A Competition-Minded Roadmap

By Mike Belsito August 15, 2016

Imagine this scenario: You’re responsible
for the vision and execution of product development at your company. You’ve presented your product roadmap and received buy-in from the CEO and executive team, and from the software developers and product managers who report to you. You feel confident about the plan and envision the impact it will have on the company when your product goals are achieved.

Then, first thing Monday you get an email forwarded by your CEO that was from the chairman of the board. It’s about the press announcement of a new product line that your primary competitor is launching. The product line appears to be revolutionary; certainly it will be talked about within the industry. The only problem is that this email didn’t come
from you.
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Your CEO is already asking you questions. She has a board meeting this week and anticipates being questioned about this product line.

So what do you do? You feel confident about your roadmap, yet you understand the position your CEO is in.

If this sounds like a nightmare scenario, read on. The following tips can help ensure that your roadmap is competition-proof.

Consider your competition from the outset

If the first time you think about your competition is when the previous scenario occurs, it’s already too late. Sure, you might be able to revamp your roadmap, but you’re already in catch-up mode. Besides, revamping the roadmap may not be the right thing to do. The right time to think about your competition—and whether it should impact your product decisions—is at the beginning of the roadmap-building process.

Ask yourself about your unfair advantage and your competition’s

While it’s easy for a roadmap to consist of dozens of features and product tweaks, it’s important to back up and challenge yourself to answer a couple of important underlying questions: What is the overall product objective that you want your roadmap to achieve? In the eyes of your customers, what is it about the totality of the roadmap that will set you apart from everybody else?

Now, think about your primary competitors. You have no way of knowing what’s being developed in their roadmaps, but ask yourself the following: In the eyes of their customers, what sets apart the competition and its products? If they have legitimate strengths, what might they do to enrich those strengths through product development? Perhaps you can start to envision how they plan to move the product forward.

Identify where you must be positioned more favorably

Now that you know your product’s direction and can envision how your competitors may be developing theirs, start to imagine how to reinforce your competitive advantage with customers over time. Of course, things might not go as planned. Your hypotheses about the competition may be way off. You may get new data points and go in a different direction from the original roadmap plan.

Even so, at this point be clear about where you will not yield. Choose one important competitive advantage that you refuse to give up. For instance, will you always hang your hat on your customer onboarding flow? Will you always be positioned as the best UX your users could possibly experience? Whatever the competitive advantage is, choose the area in which you believe you cannot lose to your competition.

Only change if your chosen competitive advantage slips

Once you start to execute on the roadmap, review your progress each month. Are you achieving your overall objective and not just completing new features or products?

Next, review the competition. What has changed? A thorough review of their website may tell you, but also check social media, release notes and any other place that they (or their customers) talk about their product. Perhaps there are no noticeable changes. Or, maybe your competition made some major introductions.

If there are significant changes, consider whether those changes allow them to win over the key competitive advantage you committed to. If they don’t, continue with your original plan. Now you know when movement is occurring with your competition, but also that you haven’t let up on the competitive advantage that means the most to you.

If their changes threaten your competitive advantage, by all means review your current roadmap to determine whether changes will strengthen your position. Again, this should only be done if that one competitive advantage you deemed critical is directly threatened.

Remember this: You own your roadmap, not your competitors

In general, it’s not a good idea to constantly change the direction of your product roadmap based on a competitor’s introduction of new features. But there are times when actions from your competition warrant a thorough review. Following these steps helps ensure that no matter what happens with your competition, you can feel confident in the product decisions you make.

Mike Belsito

Mike Belsito

Mike Belsito is co-founder of Product Collective and co-organizer of INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, an adjunct professor of design and innovation at Case Western Reserve University, and co-host of the Rocketship.FM podcast. Connect with him on LinkedIn

Listen to Belsito talk more about this event in the Nov. 22, 2019 PragmaticLive Podcast.

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