They can trick themselves into thinking what matters is that they complete the feature, as opposed to solving a real problem for a real user.
With a theme-based roadmap, on the other hand, the team always has a reference point to make sure they are focusing on solving those important market problems, not just checking boxes and pushing out features.
When you’re focused on developing a specific feature, rather than solving a problem for your market, you can become closed-off to other ways of solving that problem.
What if there’s an easier way to empower your customers to achieve a specific outcome? What if, with some minor adjustments to the product, your customer could accomplish the same goal with the functionality you already have?
Maintaining a theme-based roadmap gives your team more creative freedom to identify solutions than they’d have if they felt obligated to complete features according to the plan.
In most cases, product managers must develop products with fewer resources and in less time than they’d like. This is why we’ve said that sticking to your product vision means saying no.
With a feature-based roadmap, a one-off feature request has a better chance of getting added to the roadmap, even if it has no strategic business being there. If the roadmap itself didn’t communicate any particular strategy, what would be the basis for rejecting the request?
But with a feature-less roadmap (one built on high-level strategic themes), you’ll be on much firmer footing when turning down requests or demands to add features. You will be able to point to your roadmap itself—your beautiful, theme-based roadmap—to easily show why you can’t accommodate any new requests that don’t directly support your clear strategic plan.
In our 2020 annual industry report, we surveyed thousands of product managers. We found that what PMs most want to change about their role is having a clearer purpose and company strategy. For context, this answer accounted for more than twice as many responses as the next most popular: a higher salary.
Why are product managers so eager to gain a clearer purpose and strategy? Because of all those requests and demands, they receive about their products—from sales reps, executives, product owners, prospects, customers.
Without a rock-solid strategy to refer back to, these PMs can find themselves constantly trying to figure out whether to pursue an idea, or whether it’s worth pushing back against a request even from a large customer or executive.
With a roadmap built on strategic themes instead of a scattered list of features, product managers can more easily prioritize the right things. They can also more easily identify an initiative that should be pushed down the priority list because it doesn’t support the plan.
With a feature-laden roadmap, you can measure success by simply completing feature development. Your team pushes a new feature to the product, and it’s time to celebrate. But is that the most advantageous type of accountability?
With a strategic roadmap, on the other hand, you can hold yourself and your team accountable for the types of success metrics that matter to your market and your company. You can measure success and failure by how much progress you’re making toward your strategic goals.
A feature-less roadmap also forces your team to dig deep and understand your customer personas. Knowing how your personas think, feel, and act is the only way your team will be able to develop products that solve real problems for those customers.
When you’ve gained a deep enough understanding of your users, you can even identify the real problems they’re hoping to solve when they ask for a particular feature.
With a feature-based roadmap, you’re locked into developing a specific feature. But if you instead focus on themes and strategic goals, when realities change, you can more easily pivot your team’s short-term focus, redeploy resources, and otherwise adjust in a hurry.
Finally, consider this irony. You’ll put your team in a better position to develop more effective features by focusing on high-level strategic product themes rather than focusing directly on the features themselves.