Likely if a product team member at a product-driven organization was asked to list the most important tools they have at their disposal, a product roadmap would be mentioned. You might be thinking to yourself, who would ask that? Me, I’d ask. Product roadmaps are a cornerstone of product-driven organizations and this artifact helps bring focus across the company to priority items instead of veering off into too many directions at once. So what do you do if your organization does not have a product roadmap?
Where to Begin
If you work in Product for a company that does not have an officially documented roadmap, there is a high likelihood that there is an informal version of this document hiding in plain sight. This may come in the form of an unwritten or written direction maintained at the senior leadership level, planned units of work for the engineering team, or client communications indicating enhancements that are expected to be in the future. Now if your company is doing all of these things without a documented roadmap, is the direction being communicated cohesively? Probably not, fingers-crossed yes. The hard part is figuring out where to begin. Comb through all of the communications that have already been sent out, review what the engineering team is working on and what is in the backlog to be completed, and review feature requests from clients. Take the common themes or features from that exercise and organize these into the time period that these are expected to be worked on and eventually delivered. Now you have version 1.0 of your roadmap. Don’t worry about the tool you use, likely there’s a tool your organization has already that can help you accomplish this. If not, a whiteboard works just fine.
Be mindful to continue making enhancements after version 1.0. This does not mean making design updates, now we’re talking about content updates and that content is the direction of your product. Remember what you started with has already been communicated as a priority. Now you need to start evaluating what those next sets of priorities are. This will be the hardest part. If there was no product roadmap, it largely means that the direction or priority was not set or maintained by the product team. Start doing your research. Understand what the needs of your target customers are, what problems your customers are facing, do you have contractual obligations that need to be fulfilled, do you have major technical debt that will cause issues in the imminent future? Again, these common themes or features should be organized and added to your roadmap. This process will be repeated over and over again by Product. Typically it is recommended that this happens at least once per quarter or at least aligns with your regularly scheduled planning intervals.
You did it! You made a roadmap and probably shared it with the other members of the Product Team. Did you share it with anyone else? If the answer is no, now it’s time to talk about your roadmap with the rest of your organization. Be prepared to have the same conversation with a variety of members of your organization, sometimes more than once, and messaged differently. Your first communication point should likely be your senior leadership team. Hopefully, this will have already been part of the exercise you did to set the direction for your product, but if not you should start there. After that, it may be helpful to share the roadmap with Engineering, client-facing roles, Marketing, and Sales. Engineering will need to understand the business context behind the work they are doing - the ‘why’ - which will help them break down large features into workable technical requirements. Customer-facing roles will need to know the direction of the product and how enhancements can impact customers. Marketing will need to plan for updates so they can start shaping communications. Sales will need to know what problems the product is solving to effectively message that to prospects. Chances are your week will start to be filled with conversations about your roadmap. The level of specificity of these conversations can and should vary based on your audience, but most importantly, never stop communicating.
Important note. Before you have any communications, you should be ready to answer the common question of exactly when your roadmap items are expected to be delivered. One of the problems when it comes to planning is also one of the great things about the technology space, an ever-increasing rate of change. It’s possible that a week after you complete your roadmap and planning, an untapped opportunity presents itself and is prioritized over other previously planned items. Your roadmap and organization should allow for that level of flexibility to meet the changing needs of the market, but this means that it is sometimes difficult to talk in specifics, months out from the expected delivery date. It is recommended that you are up-front with your audience about the level of certainty you can provide and let them know that as dates get closer, you will be able to provide more specific scope and timelines. It’s better to keep communicated timelines broad and non-specific than to overcommit to specific timelines that will be missed.
If you find yourself on a Product Team without a roadmap, create one and start maintaining it. The roadmap will quickly become a valuable resource for you, your department, and your entire organization. It’s not always going to be easy work, but rest assured you will start to see the benefits of continuously going through this exercise. Your organization will start to focus on priority items consistently, you will have clearer client communications, and hopefully, you will be able to deliver more value for your target audience by focusing on their needs. Be ready to communicate the vision of your product and the direction it is headed clearly, consistently, and repeatedly. Most of all, prioritize the needs of your target audience and start solving their problems.