A product roadmap aligns product teams, key stakeholders throughout the organization, and customers on the product strategy and priorities. Creating a product roadmap is one of the most important parts of a product manager’s role. When we conducted a survey of over 150 product managers, we found that 76% are responsible for creating the product roadmap.
Despite the importance of the product roadmap, there isn’t a uniform approach to creating one. In addition, product teams are increasingly shifting from a “Waterfall” process, which entails determining what to build months or years in advance of actually building it, to an “Agile” process, which entails continuously iterating on the product based on customer feedback. This brings a new set of challenges to a practice that was already ambiguous.
Regardless of the development process, creating a product roadmap requires making hard decisions about priorities and it must be presented in a manner that all key stakeholders can understand. This article shares nine strategies for creating a product roadmap that aligns stakeholders and ensures execution of the highest priority product needs.
What is a product roadmap?
The product roadmap provides a strategy and plan for product development. It’s driven by short and long-term company goals and communicates how and when the product will help achieve those goals.
When done effectively, the product roadmap reduces uncertainty about the future and keeps product teams focused on the highest priority product initiatives. There are always a million ideas and opportunities that product teams could be pursuing. The product roadmap shows everyone which to focus on.
In addition, the roadmap helps product leaders communicate the product vision and strategy to senior executives, sales and marketing teams, and customers, and manage expectations about when significant product milestones will be completed. When stakeholders don’t feel heard or are uncertain about where the product is going, they may begin to doubt the strategy, which can lead to a toxic work environment. The product roadmap aligns the key stakeholders on product goals, strategy, and development timelines.
The product roadmap typically illustrates the following key elements:
- Product strategy and goals
- What products and features will be built
- When those product features will be built
- Who is responsible for building those products and features
- “Themes” or high-level priorities
How to Create an Effective Product Roadmap
Creating an effective product roadmap has many benefits for product leaders. However, the methods for doing so vary widely between organizations. Below are six lessons I’ve learned from guests of This is Product Management and other product leaders. Some of these lessons will be appropriate for your organization’s culture and needs, while others may not be. Use what’s most appropriate for you.
1. A product roadmap is not a panacea
Humans seek certainty in an uncertain world. Not knowing what the future holds can create an uneasy feeling. In theory, the product roadmap helps alleviate that stress and provides direction for the future. However, in practice, it’s hard to predict the future.
If you’re running experiments and gathering customer feedback to iterate on your product, like most modern product teams, your roadmap will inevitably need to change in order to build the best product.
In addition, creating a product roadmap is hard work. It requires determining what should get built and how long it will take, incorporating feedback from stakeholders throughout the organization, and presenting it in a manner that everyone can understand. As a result, some organizations end up spending more time building the product roadmap than building the actual product roadmap. In the time it took to decide between which of the two features to build, they could have built both and gained insights from customers about what will achieve the best results.
Setting priorities and aligning key stakeholders on those priorities is important. Those purposes alone make creating a product roadmap a useful exercise. But have realistic expectations about what a product roadmap can achieve and don’t let this process take too much time from actually building the product.
2. Begin with a customer-focused vision
If your roadmap is not based on knowledge about what your customers needs, it’s easy for that roadmap to quickly becomes obsolete upon contact with customers. If your roadmap doesn’t align your team to build a product that solves a meaningful customer problem, it’s useless at best and counterproductive at work.
So, have a vision: A north star that you may never reach, and make sure that north star is based on a validated customer need. The products and features you build to realize that vision may change, but the vision itself will not change.
When I interviewed Venkatesh Prasad from Ford Motor Company, he told me that the company’s vision is not just to build cars, but to help their customers travel. People have been moving from Point A to Point B since the dawn of time, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Framing their product vision around the customer enables the company to focus on building products that their customers need, even amidst rapidly-evolving markets.
3. Incorporate input from key stakeholders
Responsibility for creating the product roadmap falls solely on the product manager. However, to achieve its stated purpose, the product manager must incorporate input from a number of different sources. These sources include:
- Customer feedback
- Sales and marketing
- The c-suite
- Company vision
- Company business objectives
- Company and product strategy
Jackie Bavaro, Head of Product Management at Asana, emphasizes the importance of getting input from both top-down and bottom-up:
“At Asana we wanted to get the best of both worlds: a clear strategy where everyone can connect the dots from their daily work to the company mission, and a collaborative process where the people closest to the work can influence our direction.”
