Product roadmaps fail more often than you might realize because they can be difficult to create properly. To be effective, a roadmap needs to accomplish a number of strategically important tasks simultaneously, including:
- Clearly communicating the product’s strategy and vision
- Helping the product owner earn stakeholder approval to proceed with the development
- Ensuring all teams involved understand and are working toward the strategic goal
- Serving as a helpful guide throughout the process that product managers, developers, and other teams can refer to and make sure they are still on track
This is just a partial list of what a properly developed roadmap should accomplish. Roadmaps actually have additional jobs to do, all of them strategically important.
But let’s look at how you might get it wrong. What are the most common reasons product roadmaps fail?
1. The roadmap is just a list of features.
This might be one of the most common reasons product roadmaps fail: product managers mistakenly assume the roadmap should just be a list of the features and other details they want to be included in a product.
Nope. A product roadmap is a strategic tool, a document designed to very clearly and very quickly communicate a product owner’s overall strategic vision and plan for the product’s development. That means your product roadmap should include only high-level information—themes, epics, goals, possibly some user stories, and possibly timeframes—but not a long list of features.
“Your product roadmap should include only high-level information—themes, epics, goals, possibly some user stories, and possibly timeframes—but not a long list of features.”
When you simply treat your roadmap as a feature list, you create significant problems for your product’s development.
How a Feature-List Product Roadmaps Fail:
- Nobody’s going to read it. A long list of items all but guarantees that people looking at it will quickly lose focus and interest.
- It fails to communicate anything of value. This means your sales and marketing teams, for example, will have no way of knowing which features will be the most important, or why, and they will have no way of translating your roadmap into compelling messages to create for prospects and customers.
- It will confuse your developers. If your technical team can’t tell by looking at your roadmap what your priority items are—or why they’re a priority, or how they tie together to create something valuable for the user—then they simply can’t do their best work for you.
Try a theme-based roadmap instead.
2. The roadmap is a static document.
A product roadmap built using a static-document word processor, a spreadsheet tool, or presentation software—is also at risk of failing to accomplish its mission.
This is because a product roadmap is a living document. Remember, a roadmap is a strategic tool that reflects your high-level thinking at the time you create it. But weeks into a sprint or months into your product’s overall development cycle, things change. Priorities, resource levels, budgets, external pressures from competitors or major customers—all of these things mean you’ll likely need to adjust your roadmap.
But if you’ve built your roadmap document in a slide deck, making those changes will be tedious, and frankly you’re less likely to do it. And that creates its own set of downstream problems.
How a Static-Document Product Roadmaps Fail:
- Your roadmap is guaranteed to become outdated. Things change too often in a product’s development journey to expect the roadmap you draft today to remain accurate in the weeks and months ahead.
- The longer your development process, the more details in your original roadmap will become inaccurate. This means that with time, it becomes more likely that key players across your product’s cross-functional teams—sales, development, manufacturing, etc.—will be unknowingly reviewing and following an outdated roadmap.
But that might not even be the worst of it. Maintaining your roadmap as a static file leads to a related and possibly even more serious problem…
3. The roadmap document exists in several different versions around the company—and nobody (not even you) knows which is up to date.
If you create and share your product roadmap as a static document, it won’t matter how tightly you control your distribution list or what you tell your recipients about what they can and cannot do with that roadmap. You’re eventually going to face a version-control mess.
Your XYZ-Product-Roadmap.docx is going to quickly fly around your organization (and possibly even outside the organization—another risk of the static-file roadmap). And sooner or later, it is going to morph into a dozen versions that look like this:
And on and on it will go.
This is one reason it is such a wise move to build, share, and maintain your roadmaps using a web-based roadmap application. Because you control who can access, view, and edit the roadmap online, and because everyone will be looking at the same version, you will always know your roadmap is up to date and that only authorized people are reviewing it. Stay away from roadmap chaos.
How a Roadmap with Version-Control Problems Fails:
- You cannot be sure everyone on your team is working with accurate information. The more your roadmap file flies around the organization, the more likely it is that people on your cross-functional team will be seeing different versions, and maybe even focusing on outdated priorities while ignoring new ones.
