In product management, there are many ways to build a roadmap and many types of roadmaps you can make. Some will delight and engage the executive team by taking a high-level approach and focusing on goals and strategy. Others dive into the specifics and make engineering teams happy since they’re so detailed. Roadmaps for sales and marketing tout new functionality and minimize the time spent on technical debt and scalability.
But while each roadmap for a specific audience serves a particular purpose, there are times when we need everyone to gather together and agree on a singular vision for the product. Moreover, for alignment, we need to create a roadmap that services the entire crowd of stakeholders, regardless of rank, role, or perspective.
Remember, a stakeholder is anyone with a vested interest in the product. It’s not just the bosses holding the pursestrings and the folks responsible for implementation. Creating a roadmap that works for everything and everyone may feel like an impossible task. Still, with these roadmap tips to align stakeholders, any product manager can confidently check all the boxes required to build roadmap consensus.
Roadmap Tips to Align Stakeholders Part 1:
Start from the Top
Your stakeholders come from various parts of the organization (and maybe even some from outside of it). They have their own opinions and priorities and agendas. That’s why already agreed-upon strategies are the ideal jumping-off point for your roadmap.
1. Gather consensus around goals
If you don’t know where the ship should end up, it’s hard to plot a course to get there. Be sure you have complete alignment and agreement among stakeholders on the product’s strategic goals before beginning the process.
2. A North Star shall guide them
If your organization already has a North Star metric, then your roadmap should be fully reflective of that. The concepts presented in the roadmap should all directly or indirectly support efforts to improve that metric. Make sure you can draw a clear line from each item to how it directly impacts the North Star.
3. Forget features and think about themes
Asking them to all agree to move up the priority of a particular feature that is a great idea ahead of everything else is a disaster waiting to happen. If you’re talking about features at all, you’re likely already down a rathole you’ll struggle to escape. Instead of dwelling in the granular, elevate your approach and focus on themes.
4. Provide a holistic view
Your product doesn’t exist in a vacuum, particularly if it’s part of a more extensive solution suite. Use a master plan to show how all the pieces fit together.
5. Avoid vanity metrics
Link everything on your roadmap to how it advances crucial metrics. Make sure the ones you’re selecting are meaningful and not just for boosting egos or press release fodder. Pick ones directly tied to customer satisfaction and business success and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.
6. Be open to ideas
You’re not the only one who can add value to the roadmapping process, so create an environment where others can contribute. When you base your roadmap on themes instead of specific features they can spark inspiration for other possibilities and approaches.
Roadmap Tips to Align Stakeholders Part 2:
Read the Room
Before you can create a roadmap that works for everyone, you need to figure out who everyone is.
7. Placate the Agile zealots
For the stakeholders that have drunk the Agile Kool-Aid, a product roadmap’s very existence can spark outrage. Why do we need a roadmap when we’re constantly reevaluating the situation and reacting to the market? We’ve already got a backlog!
Of course, a backlog is no place to plot a path toward achieving major strategic goals and initiatives. The backlog is the land of details, while the roadmap is the domain of big ideas and themes. Remember, the agile roadmap helps you communicate the strategy. While an Agile roadmap might change a little more often than other types, it still is valuable for setting a high-level agenda that doesn’t wallow in the specifics of particular features and implementation details.
8. Don’t tell engineers how to do their job… at least not in a roadmap
Roadmaps are about the what and the why. Leave the how out of it and address that collaboratively when it’s time to do the work.
9. Be sure the benefits outweigh the costs
There will be different lenses of scrutiny for every item on your roadmap. One of the lenses of scrutiny will be the level of effort and complexity required to make it happen. The value vs. complexity will be top of mind for your technical and implementation team and less of a concern for sales and marketing.
Everything on a roadmap should have measurable value. Decide whether it’s increasing a positive (growth, revenue, page views, etc.) or minimizing a negative (increasing speed, decreasing costs, removing hurdles, etc.). The hours of development it will take to build it (not to mention if it requires spending money on outside resources) is also a factor in how things get prioritized.
