Product Roadmap: Clarifying Your Product Direction
Our clients are finding that Product Roadmaps can attempt to serve two masters and fail both. For example, we’ve seen Sales teams insert a customer’s pet feature into the product plan in order to close a sale. At the same time, Product Management uses the roadmap to assure the CEO that they plan to support her vision even though Engineering has not even seen it. To use Product Roadmaps at cross-purposes misses the point of the tool. In other cases, Product Roadmaps are cartoonish and made to satisfy eager B2B customers. They lack real meaning or vitality for an organization that desperately needs the strategic clarity that they foster.
A Product Roadmap is a visual representation of a company’s product strategy. It helps orient Engineering, Marketing, Sales, support, and the C-suite towards common product development goals. Its benefits include:
- Inspiring the organization to see how they might get operational leverage by creating derivative products off of platforms
- Setting expectations for when the organization will deliver products/services to market
- Serving as an organizing principle for decisions around technology requirements, resource allocation, and product positioning
- Moving the organization to think about conflicts in resources and potential bottlenecks.
A Product Roadmap spans two product cycles (about 24-36 months) with a monthly granularity at most. The vertical axis is the most important strategically. It represents the products, how they relate to each other, and how they might relate to the competition in ways that matter. Although cost is the most common value for the vertical axis, it can also plot speed or the key-feature parameter.
Articulating a common vision for success is hardly a new concept, although it is rarely the case that all stakeholders and contributors comprehend the vision fully. What is new is the emphasis on how product differentiation supports competitive advantage. When product innovation is more important than distribution strategy, or financial engineering, the Product Roadmap is your most important planning document.
Your company can generate a product plan from a variety of sources. Some, however, are based on a functionally-focused view of the problems you are trying to solve: Engineering sees it one way, Marketing another, and Sales yet another. Such views rarely incorporate sufficient inputs. They tend to be neither reliable nor comprehensive.
A robust Product Roadmap is driven by Marketing, but created cross-functionally and reviewed and approved by the C-suite. You should not communicate it outside of the company unless it is sanitized and approved by management. Rather, use it to focus the organization on the sequence of products you will develop over time.
The Product Roadmap is a living document that serves as a repository for project ideas that are ready to enter the product development process. Review and update it on a quarterly basis at a minimum.
Which Business Problems Does the Tool Solve?
Often individuals and managers in organizations say that there is no strategy, or if it exists, they say that it is poorly communicated. An often-referenced Product Roadmap allows for better strategic alignment and, as a result, greater engagement. It also helps the executive management team and product marketing to manage the inputs that feed the new product development process.
While a Product Roadmap should never preclude competitive reactions or innovation from “cutting in front of the line,” it does provide an active plan for what should be next in line for development. The active use of a Product Roadmap enables innovation in two ways:
- It communicates what is important to the organization.
- It provides a strategic context for engineers, researchers, and other creative individuals to create concepts that support, complement, and extend the strategic intent of the roadmap.
Finally, Product Roadmaps can communicate the international launch strategy. They enable the organization to plan the timing for entry into different markets and anticipate regulatory approvals, language, localization, and standards.
What Else You Should Know
The most useful Product Roadmaps anticipate and lead changes in the market, in channels, in the supply chain, and in the competitive landscape. “Shooting in front of the duck” is important because, in most industries, you have to anticipate what your competitors will have in the market when you launch your product 12 months from now.
Some Product Roadmaps are useless because they focus on the graphics. A meaningful Product Roadmap should be a two-axis graph showing, accurately and in detail, the timetable for launches and the relationships between products. The roadmap must show the delineated features of each product and how one offering differs from another.