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Building a Product Roadmap

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Note: Several parts of the following section on roadmapping was given color and clarity after conversations with the authors of another O’Reilly book called Product Roadmapping: How To Prioritize Your Opportunities, Align Your Teams, and Deliver The Most Value to Your Customers and Stakeholders. The book is written by C. Todd Lombardo, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan, and Michael Connors and will be published in the summer of 2017. We’re very grateful for their insights and for giving us permission to share their wisdom and knowledge here.

Read more about our product roadmpapping  process at Fresh Tilled Soil.

When you’re looking at the finished work of a well-executed product it seems perfect. All you can see is the beautiful presentation and anticipate the potentially enjoyable experience ahead of you. Of course what you don’t see is all the hard work that went into the creation of this sensory masterpiece. You don’t see the people and processes that go into making that amazing thing. The same is true of almost all beautiful products. Behind every great product is a great team doing work in a way that guarantees results. They are following a roadmap from the starting point to the end product.

Here is just a sampling of the people and elements involved in any great product: product leader and/or manager, product team (designers, engineers, QA, etc.), components, roadmap, tools, UI Kit, marketing team, and a marketing website, and of course, customers. Remove any one of these elements and the outcome will be different. Like baking a cake, change any of the ingredients or team members and it’s possible you’ll get a completely different cake. Sometimes this will be good, but many times it will be an outcome you didn’t plan for and your customers won’t want. If you’re selling chocolate cake and suddenly the cakes start coming out strawberry flavor you’ll have some unhappy customers.

It’s also true that if you stick to the recipe and process too closely, you’ll never experience any opportunities for improvements or moments of delight. This is why the best chefs run a rigorous and disciplined kitchen but also make space for experimentation and improvement. The trick is in getting the guiding framework right and allowing for flexibility inside that framework. In product creation circles this is often referred to as a roadmap. It’s not a replacement for a rigorous process or a smart team. It focuses the people and process on what’s the best outcome for the customer. So how does a roadmap help you deliver on the product work?

  1. Focus: The first thing it does is puts a lens around the work and focuses in on the core value. Humans don’t just want focus, they require it to do their best work. It also helps us understand what we are not going to give our attention to. If we stick to our cake baking metaphor we would say, “we’re making the best cake. Not cookies, not brownies, just cake.”
  2. Alignment: The roadmap also helps create alignment. It get’s the entire team working towards the same goals. Once the roadmap has been discussed, the team will have clarity on what their roles are and what their efforts will create. In our kitchen, we’d hear, “We’re all on board with the cake flavor, styling, and time it’ll take to get it from start to finish”.
  3. Priority: Knowing what to do is half the story, knowing when to do those things is the other half. Prioritization is a core part of having a roadmap that works. Another way to look at it is to substitute the statement, “we won’t have time for that” for the clarification “that isn’t a priority for us to be successful”. When to mix the flour and eggs, bake the cake and add the frosting need to be timed perfectly to get the best cake.
  4. Visibility: Seeing the way the team works and what they will be doing makes everything easier. Visualizing potential pitfalls and opportunities can be done by mapping out the work in terms of priority and importance. If it’s 3pm and our cake needs to be on the shelves by 10am the next morning, then working backwards, what do we need to be doing between now and then?
  5. Coordination: Overlapping efforts or misaligned work that cancels out our progress causes stress and waste. Getting our team working in a rhythm is going to be a big part of creating and maintaining momentum. Everybody should know their contribution and how it dovetails with the others on the team. The old saying, “too many cooks in the kitchen” is too perfect not to add here.
  6. Vision: The best companies and products have a clear vision of where they are going. A great vision should paint a picture of a brighter future for your customers. It’s not about you. It’s about them. The most famous, and possibly one of the best, customer-centric vision was Disney’s original “Make People Happy”.  Simple and easy to use as a lens for what needs to be done each day. You’ve just delivered a tasty and beautiful cake to your hungry customer. What is next for your relationship with your customer? A roadmap should paint a picture of what comes next to achieve a long-lasting relationship with your customers.

Now you know what’s in your roadmap. But before we go any further and discuss how to create a roadmap let’s quickly talk about what a roadmap is not.

  • A roadmap is not a release plan. Leave out the specific dates and timelines.
  • It is not a list of features and/or components.
  • The roadmap should not include job stories, user stories or “jobs to be done.”
  • A roadmap is not a commitment. It is a guide that reacts to new information.
  • A successful roadmap is not a Gantt Chart. Dependencies and waterfall connections won’t work for this planning.

The best roadmap is a strategic communication artifact that is focused on the big picture and conveys the path you’ll take to fulfill your product vision. “More often than not, the lack of a roadmap encourages you to do too many things not as well.” Anthony Accardi, CTO of Rue La La. Who will use the roadmap once it’s complete? Well, everybody. Product, design, development, sales and marketing, executives, customers, partners, and customer support.

Let’s get into the details about how to create a roadmap. The roadmap is often the final step in the strategic planning process, which means you’ll already have several assets to draw from to make it better. The required inputs of the roadmap planning process are as follows:

  1. Clearly defined problem and solution. Why do you need this? You have to know what you’re doing and why that’s valuable before you start thinking about where you’re going.
  2. Understand your users needs. Why do you need this knowledge? You need to be able to empathize with your users so you can understand and anticipate their needs.
  3. User Journeys for the current experience. Why the current experience? You need to fully visualize or map how they are currently solving their problem in order to understand how it will be improved or replaced by your offering.

