How To Create A Product Timeline That Works

A product timeline is only as valuable as it is used
A product timeline is only as valuable as it is used

Image Credit: Marcio Rocha Pereira

Ah, product timelines. This is arguably one of the most visible and one of the most difficult things that a product manager is called on to create in order to communicate your product development definition. It turns out that creating a timeline is not really all that hard to do. However, creating a timeline that is both accurate and useful to other people is quite hard to do. I recently had to help a startup company create their very first product timeline and it reminded me just how tricky this task can be…

What A Timeline Needs To Be Able To Do

Before you go to all of the time and effort that creating a timeline requires, perhaps you should first make sure that you understand just exactly why you’ll be creating timeline in the first place. A timeline is nothing more than a communication tool. As a product manager you want to be able to let everyone who comes into contact with your product know what the product is going to be able to do and when it is going to be able to do it. This is the kind of thing that should be on everyone’s product manager resume

Just as important as knowing what a timeline is, is knowing what it is not. The first thing that we need to realize is that a timeline is not set in concrete. Just because you create a timeline today does not mean that things are going to work out this way. Rather, you should view a timeline for what it really is: your best guess at what’s going to happen in the future. If things change, then you’ll go back and change your timeline to reflect the new reality of the world.

A timeline is not how you communicate with your customer what your product will do in the future. Perhaps I should say this a little differently; the timeline that you create to communicate within the company will be different from the timeline that you use to talk to customers. Your internal timeline will contain more details than any document that you create to talk with customers about where your product is going. Customers don’t need to know about all of those details and when things change, you’d have a lot more explaining to do if you shared too much.

How I Created A Timeline That Actually Works

The company that I was brought in to work with already had a fairly successful product. They wanted to prepare for the future and they knew the informal verbal communication system that they had been using to talk about what features would be going into the product would no longer work. What they needed was a timeline that could be used throughout the company to make sure that everyone knew what was coming and when it was coming.

The process that I went through in order to create a timeline for them had four separate steps to it:

  • Step 1: Work with development to identify all possible changes
    Everyone pretty much knew the changes that had to be made to the product going forward. Some were written down, some were not. I sat down with the development team and we went through each and every possible new feature without judging its value. For each feature I captured a name, a description, a source, an effort estimate, and who would actually do the work. In the end I had a list of 145 features.

  • Step 2: Work with business to identify priorities
    My next step was to sit down with the business side of the house and have them prioritize each of the 145 identified features. I had them use a 1-10 scale where 10 was the most valuable and 1 was the least valuable. This was very painful for everyone involved to do, but we toughed it out and eventually made it to the end of the list.

  • Step 3: Work with business to identify priorities within priorities
    Sadly, the next step involved the same set of business partners once again. This time around I had them sit down and with the priority 10 features (the most important), I had them rank them from 1-25 (there were 25 priority 10 features). I then had them do the same thing for the priority 9 and priority 8 features. I didn’t worry about anything less than that because I figured that things will change before we get to them.

  • Step 4: Create timeline
    The final step. Now that I knew all of the features, what their priority was, how long it would take to implement the feature, and who would do the work, it was fairly easy to create a timeline starting with the high priority features and working towards the lower priority features. One additional step that I did was to color code each of the planned features. The product had 16 major functions and I assigned a color to each function so that I could see which functions would be getting new features. What I discovered was that most of the changes that we would be working on were internal – no customer would ever see them, they would just make the product work faster / better.

What All Of This Means For You

A product timeline is a critical communication tool that product managers use to let the rest of the company know what their product will be able to do and when it will be able to do it. Creating one of these should be a part of everyone’s product manager job description. The challenge that we run into when we are creating a timeline is that if we don’t do it correctly, then nobody will bother to use it and we’ll have just ended up wasting our time.

When we create a product timeline, we need to be careful to use it correctly. Timelines are fluid things that probably will change over time. They are not the right way to communicate with your customer what new features are planned for your product. Instead, you need to work with both the development and business side of your company to create a prioritized list of what features need to be added to your product.

If you can get this product timeline creation thing done correctly, then you’ll discover that everything having to do with your product just seems to move along that much easier. Once everyone knows what “the plan” is for your product, they’ll be able to better arrange their schedules to support you. Learn from how I created my product timeline and create one that works for your product!

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

Question For You: How far into the future do you think that your product timeline should look?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

I like having customers. You like having customers. In fact, once we get a customer we sure would like to hang on to them. The problem is that our customers always want our products to do more, more, more for them. What this means is that we always need to be adding new features and capabilities to our products. Where things can get a bit tricky is when it comes to just exactly how we tell our existing and prospective customers about what new features are coming and when they will arrive.