How Roadmaps Can Prevent Product Managers From Getting Lost

by drjim on March 11, 2013

A product roadmap is only valuable if a product manager knows how to use it

A product roadmap is only valuable if a product manager knows how to use it
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Where is your product going to be in 6 months? What features will it have in a year? What is going to make your product different than everyone else’s in 5 years? If you can’t answer these questions, then perhaps you either don’t have a product roadmap or the one that you have isn’t doing its job. In either case, it looks like we need to do something about that…

What Is A Product Roadmap?

Although I suspect that we all have the same reaction when somebody asks us “do you know what a product roadmap is?” I think that we might be speaking too quickly if we just automatically say “yes”. Product managers believe that creating a product roadmap is part of the product development definition. On one level, we all know that a product roadmap is a document, either on paper or electronic, that shows the evolution of our product. After that, things tend to get just a bit fuzzy.

Let’s all take a step back for just a moment and give this some thought. Why bother to create a roadmap for your product? At its heart, a roadmap is simply a communication tool. It’s not intended to go into a lot of detail, but rather to provide a higher level view of where the product is at and where you want it to go over time. If you can get good at doing this, then this is something that you’ll be able to add to your product manager resume.

There are three critical pieces of information that are part of every product roadmap: milestones, features, and duration. The milestones are the points in time that there will be a significant change made to your product. Generally speaking, this is when a new release of your product will become available.

For each milestone, you’ll want to provide a list of the new or changed features that will now be available. What’s going to be very important here is that if you have a given feature that will be evolving over several milestones, you are going to have to very clearly call this out and make it obvious on your roadmap.

Finally, every roadmap has a duration. What this means is that your product roadmap needs to cover a specific period of time. The trick here is to make sure that it’s not too short (a one month roadmap may not be of any use for anyone) and not too long (a 20-year roadmap would only suit a small set of products).

How Should A Product Manager Use A Product Roadmap?

Having a roadmap for your product is a great start; however, the true value of your roadmap will come from how you choose to use it. All too often we product managers will go to the effort of creating a very nice roadmap and then we’ll just assume that it will work its magic and everyone will automatically know what it contains.

The product roadmap is a communications tool with the key word being “tool”. It is the responsibility of the product manager to use this tool in order to get all of the various parties that are involved with the product to be on the same page.

The product development team needs to be very aware of what is in the product roadmap. The reason that this is so important is because all too often a development team’s focus is on the next milestone – the next release of the product. What this means is that they may be making design decisions that will have to be changed in order to support future features. By taking the time to make sure that they fully understand where the product is headed, you will be impacting the design decisions that are being made today.

The sales and marketing communication teams also have to be briefed on the product roadmap. This is a tricky issue: you don’t want your sales teams selling things that don’t yet exist; however, so much of their interaction with the customer occurs informally that if you can make them aware of what is coming, they’ll pass the information along. The marketing communication team needs to know what the product roadmap is so that they can plan what they’ll be doing at future industry events and in terms of getting press coverage.

The final audience for your product roadmap is your end customer. Every customer who purchases your product is going to want to know that the product is still growing and evolving. Your roadmap can serve as the notification that your company is still investing in the product and then the delivery of those new features will confirm that the product is alive and doing well. For new customers, when they are trying to evaluate your product against other products, a product roadmap will show them that even if your product does not have as much functionality as another product, they can still select you because you’ll soon have everything that they need.

What Does All Of This Mean For You?

Product roadmaps are not easy things to make. They can take a considerable amount of time to collect all of the required information and then to get agreement from all involved parties. However, roadmaps are a powerful communication tool and the effort is well worth it. Creating a product roadmap should really be a part of every product manager’s product manager job description.

When you are creating a roadmap, you need to make sure that all three of the critical components are included: milestones, features, and duration. For each milestone of the product the features associated with that release need to be clearly identified. Every roadmap needs to cover a specific duration of time that is not too short and not too long.

A product manager spends his or her time working with a wide variety of people in order to create the next, better version of their product. Just creating the product is not enough, you need to tell the world what your plans are and generate some excitement about what’s coming. Your product roadmap is the best way to go about doing this.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How often do you think that you should update your product roadmap?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As product managers, we have a responsibility to our potential customers to make the product identification, selection, and purchasing process as easy as possible. However, all too often we seem to get caught up in trying to use the latest wiz-bang marketing tools that we’ve just read about and we can lose sight of just exactly how our customers go about the process of purchasing our product…

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