Product Roadmapping: It’s Personal

by C. Todd Lombardo

I was a product manager at a biotech startup years ago, and we were developing a new product that enabled our customers to extract and work with Viral RNA. There was a software component that had to be written, optimized, and tested, as well as a reagent recipe that had to be refined and tested all before release.

We were a startup so thankfully it was a small team. However, separate teams were developing the software and reagent pieces and the sales team was constantly begging me for release dates and sometimes directly reaching out to software or R&D. They had sales targets to hit and customers who were asking for the product. I had four other products in development all utilizing the same finite software, research, and testing teams. My solution for all this? I created an Excel spreadsheet and listed out the products, product features, and release dates, then sent it by attachment to my colleagues.

Problem solved. I was a genius!

Or not. I certainly caused a few fire alarms with the sales team… and the software developers. Surprisingly, the research team developing the reagents were okay, and even thankful. I was curious: Why was this team fine with my Excel spreadsheet while the others seemed enraged? Maybe the research team just wanted spreadsheets? Or maybe something else was going on?

It’s been years since my moment of product release ‘genius,’ and I’ve been fortunate to learn more efficient ways to do this.

First, obtain buy-in. While dropping a list onto the team offered certainty, I didn’t work with them to ensure they were all in agreement. Rarely is a team consistently on the same page, so obtaining alignment is key in smooth product releases. What I had created with this file was more like a release schedule, and it seemed the most rational thing to do. Schedules are great. As humans, we love predictability. The train arrives at 3:04pm. My flight leaves Monday at 5:14pm. The meeting is at 10:30am. Having something to refer to is important, but if that artifact doesn’t match up to others’ expectations, get ready for some heated conversations. What I’ve learned over the years is that in today’s product world, there is no substitute for a roadmap; and, before you roadmap, you need buy in.

One of the most effective approaches for buy-in is to invite people to a product roadmap workshop. Co-creation is always a powerful tool when applied correctly, particularly because there are so many stakeholders in your product’s success: research has to develop it, designers have to design it, engineering as to build it, sales has to sell it.

During that buy-in process, you’ll prioritize all of the ideas on your product’s plate. Remember that collaboration is not consensus, so not everyone has to agree all the time (it rarely happens). The fact the entire team has been able to offer their input will lower friction.

Lately, I’ve been doing some traveling, and I’ve been talking with many different product professionals over the past few weeks. Recently at ProductCamp London Rich Mironov spoke about being ruthless with feature prioritization. You never have enough engineers and designers to implement all your ideas, so don’t even try. I heard a very similar theme when I was at MCE3 in Warsaw from Boaz Katz, CEO of Tel-Aviv based Bizzabo: Prioritization is Hell. He employs a virtual currency for team members to “buy a feature” and then ranks value versus cost/risk. He even has a Google Spreadsheet template you can use (http://bit.ly/1qWkYSl). Once complete, this draft prioritization gets circulated (i.e. beat up) by additional stakeholders in the company until the team aligns on what to build next.

This approach is co-creation at its finest, which is akin to the Ikea effect: we love our Ikea furniture because we built it ourselves. The same applies here with product roadmapping. Involve the whole team and avoid sending off that Excel file; otherwise, you’ll watch your email or Slack channel suddenly erupt in a fit of rage. As much as we hate to admit it, work is personal, so address that head-on with your team by including their perspectives into your roadmapping process.

There are many other steps in product roadmapping. I’ll talk about them here in a series of posts over the next month. Stay tuned!

About C. Todd Lombardo

C. Todd is a leader who wears many hats, all at once: Author, designer, scientist, professor, and visualizer.  After originally beginning his career...