To organize these pieces of the strategic puzzle you should have the following:

  • Company Vision
  • Business Goals
  • User Goals
  • Product Goals
  • Prioritization
  • Roadmap

What happens if your vision, goals, and prioritization haven’t been articulated? There are unfortunately no shortcuts but we’ve included some exercises to get the initial clarity you’ll need to get started. We highly recommend doing this in as much detail as possible and including the relevant research, you have to make these answers as accurate as possible.

Vision Exercise:

When: at a time when____

What: [our product] is the only____

How: that____

Who: for_____

Where: in______

Why: who_____

Source: Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.

So when it’s complete the vision exercise will look something like this (this is an example from a travel advisory company):

At a time when travel is frequent, but travelers plan less…
TripAdvisor has the only international restaurant recommendation engine…
That gives immediate recommendations based on location and reviews…
For the everyday traveler…
From countries all over the world….
Who need to save time and energy on finding local eateries.

Business Goals:

List between one and five strategic objectives. Using our cake bakery example, let’s list a few possible business goals:

  • Expand the customer base to neighborhoods surrounding our current location
  • Provide a selection of custom cakes for special occasions (e.g. birthday parties) to grow our market.
  • Build partnerships with local restaurants to extend our out-of-store sales.

Users Goals:

Knowing your customers let’s you get closer to knowing the value you need to deliver. Every customer experience can be mapped, however loosely, to tell the story of how they interact with products and services. It’s important to list the goals of the customer as it relates to the journey they experience.

Goal #1: “Find a great tasting cake at a location near to me”

Goal #2: “Make sure it’s affordable too”

Goal #3: “And they need to deliver”

Product Goals:

The product goals are the solutions the customer seeks. In other words, the desires, needs or pains the customer describes in their goals are also the indicators of what the solutions will be. For example:

Product Solution #1: Find the cake shop either by searching the web or browsing cake design images on sites like Pinterest. Add signage to the storefront.

Product Solution #2: List pricing next to each cake and describe the ingredients and care that goes into the cake making process so the customer can understand the value of what they are buying.

Product Solution #3: Add delivery information to the website and storefront.

Prioritization:

We’ll talk in detail about prioritization in other sections of this book but as it’s essential to the roadmap creation process we need to address it here too. Let’s start with how not to prioritize your strategic goals and activities. Knowing what filters not to use is as important as knowing what filters you should use.

Your CEO’s gut reaction to a feature is not a good place to start. It’s not that your CEO isn’t smart or that they don’t have great insights but all subjective opinions are frequently influenced by personal bias. Similarly, requests from sales teams or support teams reacting to one or two customer requests need to be checked for consistency and relevancy to the broader customer base. Prioritizing a feature because one customer says they need it will set a precedent for this kind of interruption to the workflow. We also recommend not relying too heavily on analyst opinions either. These industry pundits are basing their suggestions on historical and aggregate sector data so beware of using them to forecast the future of your narrow market. Of course all of these sources are valid, just not in isolation and never at face-value.

So if the above sources of information should be either distrusted or double-checked, what sources should you trust? Prioritization is best done through the lens of the following criteria:

  1. Feasibility
  2. Desirability
  3. Viability

Feasibility is a technical consideration and will need the inputs of the technical team members. Product leaders are not looking for opinions here, rather just what is technically possible versus impossible or highly improbable. Desirability is the customer focused part of the analysis. This takes into consideration the needs of the end user, the interaction elements, affordances and how these are to marketed or sold. Finally, the viability of the work being considered needs to be considered as a function of the overall business. This insight is provided by the product manager/s and relevant executives.

By mapping these criteria against the features in the prioritization list you can develop a matrix. Each feature or element is then scored from 1 to 5 in terms of its feasibility, desirability and viability. The final column, representing the total scores, represents the priority. Ultimately, the matrix aims to objectively focus on the most important theme and the order that they would be sequenced.

Here’s an example of how this might look in a product organization:

Overlaying considerations for innovation can also be done with a this prioritization matrix. When there is a high value for each of the criteria there is high overlap and therefore a strong indication that this will also be a candidate for new innovation.

Roadmap:

Traditionally roadmaps have been presented in many formats. We’re fans of simple and visual but beyond that we don’t have a preference for presentation formats. What we do have a preference for is what the roadmap should include. Some roadmaps include specific features but we recommend keeping these very high-level or confined to near-term periods. Alternatively you can leave them out completely and use the anticipated user experience outcome in it’s place. Here is our list of elements that should be included in all roadmaps:

  • Broad time frames
  • Themes by time frame
  • High-level product goals (as covered above)
  • Metrics for measuring each stage’s progress
  • Risks and considerations
  • Status of each stage
  • Sales and marketing effects

Let’s look at an example:

Example of a product roadmap
Source: Bruce McCarthy

Customer facing roadmaps, assuming you need to share these with customers, will be different from internal roadmaps. There will be less information to share and a focus on themes over commitments to features.

Example of a customer-facing product roadmap that only shows themes

The overall takeaway from the product roadmapping exercise is to get your activities planned into large and small time periods. As DJ Patil, recently U.S. Chief Data Scientist, has said, “Dream in years; Plan in months; Evaluate in weeks; Ship daily.” Start thinking broadly and then narrow down your efforts to the shortest time frames. Implicit in this idea is that it’s dynamic and requires continual updating.

Like all tools and artifacts at the product leader’s disposal, these roadmaps are only as good as the information that goes into them and the attention they receive. Failing to communicate this roadmap clearly and frequently will make it less effective.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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