We are excited to welcome guest writer John Cutler to the ProductPlan blog. John is a product coach with Amplitude, where he collaborates with internal teams, customers, prospects, and the broader product public.


Product teams are no stranger to the ever-changing and continuous demands of consumers and executives alike. When you create and update a particular product, it’s important to make sure the product does “things” that people need it to do. A list of available features holds obvious value to a customer—you can see in one quick bulleted view what the product has to offer and how it will fit your needs.

But are features truly the only beacon of light for high-impact product work? Do the constant feature requests (and the ongoing efforts to communicate progress on those requests) distract developers and product managers from being able to create a more sustainable and meaningful product?

We asked those questions, and more, in a recent interview with expert panelists Abbie Kouzmanoff, product manager for Amplitude, and Jim Semick, veteran product manager and one of the founders of ProductPlan.

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What are the pitfalls of focusing myopically on features while creating and communicating roadmaps? How do you avoid feature-fixation, and instead use themes and “north stars” as the guiding light for creating long-term value not only for customers but for product teams as well?

Features and Inertia

Feature-based roadmaps have long been the norm of product development, they put product managers in the hot seat to “deliver” the roadmap “to plan.” While in many ways it makes sense to first answer the question of “what are we building, and in what order?” the key is balancing that need against the upside of taking a less prescriptive approach.

Certainty and surface-level predictability comes at a cost. Once the team has converged on a specific feature—or set of features—it can be difficult to change course. We become less likely to respond to new information, and we don’t work in ways that elicit new information. We all have difficulty counteracting inertia, confirmation bias, and escalation of commitment.

For example, Jim shared a past experience where his team helped develop software in the property management industry that would help property managers move tenants into their apartments faster. They created a roadmap based on an idea about what they were going to build and all the features it would encompass. Unfortunately, they were overly optimistic and got stuck. It took a long time to deliver that first feature.

With this feature-based roadmap viewpoint, it was very hard to shift priorities along the way. Alternatively, Jim noted, “Had we created a theme-based roadmap, we could have delivered value to customers a whole lot faster. We could have learned faster. We could have introduced features more iteratively to our customers, and it might have re-prioritized what we did.”

It’s really important to be able to test the riskiest assumptions first before committing to specific features. Instead, Abbie recommends, it’s better to treat features as options and give yourself the time for iterative learning—testing out and learning what features will have the biggest impact and save time in the long run.

The end game is outcomes, rather than outputs. You might have an idea for a great feature to build, but that feature doesn’t necessarily create a business outcome or solve a customer problem. And in the end, as Abbie asserts, “[A feature-based roadmap] doesn’t set you up for really evaluating yourself once that feature has actually gotten out there.”

So what is the alternative?

Read the Product Roadmaps Guide ➜

Product Themes and North Stars

Themes and the North Star framework can be used by themselves or in tandem to address the traps above. Importantly, both can still be used even if your roadmap is currently feature-based. The key goal is coherence and shared understanding.

Themes

With a theme, features connect to an overarching idea for that work. Themes are a great nudge to see the bigger picture, link to a particular strategy or companywide objective, and allow for stakeholder buy-in. You can create a theme-based roadmap in several ways. The important part is tying together your theme with certain features to illustrate the benefits.

A theme does a couple of things.

  1. It helps you earn stakeholder buy-in because—ideally—it is tied to the objectives of the company, in addition to the outcomes that you want to create for customers. Talk with your stakeholders about themes fist and come to a consensus together. Then you can begin to plug your features into that theme.
  2. It helps you stay strategically on track. Jim notes, “You’re going to get distracted. You’re going to get distracted by a loud customer. You’re going to get distracted by the next shiny object. Someone’s going to come to you with a fantastic idea, and that idea is often phrased in terms of a feature.” With a theme, you are less lured by flashy ideas because the feature inevitably requires alignment. That way, even if you get distracted by a fantastic idea, you can decide whether to put the effort into it if it doesn’t fall in line with the theme.”

Think back to the property management feature-based roadmap example, had Jim and his team started with a theme, they would have created a more innovative product. “If our theme was about moving in renters 50% faster, we could have started to measure our progress against that. It’s a lesson that I learned along the way and one that I would encourage you to do.”

North Star Framework

In contrast, a North Star Framework represents your product strategy with a primary (North Star) metric and a series of inputs. Together, this “tree” of metrics serves as an effective way of capturing assumptions, beliefs, and known causal relationships between different components and subcomponents of a product strategy.

For example, Amplitude’s North Star, Weekly Learning Users (WLUs), has three inputs related to activating customers and encouraging users to create and share their insights. Each input is a key facet of their team-focused, learning-focused strategy.

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Zeroing in on the right North Star metric can be a bit of a challenge. However, it forces you to ask the hard questions related to your product strategy. How can you tell if you’re on the right track?

Here are the key characteristics of an effective North Star, according to Abbie:

  1. It focuses on customer value and the exchange of value. For example, daily active users (DAUs) doesn’t really tell you anything about the value that was exchanged.
  2. It represents your unique product strategy. It is not generic.
  3. It connects the customer value you are trying to create as a product team with the business impact that the executive team in your company ultimately cares about.

Once you have a strong North Star in place, it has an exponential impact on decision making.

With WLUs as a guide and reminder, Abbie’s team was able to take a routine feature-request (the ever-popular in B2B “Bulk Editing of Records”), and ask “How does this impact learning and WLUs?” By asking that question, they’re able to see past the surface request to understand the deeper impact on how teams create and share insights. Abbie explains, “It’s a tool to communicate and say, ‘Hey, we still want to solve this customer pain, but we all know that we’re working toward this metric. This alternative path will really get us to that metric faster.’”

Themes & North Stars

At a high level, both Themes and North Star Frameworks are tools for alignment and sensemaking. They are complementary. A team might use the North Star Framework to create alignment around a product strategy, and then attach Themes to North Star “inputs.” Themes are flexible and can be used to describe any number of dimensions related to the work. The job you’re hiring both to do is very similar: inspire aligned autonomy, encourage the best solutions and decisions, and foster a shared language.

How to Get Started

Wondering how to integrate themes and a framework like North Star Framework into your roadmapping process? Here’s where to start.

Have lots of conversations, brainstorms, and “testing.” See if your proposed themes and/or North Star metric and inputs withstand extra scrutiny, like the “yeah buts” and “what ifs.” These tools will only be useful if people can actually use them, so they must be “usable,” even if that means a little less theoretically correct.

Buy-in is one of the biggest hurdles to adopting a feature-less roadmap. Abbie and Jim recommend that your first goal be to establish themes alongside your entire team—not just the key product decision-makers. Get everyone from design to dev on board with your themes and see where the journey takes you!

Above all, keep the “why” in mind. Don’t remove features from a roadmap just to scratch a dogmatic itch. The reason you do this—along with Themes and North Stars—is to inspire better decisions. This, in turn, delivers more value to your customers and leaves your team happier and more proud of their work.

Check out the webinar to learn more about feature-less roadmapping.