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...
Wouldn’t it be great if you could learn, right now, from hundreds of experienced product managers? What would they say about building successful product roadmaps?
We were curious too. So we interviewed hundreds of product managers about their product planning processes. They shared their best practices for planning, prioritizing, creating, and sharing product roadmaps. The result is ProductPlan’s 2018 Product Planning Report. Here are seven takeaways you can apply when building your own roadmaps.
Successful product roadmaps serve several purposes. Most notably, they provide strategic direction for product development. They’re also used as communication tools for product strategy. When strategy changes, product roadmaps need to reflect this.
Successful product managers review and update their roadmaps often. More than two-thirds of product managers said they update their product roadmaps at least once a month. The most popular roadmap-update frequency for product teams is weekly.
Product managers share their roadmaps with several different audiences. But our research indicates they develop product roadmaps with one audience in mind more than any other. Executives.
No surprises here. Before the wheels start turning, you need buy-in on product strategy.
That’s why it’s wise to keep your product roadmap high-level and strategically focused. You also want to keep it visually clear and intuitive. Executives want to immediately grasp your big-picture plan.
Rich Mironov recently broke down challenges associated with product roadmap presentations.
For your executive roadmap presentation, you’ll face big-picture questions:
Mironov recommends coming prepared. Have data and strong strategic reasoning to defend your product strategy.
(By the way, we recently hosted a webinar featuring Rich Mironov—10 to 10 Million: Navigating Growth as a Product Manager.)
The only constant is change. We see new technologies, new competitors, and new customer demands daily. Product managers can no longer expect to plan their product’s strategy very far into the future. Changes will inevitably derail long-term plans or force you to re-prioritize.
At the same time, product teams can’t plan within too short of timeframes. You still need the guidance of a product vision and big-picture strategy.
Understanding these realities, product managers told us the average timeframe for a product roadmap is nine months. The pace of change is so fast today, that even manufacturing companies roadmap only about a year out. And fewer than 10% of manufacturing product managers build product roadmaps out for more than three years.
If you’d like more guidance, check out our post on product roadmap timeframes.
One key to successful product roadmaps is to build them with the right tool: a dedicated roadmap software app. As we pointed out earlier, you need to update your roadmap often. You’ll also share your roadmap with different audiences, each of which may need slightly different versions.
If you’re not using a tool designed specifically for roadmaps, you may be creating extra work for yourself. You need something that allows you to edit on the fly and outputs more than a static file. Manually updating your roadmap and creating unique versions for different audiences is time-consuming. (Here are a few other reasons slide decks and spreadsheets don’t work for product roadmaps.)
The product management community has used tools like these for decades. And habits are difficult to break. Only recently did product managers begin shifting to purpose-built roadmap software.
In 2016, we reported the most common roadmap tools were a presentation and spreadsheet software. By 2017, dedicated roadmap software had taken over the top slot as product managers’ roadmap tool of choice. Our 2018 report saw this trend continuing. Purpose-built roadmap software further increased its lead over spreadsheets and presentation files.
Another key insight from our survey of product managers: Do not neglect your backlog.
Don’t let your backlog become a black hole. It should contain features, user stories, fixes, and other initiatives that are important but not quite ready to go on the roadmap.
This means you and your product team can’t afford to leave that backlog unattended for very long. Backlog items may not be on your mind at this minute, but they’ll probably become priorities soon.
Product managers often treat their backlogs and product roadmaps as a cohesive system. They bring items from the backlog to the roadmap, and vice versa, making adjustments based on changing priorities.
More than 70% of product managers in our survey say they re-prioritize their backlog at least once a month. More than 40% say they do so every week.
It’s useful to have a different version of your roadmap ready for each audience who will see it. This may include executive stakeholders, engineers, sales and marketing, and even the public. (Sharing a product roadmap with the public can, for some organizations, be a smart strategy.)
According to a majority of the product managers we surveyed, their teams build roadmaps with two primary objectives in mind: to communicate their product’s strategy (usually to executives) and to help plan and prioritize the product’s development with their cross-functional teams (development, marketing, etc.).
A product roadmap for communicating strategy won’t look the same as roadmap developed to help execute the strategy.
So, 54% of product managers say they build different roadmaps for different audiences. (If you’d like a walkthrough of how to build different versions of your roadmap, read our page on creating custom roadmap views.)
Remember: one size does not fit all when it comes to product roadmaps.
In today’s business environment, the pace of change is quick. Too quick for product managers to rely on traditional product development processes. Rigidity, resistance to change, and long term strategies have no place in modern product development. And traditional methodologies often lead to products that don’t meet market needs. Often, they lose ground and market share to more nimble, adaptive competitors.
This is why the majority of product managers we surveyed are adopting agile approaches.
Agile product teams examine and tweak their roadmaps weekly or monthly. They make changes frequently to reflect the evolving world and market.
And they develop their roadmaps within a shorter time frame. Usually, they only focus on the next nine months or so. This is because they know planning too far out will create too rigid a product strategy. And they want to leave the team as capable as possible of adjusting focus quickly when they have to.
If you’d like more best practices and insights from highly successful product managers, read our free 2018 Product Planning Report.