Last month ProductPlan moderated a panel discussion at ProductCamp SoCal. Our panelists shared their recommendations and challenges for creating alignment on their product roadmaps.
The panelists talked about how they prioritize and communicate their strategies — some of their challenges mirrored what we heard from product managers in our 2015 Product Roadmap Survey.
Product Managers Need Support in Communicating Product Strategy
Our survey found the top roadmap challenge facing product managers is getting help planning and prioritizing — with communicating product strategy a very close second.
But it turns out that this runner-up on the top-challenges list — namely, communicating product strategy — might be the more important insight, because our survey respondents also listed that as their number one objective.
In other words, the roadmap component that product managers view as most critical to their product’s success — communicating its strategy to the company — is also one of the most difficult functions for them. So what’s going on here? And how are PMs dealing with this challenge?
Our panel’s insights were illuminating.
Product Managers Struggle to Align Diverse Teams Around Product Vision
One of our panelists, Karen DeGasperis, is a product manager with Wolters Kluwer, CCH Small Firm Services, which develops software for tax-accounting firms. As Karen pointed out, one obstacle to effectively communicating a roadmap companywide is that PMs often aren’t clear about who is responsible for disseminating the information to whom.
This can leave gaps in the communication of mission-critical product information across the company.
“One problem we used to have,” Karen explained, “is that we would put together a roadmap, and then present it to our senior managers. After that, we thought the information would be disseminated to the teams — but it wasn’t actually getting down to the next level. So we’d have another meeting and someone would say, ‘I didn’t know that — is that what we’re doing?’”
So Karen worked on bridging that communication gap — making sure her leadership understands and signs off on the product’s vision, but also then making sure that the details make it to the people who are going be building the product.
Translating Vision into Actionable Steps
Here’s how Karen and her team solved this communication-breakdown problem.
First, when they presented a new product roadmap to management, Karen’s team would ask those managers to determine specifically how the roadmap would translate into actionable steps for their respective teams.
Second, once they had those actionable plans in place, the managers would then take responsibility for communicating the relevant details to their teams — engineering, QA, business analysis, etc.
Finally, during all of those team meetings — and this was a key step in making sure everyone was on the same page before development began — Karen and her product management team were also there, to represent the product’s vision and business needs.
This ensured that the people building the product were receiving the correct information and direction from the start, both in terms of the product’s technical objectives (from their development managers) and in terms of the product’s vision and business goals (from the product managers).
“This has worked out really well,” said Karen, “and it has helped ensure that our teams are now much more in alignment when we start developing or upgrading a product.”
Successful Product Managers Agree on Strategy Early
Another communication strategy we heard about during our discussion came from panelist Matt Feldman, a product manager for the nonprofit MIND Research Institute, which designs math-education games for K-12 students.
Before he builds any new roadmap, Matt first sets out to identify the key needs and goals for each of these key areas: the business, the market, and the technology.
“I can’t just start a product roadmap by calling up my salespeople, asking them what customers are talking about, and then using that information to make a list of features,” Matt said. “That’s not strategic and it does nothing to help you prioritize across the departments and teams that you’ll need to build the product.”
So Matt starts at the strategic level, attempting to identify the key components needed for the business objectives, the market objectives, and the technology required to bring the product to market. As Matt explained, “When we get into the early-stage discussion of the technology resources we’ll need, for example, that gives a voice to our CTO, who can then assess exactly what he’ll need to support that platform.”
In other words, Matt brings together key stakeholders from the beginning to help him build and agree on a plan, at the most strategic level — and only then does Matt’s product roadmap emerge.
“Everyone should be communicating as early as possible in the process,” Matt said, “to ensure that the product has the greatest chance of success, based on whatever metrics you’re using to define that success.”
Over the next weeks, we’ll publish more blog posts exploring the interesting insights that emerged from the ProductPlan “2015 Product Roadmap Survey” and from our recent expert panel discussion.
In the meantime, you can view the results of our survey.