Product Roadmap to the Promised Land

August 15, 2007

from PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
A Weekly Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software

Before the testing and bug fixing, before the technical design and product plan, before the business and technical requirements, comes the Product Roadmap. And as we speak, Product Managers are asking themselves the question: 'Just what is a Product Roadmap?'

It's a good question, one for which I'm not sure there is any single answer to suit every company's needs. As Product Manager, you find that different departments and members of the team have very different expectations from a Product Roadmap, when it comes to the details. Yet the term 'Product Roadmap' conjures up a pretty consistent idea in everyone's mind: 'It's the document that's going to show everyone where we're going, and the road we're going to travel to get there.'

Do you have a Product Roadmap? One can be critical to supplying the inspiring vision that everyone uses to march in the same direction. And this is all the more essential for a one-product company. Read below for some tips to creating and using a Product Roadmap.

Take Me to Your Leader

The Product Roadmap is the territory of the person who conceives the product and its direction. In principle this is a Product Manager. But in reality, in technology startups, this is commonly a company founder, who is often the current CEO or CTO.

So the first thing you as Product Manager need to determine is whether the CEO, CTO, or other founder is the visionary who creates the Product Roadmap. If this is the case, while you will play a pivotal role in expanding and expounding upon the vision, you'll never get anywhere if you don't step back and let the company visionary have his or her say first. As Product Manager, you can play a subordinate but important role, clarifying the vision and translating it into market and technical requirements. You are also the spokesperson for the vision.

If, on the other hand, you are the Product Manager in a company where you have been empowered to develop the vision, then the Product Roadmap is your baby. You're not the nanny here. The Roadmap is yours to raise as you see fit.

Follow the Leader

Whether you're driving the Product Roadmap or facilitating it for the visionary, the Roadmap lays out the path for the entire company to follow. You want a story, with accompanying documents, that makes it easy for others to follow along in the Roadmap's footsteps.

One thing about being a leader is that all eyes are trained on you. As the Product Manager, you explain the product vision whenever appropriate, which is to say every time there's a question relating to the software or services that comprise your product.

And when the vision comes from somebody above you, as Product Manager you are much more available than they are to answer questions and provide clarification for the many times when it's needed.

Guru on the Mountaintop

One thing to look out for is the bias of the visionary. When you climb to the high mountaintop and ask your question of the guru, his words of wisdom make everything seem so simple. Well, things DO look pretty simple from 14,000 feet. But applying the vision down in the valleys of the real world, in all its detailed, contradictory, and tricky complexity is another matter.

Whether you are the oracle yourself or the spokesman for the oracle, your job as Product Manager is to translate the ideal into the practical. This is a critical role, because the ideal vision won't get very far otherwise.

In the Company of the Product

When you have a one-product company, it's important to separate the Product Roadmap from the roadmap for the company. As the company grows, strategies and tactics for funding, acquisition and partnership are separate from the product vision. You want to be prepared for the day when there's more than one product line (for example, when the same software is applied to a new target market, requiring different messages, marketing plans and campaigns.

By separating the two roadmaps early on, the company is ready to scale and change independent of the product, and vice versa.

One Vision, Many Stories

When the overarching vision of the Product Roadmap is given to the various audiences at your company, it will be translated into many stories. This is part of turning the ideal into the practical and usable. Professional Services will add details that are pertinent to services only, and Development will flesh out technical aspects of the vision.

When this happens, this is a sign that the Product Roadmap is successful in supplying a vision that gets everyone marching in the same direction. It's important not to be too restrictive in what you include in the story. Instead, welcome input and ideas.

In fact, the Product Roadmap requires more than telling the story from on high. It requires some pretty serious review and challenging questions from first the management team, then the individual departments. All of this enriches and fortifies the vision so that everyone is able to follow it.

Carried by the Crowd

The vision is inspiring. The leaders that get the furthest are those whose vision gets the troops charged up and forging ahead on their own.

It's hard to be a leader these days. 'Lead by example.' 'Set others free, then watch them lead themselves.' 'Leading's not about commanding, it's about inspiring.' Sounds so easy.

The Product Roadmap needs to serve in an up-to-date leadership capacity. As Product Manager, you want to make sure that you encourage and harvest the enthusiasm that the Product Roadmap generates. Your goal is to get the whole company to carry it, rather than dropping it in the collective company lap.

Wandering in the Desert

None of us, even if we have a great map, can see very far ahead in the changing landscape of business today. The Product Roadmap may lead you in a direction that proves to lead your company somewhere you didn't want to go.

Be prepared to change direction and modify the Product Roadmap as often as necessary. And help the rest of the team be comfortable with and clear on the changes.

Nobody said a map can never change. But a lot of people expect it not to. The Product Manager's job is to help keep people comfortable with the changes in direction, explaining them until everyone has a minimum level of understanding, acceptance, and agreement.

Seeing the Land of Milk and Honey

Seeing where you want to go, and moving in that direction, isn't the same as getting there. As Product Manager, it's important to point out what parts of the Product Roadmap have been accomplished, because people get discouraged hearing about a place they believe they can never reach.

One part of following the Product Roadmap is consistently looking back and reviewing the road traveled thus far.

Do You Ever Get There?

And that's a good question, because unlike a physical place, the geography and horizon of business are always changing. The Product Roadmap always needs to be looking some five years out, to provide an inspiring story that gets people out of the weeds of day-to-day details. That means you never get there.

That's okay. But it's important to point this out to the followers of the vision, and explain that this is normal. Otherwise the inevitable discouragement will take its toll, and your company will lose the momentum it had from its shared vision.

Just realize that it's a whole lot easier to change vision when you're the one formulating (or helping to formulate) the change. But others will need your help working their way through the changes. As with the previous Product Roadmap, try to make this a participative process where everyone feels they have a stake.

Are We There Yet?

In conclusion, your company may have a Product Roadmap that takes a form which is very different from the roadmap at other companies, because the initial vision is modified and added to by all departments. But it will have the guideposts, directions, and encouragement needed by the whole company to move ahead together.

Copyright © 2002, 2003 Jacques Murphy. All rights reserved.

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