The Feature-Less Roadmap: Using Themes and North Stars to Ground Your Product Roadmap

At ProductPlan, we love features, but we don’t always love them in our product roadmaps. Product management can usually see the value in this paradigm shift. However, getting the rest of the organization over the hump can be a challenge. Enter: feature-less roadmaps.

The Problem with Feature-Based Roadmaps

In our webinar on feature-less roadmaps, we asked some product experts to share their favorite reasons why product roadmaps utilize other formats other than features. We also delved into some of the reasons this switch meets so much internal resistance.

 

Understandable demands

Product management is a balancing act of appeasing stakeholders that frequently want the product to include specific features.

“Unfortunately for product managers, they live in a world where their executives and their stakeholders require the roadmap, and they need to know what’s happening in Q3 and Q4,” says ProductPlan co-founder Jim Semick. “They wind up delivering these feature-based roadmaps because the executives need to know, ‘what can I sell, what do we need to support, what do we need to be talking about.'”

Those stakeholders aren’t necessarily unreasonable; it’s hard to market and sell a fuzzy concept or get investors and board members excited about vague generalities. Therefore, convincing the organization to embrace feature-less product roadmaps can take a while.

“There’s a real challenge for product managers to flip the roadmap and talk about the outcomes that they’re delivering and to group those into themes,” Semick added.

For Amplitude product evangelist John Cutler, he agrees there’s no magic bullet to convert everyone to this way of thinking. He advises product management to take the long view in building support for this new style of product roadmapping.

Cutler cited an example from one company that took years to come around finally. “It happened because of a series of wins at that company that got people more comfortable with that,” he said. “It’s often a long period of advocacy that gets teams moving in that direction.”

Jumping the gun

When anyone related to the product identifies the specific feature they want to include, they’re essentially cutting short the opportunity for innovation. Once you select a particular way of solving, the creativity spigot shuts off. Ultimately, this limits the potential for other solutions to emerge.

For panelist Abbie Kouzmanoff, a product manager at Amplitude, the rush to define the “how” prevents proper exploration and consideration of the best way to address the underlying “why.”

At that point, Kouzmanoff says, “you’re focused on output versus an outcome.”

It all comes back to goals. Does your product organization exist to ship features? Of course not! Features are a means to an end, and there’s usually more than one way to get there.

Settling on features too early in the process doesn’t necessarily get you the best way to achieve the business outcomes you’re trying to solve for, and may, therefore, fall short.

“It may not get you to the best solution ultimately,” Kouzmanoff added. “It also doesn’t set you up for really evaluating yourself once that feature has gotten out there.”

A feature-less approach to product roadmapping looks at whether they’re meeting the success criteria=, regardless of what you hoped and predicted the feature would achieve.

Ideation inclusivity

Another problem with feature-based roadmaps is that most decision-making takes place before many internal groups get an opportunity to contribute. If product management relies solely on executive input and market data to prescribe exactly what’s in each product release, other teams get shut out of the process.

“There is also a considerable organizational risk,” Kouzmanoff says. “You’re not using the collective brainpower of the team that you have. Designers and engineers have great ideas too.”

Not only does this stunt the development of the entire organization as a problem-solving machine. You’re also more likely to settle on a plan that’s not as good as it could be.

“If you’re just building a feature that you think is the right one, you’re not using that team,” Kouzmanoff added. “Is there a better, more creative solution to the underlying customer problem that’s there?”

This question gets back to the fundamental issue: whether a feature-based approach is solving for customer value and outcomes.

Inflexible planning

Feature-based product roadmaps don’t just stifle creativity; they also limit an organization’s opportunity to adapt.

Data-driven decision making and customer-centricity require rapid responses to learnings, experimentation, and continuous user feedback loops. But if you’ve already set in stone what the product development organization will be building for the next six-to-twelve months, there’s no opportunity to incorporate those learnings, course-correct based on feedback, or pivot when things hit a wall.

A feature-less product roadmap provides adequate “wiggle room” to act on new information, try things out, and measure the results. There’s still a plan, but it’s based on the result of improving key metrics or achieving particular goals versus a predetermined execution.

Getting stakeholders comfortable with this flexibility and relative uncertainty isn’t easy. Still, without some leeway to change things up along the way, teams get stuck building something that seemed like a good idea six months ago but has since been disproven or is in question thanks to more recent findings and early results.

Squandering your agility

Organizations have invested countless hours into embracing Agile, valuing the short bursts of development, rapid deployment, and continuous feedback loop this framework offers. But a feature-laden product roadmap discards many of the benefits Agile offers.

Chunking up projects into sprints and interim releases have their value, but, from a product strategy perspective, you’re squandering much of Agile’s upside by remaining locked into feature-specific plans. The opportunity to learn and adjust to user response, competitor activity, evolving business goals, and other fluid factors runs counter to the detailed prescriptive expectations set by a feature-based product roadmap.

Of course, being Agile doesn’t mean it’s a total free-for-all. It can actually be quite a predictable environment for some product teams. But a feature-less product roadmap leans into Agile’s strengths and benefits far more than the alternative.