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Strategies to Create a Better Roadmap

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  • Jim Semick is co-founder of ProductPlan, a leading provider of cloud-based roadmap software for product and marketing teams. For more than 15 years he has helped launch new products now generating hundreds of millions in revenue. He was part of the founding team at AppFolio, a vertical SaaS company. Prior to AppFolio, Jim validated and created version 1.0 product requirements for GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting (acquired by Citrix). Jim is a frequent speaker on product management and the process of discovering successful business models. He contributes at www.productplan.com/blog. Follow Jim on Twitter at @JimSemick.

Strategies to Create a Better Roadmap

Are you selling a product that nobody wants? 

If so, you might have experienced a misstep when creating your roadmap. 

Roadmaps are all about determining a destination and choosing the right path to get there. It sounds easy enough, but we all know better than that.

Defining what to put in the roadmap, sharing that information effectively and keeping it updated in today’s constantly changing world is one of the hardest things.

But first, what is a strategic product roadmap? 

Ideally, it’s a high-level visual summary that helps product managers and everyone on the team get on the same page.

A roadmap also provides context for your stakeholders and communicates the “why” behind what you’re building. 

A product roadmap isn’t just a list of features and it’s certainly not the backlog. 

The roadmap needs to communicate the big picture to the organization. These initiatives move the needle, address the competition, make customers happy and create customer value. 

That kind of big-picture thinking can’t be distilled down into a list of features.

 

The benefits of a strategic product roadmap include:  

  • It’s an exercise that defines the vision and strategy. 
  • Guides the execution of the strategy. 
  • Aligns internal stakeholders. 
  • Facilitates discussion of options and scenarios. 
  • Communicates progress of development. 
  • Shares strategy with external stakeholders. 

 

Strategy #1: Implement Top-Down Planning

Product managers prefer top-down strategic planning communication because it’s better for the business. 

They want to have productive discussions about future initiatives with the executives and other stakeholders. This approach has a greater chance of producing a product roadmap that moves the needle for the company.

Top-Down Strategic Planning: Product Vision, Product Goals, Product Roadmap, Release Plan & Backlog

You need to first spend time planning the roadmap by distilling it into a product vision that stakeholders can understand. 

The product vision is often a long-term statement about what the big problem is that you’re solving and for whom. So, it’s this high-level statement that can span a number of years. 

Then, that, in turn, feeds into product goals, which influences the roadmap and finishes at the detailed release plan. 

 

Strategy #3: Evangelize Product Goals 

From that product vision, you establish product goals that in turn influence the initiatives that are on your roadmap. 

These product goals are outcome-based objectives. This is the step that helps you translate the product strategy into an executable plan.

For example, a product goal could be improving your customer’s shopping cart experience. If you have an e-commerce solution, you identify high level strategic goals, such as reducing shopping cart abandonment or improving customer satisfaction. 

Other Product Goals Include: 

  1. Establishing Competitive Differentiation 
  2. Increasing Customer Delight 
  3. Identifying Technical Improvements 
  4. Increasing Customer Lifetime Value 
  5. Upselling New Services 
  6. Reducing Churn 
  7. Expanding Geographically 
  8. Influencing Mobile Adoption 

 

It’s important that you tie everything on your product roadmap to your product goal. And, of course, every organization is different. You need to develop product specific and company-oriented goals. 

Those are some high-level goals that then translate into metrics. 

Strategy #4: Guide Decisions with Metrics 

Metrics are an ideal way of guiding product decisions and your product roadmap. There are two different types of metrics: Customer success metrics and business-oriented metrics. 

You can have business goals such as increasing revenue. Those are a great way of tying your roadmap initiatives to your strategy. 

But you can also have customer-specific metrics such as improving product usage or increasing retention.

Customer Success and Product Engagement Metrics versus business-oriented metrics

It’s these metrics that get stakeholders’ attention. 

When you’re reviewing your roadmap, explaining these sorts of metrics and tying them back to the business goals will make you more successful as a product manager.

 

Strategy #5: Be Transparent About Priorities 

You can introduce strategy into the prioritization process. So when I’m talking about prioritizing, I want to be clear that I’m not talking about the backlog. I’m not talking about rearranging stories for a sprint. 

Instead, it’s all about the big opportunities that deliver customer value or business value.

There are a number of different ways to prioritize strategically. And I’ll talk about one method in particular, and it’s this matrix of value versus effort. 

 

Prioritize Strategically

 

Value can be defined as customer value or it could be business value. Since all of us are stretched for resources, this strategy allows you to find the low-hanging fruit on the roadmap and prioritize it. 

This strategy is also a direct way of engaging with your stakeholders about the value of certain features. 

Initiatives that are high effort and low value will likely never be on the priority list, but there is a lot of gray areas. 

For example, you can have initiatives with low customer value but also with the extraordinarily low effort needed to accomplish it. Those quick wins can sometimes fuel your momentum. 

I think it’s important for product managers to participate in prioritization with stakeholders. 

The most successful product managers hold regular meetings with stakeholders. As a result, they don’t face as many challenges to their prioritization decisions. 

In addition, successful product managers will set the expectation of change early in the creation process. 

I think the days of a roadmap being a document you produce once a year are over. You need a roadmap flexible to change and reprioritize.  

So those initiatives that you’re seeing four quarters out, those are fuzzier initiatives and those may or may not happen on the roadmap. 

 

Strategy #6: Win Over the Organization with a Visual Roadmap

Without roadmap software, most product managers use spreadsheets and PowerPoint for design and presentation. 

The fact that PowerPoint is the number one tool that’s used is a testament that product managers want their roadmap to look good; they want it to be visual. 

I recommend that you create a roadmap with impact. That means telling a story. 

 

Strategy #7: Use Themes on Your Roadmap

It’s helpful to group a roadmap into themes because it elevates it for your stakeholders. 

They can look at one item on the roadmap and understand the prioritization behind it. And, the product manager has flexibility about how to implement it.

So for example, I was working for a B2B software company. We created accounting software for vertical markets. We found that the accounts payable department were more dissatisfied than other personas. 

To improve the satisfaction, we could have listed every possible feature that would satisfy that particular group. But instead, We went about creating themes, and the product manager had the flexibility to execute on those specific themes. 

 

Sidenote: The difference between a roadmap and a release plan

The roadmap is a visual representation that shows you where you’re headed. It often does not have specific dates. Sometimes, roadmaps don’t have any dates. 

A roadmap will be at a higher level and it’ll show how each initiative ties back to strategy. 

A release plan is different. It is a specific tactical document driven by deadlines. 

In Summary: A better roadmap contains these elements: 

  • It’s high level. 
  • The organization believes in the product goals.
  • Metrics drive important prioritization decisions. 
  • Initiatives are organized into themes. 
  • Dates are not specific. 
  • The strategy is displayed visually. 
  • It’s always available and regularly updated.

Author

  • Jim Semick is co-founder of ProductPlan, a leading provider of cloud-based roadmap software for product and marketing teams. For more than 15 years he has helped launch new products now generating hundreds of millions in revenue. He was part of the founding team at AppFolio, a vertical SaaS company. Prior to AppFolio, Jim validated and created version 1.0 product requirements for GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting (acquired by Citrix). Jim is a frequent speaker on product management and the process of discovering successful business models. He contributes at www.productplan.com/blog. Follow Jim on Twitter at @JimSemick.

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