Make sure everything on your roadmap has a solid business case of its own. If you can’t justify the expense, then it’s likely to cause trouble down the line.
10. Match your maturity
Roadmaps for established, enterprise-grade products differ significantly from one for a startup. Make sure you’re selecting a timeframe and scope that fits your product’s current state.
11. Acknowledge the risks
Not every initiative is going to be a slam-dunk winner. If there are some known unknowns, make them known. The potential downsides are real, so don’t hide or ignore them. Shining a light on possible problems is both responsible and recommended.
12. Don’t out map your team’s capabilities
A roadmap with aggressive timelines is problematic. It’s exacerbated when the team responsible for actually delivering the deliverables isn’t the speedy efficiency machine you’ve predicted. Base your estimate on past performance, so there’s a chance of things happening on time.
13. Expose the process
There shouldn’t be any mystery regarding how you arrived at the final proposed roadmap. Share the processes and steps you’re taking to prioritize and slot items on the roadmap, as well as the limitations imposed on the product development process by the resources and capabilities of the implementation team.
14. This is not a solo mission
Building a roadmap might be the job of a product manager, but the process must involve many others. Don’t give in to your inner hermit and try to craft a masterpiece on your own. Stakeholders can add value to their intelligence and feedback every step of the way.
15. Provide consistent updates
Your stakeholders know you’re working on a roadmap and you’ve (hopefully) been reaching out to them throughout the process for their expertise and opinions. Keep them posted regularly regarding how things are going. Even if it’s a brief note, it gives them confidence that things are still on track and makes sure everyone is up to date.
Roadmap Tips to Align Stakeholders Part 3:
Do Your Homework
You can avoid so many roadmap hiccups by putting in the up-front effort to make sure you’re presenting a quality product with minimal opportunities for objections.
16. Scope things out
A roadmap based on best guesses or ballpark ideas doesn’t establish much credibility. Work with the engineering team and figure out just how long each item should take. A timeline makes the slotting and scheduling grounded in research instead of wishful thinking and avoids any sticker shock for the technical teams.
17. Prioritize around priorities
There are a plethora of prioritization methods and frameworks at your disposal. Still, if you don’t know what’s truly important to stakeholders, there’s a high risk for wrongly ranking things. Make sure you know what these folks care about, so your prioritization holds up under their scrutiny.
18. Balance short-term wins with long-term objectives
Roadmaps are like a buffet. You want something for everyone on there, and some little nibbles complement the more substantial dishes. Your roadmap should quickly address pain points or bump up key metrics while still accomplishing more significant strategic initiatives. When there’s not enough room for both, don’t be afraid to break it out into two distinct roadmaps for the different timelines.
19. Leave room for technical debt
Just because it’s not sexy or exciting doesn’t mean technical debt doesn’t deserve a place on your primary product roadmap. If you create a separate document for your unexciting “have-to-dos” then those items will continue to be pushed out in the future. Any delay will amplify the technical debt impact and cost if there’s a crisis.
20. Don’t let sales gaslight you
When a salesperson tells you, “If you build it, they will come,” you need to apply some serious filters to that request. Do your due diligence before letting the commission chasers dictate any additions or changes to your strategic process.
21. Balance big customer demands
When you’ve got a whale or two paying the majority of the bills, it’s easy to let them dictate priorities. But if you ever want to land a bunch more whales, the roadmap must include things that will win over new customers and not just satisfy existing ones. Don’t ignore your current cash cows, but keep investing in things that will reel in some new ones as well.
Roadmap Tips to Align Stakeholders Part 4:
How a roadmap looks plays an outsized role in how stakeholders consume it. Humans are fickle beasts that judge books by their covers and gravitate toward the most visually appealing options. So don’t sink your masterpiece by ignoring how it looks.
22. A visual presentation of your vision
People respond better to visual information than plain text. Paint a picture of the future with bold colors and formats that’s easy to read and visually stimulating.
23. Wordiness is your enemy
You might be a great wordsmith, but your roadmap is not the place to show off your command of the language. People don’t want to read your roadmap; they want to consume it. Skimp on the text and provide context as commentary.
