We Need an Updated Roadmap!

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How many times have I heard this?  To a product professional, the product roadmap is a hot topic.  How often should we update it?  Who will do the work aggregating the details from all the Product Managers?  Who has to approve this?  Where is the customer feedback?  What about the field reaction when they don’t get what they want?   Has engineering agreed to it?   Marketing wanted this on the roadmap, what gives?  Wait, has the other Business Unit seen that?  How much detail do we put on that slide?

And the biggest question of all,  how much are we committing to these features on those dates?  What are the legal and revenue implications?

After contemplating these questions, any Project Manager would want to hide under the covers.  But hey, you are CEO of your product…and CEOs don’t deal with this level of detail (or accountability).  Can a PM or a PM organization solve the need for customers, field sales, marketing, engineering, partners, support and executives to have a rock solid roadmap?  And still be employed in three months?  That is the crux of most PM activity, moving the conversations you have about your product and moving forward with sanity and legality.

Different Models

I have been personally involved with roadmaps from the beginning of my engineering career, from hardware to services to software.  Sometimes roadmaps were simple: a list of features or capabilities that were going to be in the next release.  Sometimes it was a long- range strategic roadmap with few details.  In one organization, it was a bulleted list of 5 to 10 items for the next 3 releases occurring over the next 2 years.

I have seen sales guys modify a PPT and change a roadmap to make a deal.  I have seen corporate process and approval control the exact content with line item veto. I have seen startups and big companies have very different types of roadmaps.  I have built a single page roadmap;  in a different company I built a 94 page roadmap that took 3 hours to present at the speed of the guys that speak the fine print during radio commercials.

Where to Start

There are 4 simple questions to ask that are musts to figure out the big picture of your roadmap.

  1. Who is the roadmap for? (Internal use inbound (PM+Engineering), Internal use outbound (Marketing, Pre and Post Sales), Customers, Prospects?)
  2. Is your organization  a small or large company?
  3. Is the roadmap supposed to cover strategic intent over, say 18 months, or detailed features over the next 6 months?
  4. How often do you commit to updating  your roadmap? Once a month, a quarter, a year?

As you can guess, depending on the combination of answers you may need different roadmaps for different situations.  Small companies with detailed roadmaps can often update quickly (both adding and removing features) and generally do not have a huge contractual commitment associated with these changes.   On the other hand, large companies are pretty picky about their roadmaps and are generally vague enough to not get into legal or financial trouble.

Substance Over Style?

There are many versions and styles of roadmaps.  The key point is to figure out what your audience wants to see on what timetable with what confidence.  The PM organization should then figure out how much of what the audience wants that you can give them, and not get into trouble (reputation, over-commitment, lose business, legal obligations, revenue embargo).

I have seen some good success in defining themes for your roadmap.  Defining 3 to 5 themes which can be items like “Heterogeneity” or “Customer Experience” or simply new areas that your product is moving into such as “Operations”.  These themes should transcend time and over new releases, your roadmap should have bullets along each of these themes.  It is also good to have a slide on each theme discussing what it means, why it is important and who cares about it.  In fact you might want to have themes by persona: end user, administrator and business owner for example.

As you know, a roadmap is a powerful beast and can really help sales and customers, but can also get you into a world of hurt.  That is why some organizations don’t have external roadmaps with the exception of a strategy presentation.  Others have a filtered version of their backlog as the roadmap.

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