What Does Strategic Misalignment Look Like (& How Can Product Managers Avoid it?)
For a product professional guiding the work of a team, strategic alignment should be the holy grail. Achieving it won’t be easy. To get...
Let’s say someone at your company, maybe an executive, suggests prioritizing a new epic for your product. And let’s further assume that the epic sounds like a good idea, maybe even a great one, to you and the rest of your product team. You should add it to your product roadmap, right?
Not so fast.
Your product roadmap is a highly strategic and exclusive piece of product-planning real estate. Any item should have to meet several criteria before it earns a spot anywhere on the roadmap. This post will suggest several such criteria you might want to set in place as must-haves for an item to earn a slot on the roadmap.
First, though, let me offer you a few reasons why having such criteria can be so beneficial for your products and your company.
As a product owner, you receive many requests (and probably at least a few outright demands) for additions and changes to your product.
Every one of these ideas will be a little different and will require your thinking and expertise —
so you can’t totally automate the process of deciding which ones earn a slot on the roadmap, which get shelved for later, and which get turned down altogether. Plus, even if you could somehow fully automate those decisions, you’d lose out on the serendipitous moments where someone stumbles onto an ingenious innovation or insight for your product.
At the same time, though, it isn’t efficient to have to evaluate every single idea and request in a vacuum — with no established guidelines to help you make the decision of whether it deserves a slot on the roadmap and at what priority.
“Creating a set of criteria that an item must meet to get on your roadmap will help you make better decisions.”
Creating a set of established criteria — a hurdle that any new item must clear to earn some coveted space on your product roadmap — can make your decision-making process more efficient and your decisions more strategically sound.
As we’ve written on this blog before, being an effective product manager often means knowing how to say no in a way that preserves your all-important credibility with colleagues, customers, and other key groups.
When you have established a list of must-haves for items to be included on the roadmap, you can more effectively show why a request doesn’t meet a specific strategic threshold to earn development priority and resources.
Finally, setting up and sharing your must-have list for roadmap inclusion can be a great way to encourage others in your organization to start pre-vetting their own requests and ideas against that list before taking them to you.
Will this work every time? Of course not. People want what they want, and you might not be able to hold off an executive with a burning need to get a piece of new functionality prioritized right away.
But if a colleague knows that you have strategically thought through a series of criteria that any idea must meet, they might be more likely to prepare to meet that hurdle before even bringing the idea to you.
The implication here can be a significant one for your company: Developing and sharing your must-have criteria for roadmap inclusion can have the added benefit of helping the rest of your organization think more strategically about your product.
Okay, so what should be on this must-have list? Below are our top four suggestions, which we’ve developed after talking with product managers across just about every industry and helping them develop and improve their product roadmaps.
Sounds obvious, right? But product managers often find themselves under tremendous pressure from loud, large customers — or from their own sales reps — to add certain functionality that will serve just one customer. With very few exceptions, you don’t want to de-prioritize anything on your roadmap to chase a single sale or to keep an unreasonably demanding customer from leaving.
Product managers should have a strong enough understanding of their customers that they develop a sixth sense for opportunities and how to deliver value to them. But relying solely on your gut instinct isn’t a viable strategy for deciding what makes it onto the roadmap. You need to test any instinct or flash of inspiration against real-world data — feedback from users, analyzing whether or not similar ideas have worked previously for your products, etc. Only if you can generate some supporting evidence should you even consider placing the idea on the roadmap.
“By the time an item claims a spot on your roadmap, it should already have someone responsible for overseeing it.”
By the time any item claims a spot on your roadmap, it should already have someone in your organization responsible for overseeing it who can clearly articulate the actual requirements and how it can be translated into actionable steps (features, stories, etc.). If an executive says, “We need to be cloud-ready,” you first need to be sure that you have an expert on your team who can take that high-level strategic objective and translate it into a series of actual steps that a development team can follow. “Let’s be cloud-ready” might sound strategic and smart, but it is far too vague in and of itself to earn a slot on your roadmap.
Here’s another common misstep of well-meaning product managers trying to cram one more item — even a great one — onto their roadmap. Even if the item has cleared these other must-have hurdles, you then need to check it for its overall fit in the roadmap’s larger context. Remember, the development of this item won’t happen in a vacuum. It will take resources and time that obviously then can’t be deployed for other items already on the roadmap — and, if you’ve applied these same criteria to them, they’re at least of equal strategic importance to your company.
So the final must-have we would suggest is that the item in question can be handled on the roadmap while still leaving enough room and resources for all of the roadmap’s other items to flourish as well.