The goal of any roadmap, whether it’s a product roadmap, IT roadmap, or marketing roadmap, is to capture and communicate a high level strategy. Product managers have plenty of tools for cataloging the small details behind product development such as the product backlog, project-management apps, and even handwritten to-do lists. But the product roadmap is not where these details should live. Rather, the roadmap should always remain high level and strategic.

This is why your first step when roadmapping is determining the most important high-level objectives. In other words, the roadmap’s themes. Here are five reasons to organize your roadmap by themes.

1. They’re the most logical way to promote top-down planning

Theme-based product roadmaps are increasingly popular among agile teams. In the context of agile product roadmapping, work may be arranged in a 3-level hierarchy as follows:

  1. Themes (the highest-level objectives on the roadmap)
  2. Epics (bodies of work built on a number of interdependent smaller tasks, usually stories)
  3. Stories (sometimes described as the smallest logical unit of work in developing a product).

Under this structure, several stories will roll up to an epic, and several epics will roll up to a theme.

Now imagine trying to start your roadmap development from the bottom up. By this I mean, starting with user stories and working backwards.

If you have no sense of the bigger strategic picture for your product—your “Why”—then where will you start writing those stories? How will you know which ones to prioritize? And, how will you communicate your product’s big picture to your stakeholders when your roadmap looks more like an endless list of user stories?

Since the roadmap’s primary goal is capturing and communicating strategy, it makes sense to start at the most strategic level of this hierarchy. Begin with the end in mind. What are your strategic objectives and desired outcomes? Starting with this information gives you a solid strategic foundation to work off of. Only after you’ve identified these themes should you dive into the next level of detail.

2. Themes can help you earn stakeholder buy-in

If you’re a product manager, you’re almost certainly going to need approval from executives or other key stakeholders to proceed with your proposed product strategy. Presenting a roadmap filled with features and user stories may lead to a lot of questions, and even pushback from stakeholders. Themes help clearly convey the strategic explanation for why you’ve decided to prioritize things the way you have.

When you structure your roadmap by including all of its contents under a series of high-level, strategic themes, you can quickly communicate value to your stakeholders. The value you convey might represent value to the customer, with a theme such as, “Make the purchase experience faster and easier.” Or it might show how your plan contributes to the company’s larger business objectives, with a theme such as “Increase revenue via in-app sales.”

The point is, roadmap themes give you a top-level, easy-to-digest strategic explanation for your plans and goals. When your stakeholders see that all of the details on your roadmap lead up to these strategic themes, they will likely be much more receptive to hearing about the lower-level details you’ve also included.

3. You’ll be more likely to stay strategically on track

If your organization is like most, you’re constantly bombarded with ideas, requests, and demands for your product. New features. Enhancements to existing functionality. Bug fixes. Maybe even entirely new products. And those requests can come from anywhere: sales, marketing, executives, or even your customers and prospects.

If your product roadmap isn’t built on the strong strategic foundation of well-thought-out themes, then how will you know how to handle a one-off feature request, or a single customer yelling loudly about an enhancement that they “need yesterday”?

Another problem you might face if you fail to arrange your roadmap by themes is that when you have two competing requests or ideas for a new initiative—and both seem viable—you won’t necessarily have a strategic basis for making your decision. This can happen often, and each time, you will simply have to make a best guess as to which new initiative earns a slot on the roadmap.

But when you have a theme-based roadmap, you will always have a place to go that represents your most up-to-date strategic thinking. You can pop open your roadmap and review each new request, demand, or idea against your roadmap’s themes—and determine if the initiative actually serves any of those themes.

Which means you and your team are more likely to stay on the strategic path you set for yourselves—and less likely to be pulled off track by the next shiny new object or unreasonable but loud customer.

4. They can lead to ideas and inspiration from your team

Whenever a cross-functional team takes on a complex project, there is always the risk of each team operating in information silos and losing sight of the bigger strategic picture. These silos can lead to people working on the wrong things or even inadvertently undermining the other teams’ work.

When you regularly share your product roadmap with your cross-functional team, you can reduce the risk of these information silos by tapping into everyone’s creativity and strategic thinking. This is because theme-based roadmaps make it easy to see how projects and work contribute to the product’s larger strategic plan.

When your team can see the big-picture idea for the product, rather than just the individual tasks they’re responsible for, they are much more likely to come up with creative and elegant solutions to problems and even new ideas to make the product better.

5. Theme-based product roadmaps lead to better products

All of the reasons to make a theme-based product roadmap we’ve discussed so far roll up to this main point. When you structure your roadmap into strategic themes, and then prioritize items on the roadmap only to the extent that they support those themes, you’re more likely to build a cohesive, thoughtful, product that meets objectives.

So when it’s time to start a new roadmap (or revamp the one you have today), always determine its strategic themes first—and then jump into the details.

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