4. The roadmap is too detailed and fails to show strategy.
Your product development plan will, of course, need to cover a lot of detail: resource allocation, how to divide up responsibilities, coordination with sales and marketing and manufacturing and support, etc.
But the product roadmap is not the place for any of this. Your roadmap needs to be a high-level strategic document. Its first job is to capture and communicate your strategy for the product—the product’s reason for being, its value proposition both to customers and to your organization.
The time for details will be later, and the places to capture and track these details will be documents other than the roadmap. If you try to cram the ground-level details into your roadmap, you’ll risk these problems….
How a Too-Detailed Product Roadmaps Fails:
- You and your teams could lose sight of the big-picture strategy. Even if you’ve managed to capture your product’s strategic vision in your roadmap, one sure-fire way to lose sight of it is by loading that same roadmap with tactical details.
- The roadmap will fail in its job to create and maintain momentum. Another of roadmap’s many jobs is to help a product owner build enthusiasm for the product. This is why a well-developed roadmap will be visually clear and compelling—so anyone looking at it quickly understands the plan and the reasoning behind it. If that reasoning is buried under a mountain of details, it will be much more difficult to generate that enthusiasm.
5. The roadmap’s themes and epics don’t deliver the right value.
Let’s say you’ve designed your product roadmap using the right roadmap tool. You’re off to a good start because you’ve already ensured it will be easier for you to share the roadmap with colleagues that’s easy to understand, update it quickly anytime, and maintain version control.
And let’s further assume that your roadmap document hits all of the right marks: It’s visually clear and compelling, it focuses on high-level strategic initiatives and not the tactical details, and it clearly shows your plan and reasoning for prioritizing certain epics or features over others.
That roadmap, even with all that it has going for it, can still fail if your plan calls for developing epics and features that don’t actually solve the right problems for your customers.
“Your roadmap fails if it calls for developing epics and features that don’t actually solve the right problems for your customers.”
Such a roadmap will likely be the result of a failure to conduct industry research, effectively analyze data, and/or work closely with your customers and prospects to learn what they want or need from your product. And this would lead to some pretty obvious problems.
How a Roadmap Addressing the Wrong Priorities Fails:
- Your product will ultimately come up short with customers because it doesn’t address their needs. No matter how brilliantly you plan your product’s release, or how well your teams promote it, your product is likely to fail if it doesn’t solve the right problems or deliver the right benefits.
- You will lose credibility with your customer base and your industry. People are busy. If your prospects have spent time learning about or actually trying one of your products—and it missed the mark for them—they’re far less likely to give you their time and attention again down the road.
6. The roadmap is unrealistic.
Finally, let’s say you’ve avoided the common roadmap fails we’ve discussed to this point. There’s at least one major risk still facing your roadmap—building unrealistic expectations into it.
For some product managers, this is the most difficult pitfall to avoid. They get serious pressure—from their executive team, their investors, or maybe their customers—to accomplish something that the laws of economics or physics say simply can’t be done.
Maybe the pressure is to build sophisticated functionality that your technical team doesn’t have the skillset or the resources to complete.
Or maybe the demands are unrealistic because they force you to set a timetable that your team simply can’t meet.
And you give in because you can’t withstand the pressure. But when you do this, when you make an unrealistic promise in your roadmap, you risk creating several serious problems down the road.
How Unrealistic Product Roadmaps Fail:
- You’re going to damage your relationship with your development team. This is because you’re setting your developers up for failure. That’s going to hurt the development of this product and also make things more difficult for you with your future products.
- You’re going to disappoint everyone by failing to meet the promises you’ve made with your roadmap. Do you really want to set a plan in motion you are all but certain will ultimately leave your executive stakeholders, your customer base, your sales reps, and other key groups upset with you?
Indeed, this final fail—creating and sharing an unrealistic roadmap—might be the most serious reason product roadmaps fail of all, because if your roadmap makes promises that you can’t keep, then you’ve failed before you’ve even started.
What roadmap fails have you seen? Please share them in the comments section.