Once those sources are taken into account, the product manager must determine the priorities and make sure the roadmap is aligned with those priorities.
4. Focus on high-level priorities
Uncertainty can be stressful. But missed expectations may have even more severe side-effects than uncertainty. Missed expectations can lead to disappointment and doubt in leadership, which can be demoralizing or contribute to a toxic work environment.
When it comes to long-term product milestones, you don’t necessarily need to map out detailed timelines specific outcomes in order to keep everyone aligned on the same priorities. It’s difficult to predict exactly what features you’ll release or when, anyways. That’s why David Cancel, CEO of Drift, recommends setting a roadmap based on “themes.”
He starts creating the product roadmap by determining the three big things he wants to accomplish in a quarter. Then, he decides which features are best aligned with those goals. He says these themes keep the team focused on solving important problems as opposed to just building features.
5. Be agile
Product teams that manage products in waterfall fashion decide what they’re going to build months or years in advance of the launch, and chip away at building them without much consideration for whether what they’re building will meet customer needs once it’s released. In this environment, it’s much easier to set a product roadmap for years into the future and stick to it.
Product teams that take an agile approach to product management are constantly iterating on their product and feature set based on customer feedback. In this environment, the product roadmap is a living document that’s updated regularly.
Rather than try to predict what features they will build years into the future, agile product managers regularly update their roadmap based on emerging market opportunities and customer feedback. By doing so, they can be more confident that they’re aligning the team and the public around features that will be successful
6. Don’t get too into the weeds
The ultimate goal of any product team is to solve an important customer problem and achieve business outcomes as a result. What features you build to solve that customer problem are less important than solving it. Therefore, your roadmap doesn’t need to include every feature in your product backlog, or a list of bugs that need to be fixed. This information won’t be relevant to stakeholders outside of the product team, anyways.
Make your roadmap simple and easy to understand. Communicate the most important elements of your strategy, goals, and development milestones, and leave out the rest. The details are likely to evolve as you get feedback from customers, anyways.
How to Make Your Roadmap Most Impactful
Simply creating a product roadmap and letting it gather dust as sits stored somewhere on your hard drive will not help you achieve great results. In order to make sure it has a real impact on execution, product managers need to present it effectively be willing to adapt.
1. Present to key stakeholders
A product roadmap is a tool for aligning many different stakeholders. According to the results of our Product Management Workflows report, many product leaders share their product roadmap across their companies. Some even share it with their customers.
Internal stakeholders include engineers, product managers, the c-suite, and sales and marketing teams. Each stakeholder will want different information, so you’ll need to adapt your message accordingly.
When presenting to customers, you may not want to include dates in your roadmap so that you don’t risk missing their expectations. For sales and marketing teams, you may want to provide conservative estimates for launch dates so that they aren’t sitting around waiting for you or pressuring you to release something before it’s ready. Senior executives are likely to be more interested in the “why” and “how” than the “what.” In other words, they’ll be more interested in the strategy behind why you set the roadmap and how you plan to achieve your goals than the specific features you will build to get there.
2. Choose the right tool for you
Product managers have a number of options for physically creating the product roadmap. According to our Product Management Insights 2017 report, Google/Word Docs, Trello, and Aha! are the most popular.
Consider what goals you’re trying to achieve by creating a product roadmap, and what you want to present in order to determine what tool is right for you.
3. Update your product roadmap regularly
The purpose of creating a product roadmap is not to create a product roadmap. The purpose is to build a great product. That means that a feature on your roadmap today might not need to be there once it’s been tested with actual customers. Translate features on your roadmap into questions that you can answer through experimentation and update your roadmap to account for the results of those experiments.
In addition, update your product roadmapping process to account for feedback from your team. A 2-year plan may not actionable enough. A 1-week plan might give people enough of a long-term goal to work towards. Update your roadmap so that you always have an actionable short and long-term roadmap.
Every company is different and every product team is different. Try the strategies above that resonate with you and adapt them to your culture and goals as needed.