Product roadmaps suck.
There, I said it. <exhales>
OK, let’s explain that. Roadmaps that are real, living documents representing what you will deliver…are awesome. But that may not be the case for you; it wasn’t for me. Instead, a product roadmap was at its core a sales document for a prospect call. A lot of effort, with various people weighing in on what should show up there. Ginning up dates over the next 24-36 months for when features will be delivered. A visually lickable timeline.
And it’s defunct as soon as it’s published. Poor roadmap, it never had a chance. If anyone actually remembers what was in the roadmap months later, you’re left explaining that, “um…yeah…things changed”.
To be fair, this happens more in industries where the level of uncertainty is high. You’re assembling the future, learning as you go along and making adjustments. Industries with stability can put a roadmap out there and stick to it. But if your industry has a lot of fluctuation in its future, roadmaps are an exercise in futility.
Given this, what’s the point of creating them? For me, a better way to handle the inevitable roadmap requests was needed. Internally for client-facing peers; and with sales prospects and current clients. I took the view that the customer’s roadmap request was essentially about these three questions:
- Where will your development resources be focused over the 12-36 months?
- Does your view of what’s needed for successful outcomes matches mine?
- What are the core values of your platform philosophy?
In other words, knowing that X feature would be rolled out in 12 months wasn’t really what influenced the customer. It wasn’t as if they said, “Oh, that feature will be there in a year? I’ll pay $X for your platform today and begin to use it once that feature is ready.”
I wanted to find a better way. Answer the questions the customer has while avoiding unrealistic commitments and schedules. So I developed a different approach to requests for a roadmap. It focuses on two core elements:
- Product themes
- How we’ll work with the client
Themes are the future the customer is buying. Work with the client describes the ongoing interactions around product design. Both are part of the decision calculus of the customer. Should I go forward with this company or not?
Product themes are the core areas that are the means to the outcomes customers seek. When I worked at Spigit, I developed five core themes (conceptualized in below graphic):
Themes are the broad areas in which the platform needs to excel. They are selected because they are key to satisfying high-level jobs-to-be-done. They will vary by product. An accounting app might have themes around ‘accuracy’, ‘sync with GAAP’ and ‘integration with other apps’. A supplier of chemicals might need to concern itself with ‘potency of compounds’ and ‘safety’.
Themes are where an analytical approach meets a flair for artistry. Internally, they are great for organizing future release efforts. I would actually grade the platform on the themes, using the A to F scale, to help prioritize future effort.
For customers, themes provide a peek into what makes your platform special. You’re communicating a promise for what future releases will address. Customers develop a sense of the platform today, and the platform of the future.
Past + possible features = proof
For the themes, plan on doing more than stating them. Bring them to life by talking features. Yes, this sounds like the roadmap rat-hole. But it’s a different way to do that:
Past features are proof that you are focused on the themes, and they illustrate how you have approached enhancing the themes for clients thus far. They connect the experience of your product today to the themes.
Possible features are a source of excitement, and proof that you’re focused on the themes in future development. They’re not supposed to be a committed list of features over the next 3 years. Rather, they provide a sense for how you’re approaching fulfillment of customers’ jobs-to-be-done. This gives you the chance to talk about some of the ideas floating around in your organization while avoiding the farce of putting dates on when (and if) they’ll be delivered. When asked, I put it to them straight: “These are several ideas we currently have for this theme. What are your thoughts on them?”
Which leads nicely into the other major point to cover…
How we’ll work with the client
In the B2B market, customers want to have direct input into the product design process. Not so much in the consumer market, where we simply stop buying something if it doesn’t satisfy us. But the dollars and reputation that can be on the line in the corporate market translate into greater interest in where the product is going.
To address this desire, communicate how you will work with your customer in the product design process. I would talk about three areas:
Jobs-to-be-done: Ongoing learning about the different things customers seek to accomplish, what they rank as most important and their level of satisfaction with achieving those goals. This is a deeper dive into motivations, how outcomes will be measured and current pain points.
Ideas: As the most active users of your product (often more than you), customers will see opportunities for improvement. Maintain a site for ongoing suggestions as they occur, and run targeted ideation campaigns for specific areas of development.
Design feedback: Prior to committing to production of a product, run several designs by them. The designs will emphasize different functions and looks, and customers give an early read on how they will be received.
The combination of themes and the ways you’ll work with customers answers the key questions they have. It actually goes way beyond the normal roadmap, providing philosophical underpinnings for your product. And for the product manager, it’s something you can discuss with integrity and enjoyment.