How to build effective product roadmaps?

We’re discovering how effective it can be when a roadmap is so strategically built that organizations place it at the center of their decision-making process and teams put it at the center of their product decisions. We’ve seen how a roadmap can bridge your work with the rest of the teams and give you control over the direction your product is taking. Below are a few tips to ensure you’re making the best use of your roadmap.

  • Putting together a product roadmap is more than tying together a collection of features while communicating desired due dates and tasks. Do your homework before you start working on your first roadmap. What challenge is it meant to address? Does your company already have a clear strategy in place? If yes, then align the features that will have the most significant impact on corresponding goals. If no real strategy exists yet, then you need to map out your strategic goals and initiatives to ensure your stakeholders and the team are aligned. The strategy has to be the foundation of your roadmap. All else, your initiatives, your goals, the work, has to serve your strategy. This context will allow you to focus on the short-term needs while building out product management practices that will serve your team and you in the long run.

  • Once you nail down a strategic approach, bring together a lightweight roadmap. The key to nailing a great roadmap is to keep a healthy balance. In most cases, teams that have little balance over resource the new product and under-resourced iteration on an existing product. Don't focus on features. Instead, focus on themes. Each theme addresses a customer problem. It will demand user research. To prioritize your product roadmap, you will have to identify effort levels, pain points, and business values. Themes give the company crucial concepts to rally around without losing themselves in weeds. They also help serve as guardrails for planning work. This way you won’t end up playing catch-up with competitors on features or get caught up in the feared “we know what to build” mindset of delivering customer value. Features here are derived from the goals and should be used sparingly. As a thumb rule, don’t use more than three to five features per goal. Also, a product roadmap is the high-level plan based on what you know now on what direction your product is headed. So to lower the information noise, keep out user stories and epics out of the roadmap. It must remain about the big picture.

  • No one reads a product roadmap they can’t understand. So keep it simple. You don’t require a tool to build a product roadmap. Index cards and whiteboards are fine, as are Keynote, Google Docs or Excel. Work with whatever you're comfortable with. The presentation of the roadmap comes second as long as all stakeholders buy-in, the content is what matters.

  • Rather than remain static, roadmaps need to be regularly exercised. Your roadmap must work as a reader board, displaying a picture of current project status. So your product roadmap requires consistent input from the product owner for it to do its job well. This means keeping your roadmap updated to reflect new planning directions, any market changes, changes in priorities or added resources. This way your constituents will be able to see the factors that are accountable for your product’s delays or progress. These continual updates help foster a sense of shared ownership which will help drive better results in turn. Without this, product roadmaps land up in pretty files without having seen the light of day.

  • Make your roadmap measurable. Ensure every goal is measurable when using a goal-oriented roadmap. This will allow you to tell if you have met the goal or not. For example, if your goal is to acquire customers, then ask yourself how many new users should be acquired. If you're aiming to reduce technical debt, figure out how much of the bad code should be rewritten or removed. It will be hard to tell if you have met the goal or not if you don’t state a target. Make sure you set a realistic target though. Then select the metrics that will help you determine if a goal has been met and if a release has delivered the desired benefit.

  • Don’t put dates anywhere on the product roadmap. People will read any date on a roadmap as a commitment. No stakeholder will be interested in hearing or understand the narrative as to why it hasn't yet been delivered. And if you cannot leave out dates, at least avoid publishing hard dates that might change. Speak regarding months or quarters. For anything that’s not already a work-in-progress or that isn’t well defined and well understood, don’t fall into the trap of specifying dates. Any date you set for something that’s outside of the one- to three-month time horizon is bound to fail. Display time frames instead of specific dates.

Your first roadmap might end up feeling like a herculean effort. But remind yourself that you are doing the hard work now and setting best practices for the future. Also, your roadmap is a work in progress. Adjust strategy, track goals, promote ideas as they come in. Remain open to shifting priorities and make sure you revisit your roadmap at a cadence which makes sense for your organization.

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