24. Pick a realistic timeframe
Roadmaps are not the place to pontificate on what might be; that’s the stuff of five-year strategic plans and off-sites led by high-paid facilitators. Roadmaps should be detailed and provide a clear, specific direction to the audience. Therefore, you should have a pretty good sense of what’s to come down the line. Nine months seems to be the sweet spot.
25. Manage to milestones
Dates are a roadmap’s worst enemy. They’re nearly always incorrect and are more likely to create false expectations than deliver any real value. But when you must add a date, milestones are a great way to indicate that a significant chunk of work or functionality is complete and elevates the calendar conversation to the important stuff.
26. Less is more
Your roadmap doesn’t need to extend out for the product’s entire lifecycle or contain every backlog item. It will be too unwieldy to maintain, become outdated instantly, and make far too many promises you can’t keep. You can’t predict the future, so don’t try to do it in your roadmap.
27. Honesty is the best policy
It’s natural to want to project confidence and certainty when presenting your roadmap, and the further out your timeline extends, the less likely things will play out as planned. Be straight with your audience and share your skepticism about what lies 12 or 18 months ahead. Beyond nine months, roadmaps are typically directional at best.
28. Keep it current
Roadmaps are living documents, so there’s no point fooling yourself that anything is set in stone for long. Right when you know that there’s an update to dates or initiatives, crank out a new revision and get it to the people that matter. You never want people working off of outdated data, your roadmap included.
29. Set the stage for your story
Product managers must be great storytellers, and your roadmap should provide an assist in that department instead of a hurdle. If the story you’re trying to tell doesn’t match the themes and priorities you’ve laid out in the roadmap, one of those things needs to change.
30. Use the right tools
Spreadsheets and slide decks are suitable for a lot of things, but managing and presenting a roadmap isn’t one of them. Time and time again, we’ve seen roadmaps require purpose-built solutions that will make initiatives and strategy easier to manage, maintain, and communicate to everyone.
Roadmap Tips to Align Stakeholders Part 5:
These roadmap tips to align stakeholders focus on the final step for any roadmap: presenting it to stakeholders and getting final approval. While this might feel like it should be a formality, a lot hinges on how this presentation unfolds.
31. No surprises
While a dramatic reveal might sound like fun, stakeholders shouldn’t see anything unexpected during the presentation. You should have been communicating with them regularly throughout the process, making the presentation a culmination of the conversation and not the start of one.
32. Set an agenda
The goal of the presentation is to gain acceptance and approval. Don’t couch things in subtlety, come right out and say that’s the purpose of the meeting in the agenda itself. Allocate time for questions and acknowledge that there might be a need for follow-ups. All the while making it clear to everyone attending that the goal is to approve the roadmap and moving forward.
33. Take on the HiPPOs
The highest-paid person in the room will likely sway the opinions of the other stakeholders present. Don’t let their doubts or negativity ruin your big day. Understand what they’ll have an issue with ahead of the meeting and address it straight on, using data to back up your case. You’ll be able to set the tone and get an edge in the battle for the sentiment of the group.
34. Provide context
Only product managers have spoken with the entire cohort of stakeholders. They have a 360-degree view of things that shaped the roadmap. Don’t hold back, providing the points raised by various individuals along the way. Explain why things ended up the way they did and how you synthesize many opinions and insights into the plan before them.
35. Never let your gut instincts show
Regardless of whether or not a hunch led you to include a particular item, everything on your roadmap should represent a grueling process of consideration, market validation, and supporting data. If someone wants to know how you came up with a particular item, reference customer input, surveys, metrics. Don’t lean on your intuition.
36. The right roadmap for the right audience
One size does not fit all when it comes to roadmaps. Be sure customers, executives, engineers, marketing, and sales aren’t all getting the same document. Everyone needs to know, but not everyone needs to know everything.
37. Exude confidence
If you want buy-in, you need to be convincing. Your body language, vocal tone, and choice of words telegraph your feelings. Take pride in all the hard work and research that went into this masterpiece and win them over with charisma.