Ask A Product Manager: Effective Product Roadmaps

BY JANNA BASTOW ON JUNE 11, 2013

My question is what have you used to create and maintain the roadmap, and in your experience are there any good resources like sites or books where I could really learn more?

I’ve done searches and find lots of very high-level visuals, but I’m not sure that that is the correct way or whether it should be more detailed in nature. I’d like to gain a better understanding and learn the most effective way to present and maintain the data.

The prior company I worked for never really paid much attention to it – I did it more for myself – but our roadmap really consisted of a huge bug list and new features that I just managed based on our development schedule. So I mainly used Word and created a table with quarters and listed the main features (and larger bugs) per quarter I wanted to get developed, and called them new releases, and adjusted it along the way based on what didn’t get developed and executive non-rational decision making.

Chris Garby

I certainly feel your pain!  I have also had roadmaps that are overrun by bugs and feature requests. It took me a long time to figure out what was going wrong, because  – inevitably – the roadmap would slip as it’s impossible to plan to that level of detail on an 18-24 month horizon in a single document.

First up, stop thinking of your roadmap as a Gantt chart.  It’s an easy mistake to make because so many product managers use project management tools or techniques to make their roadmap. My ProdPad co-founder, Simon Cast, wrote about this – Don’t use Project Management Tools for Product Management

Think of your roadmap as a strategic communication document.  Its purpose is to show your team and other stakeholders what your product vision is and what the high-level initiatives will be to get there.  It’s not a device for showing off every last nook and cranny of your development plan, and doesn’t need to include your list of specific bugs or minor features you want to get out the door.

Now, realistically, as a product manager, you probably do have a list of bugs and little items that need to be addressed and moved through development. This is fine, but remember that at that point (when you’re helping the development team move items in and through their Kanban/Sprint/Backlog/whatever), you’re playing the role of a project manager or product owner rather than the product manager.  The roadmap is a product management document and should live separately.

Leave out the dates. You don’t know what the expected delivery dates are for anything that goes beyond a couple weeks – ie the length of a sprint, or however long ahead your team specifically plans out as a distinct project or deliverable – and so you shouldn’t fake it! Putting a date on a roadmap, even if it’s vague like ‘Q3 2013’, will more often than not end up setting expectations you don’t deliver on and cause undue stress and finger-pointing among various stakeholders.  While ideally, as the awesome product manager that you are, you’d like to think that you can put a rough estimate on something and stick to it, your estimates suck (from a great book called Rework I recommend everyone reads!).  You don’t know what bugs are going to creep up and change your plans, and even if you did, by the time you get to ‘Q3 2013’, your product strategy might need to adapt and change based on what’s going on in the market, your users, your competition, etc.

Think of your roadmap as a guide, intended to keep everyone aligned and in the loop, but not as a strict project plan. As Steve Johnson said here: “I’m okay with sharing the roadmap… as long as clients and sales people know that the roadmap is a plan and not a commitment.”

As for other great resources, there’s some really smart people you can follow:

  • Steve Johnson’s just published an ebook all about roadmaps.
  • Marty Cagan is hugely respected in the industry and always has me nodding along to his articles. Here’s some good stuff by him on roadmaps.
  • Martin Eriksson (hat tip for introducing me to the concept of roadmapping without dates) founded ProductTank events for product managers and knows his stuff. He’s written a very useful article on prioritising.
  • And finally, there’s MindTheProduct.com, where a bunch of other smart product people write. Here are some posts about roadmapping.

Ask a Product Manager is a new series of articles based on great questions and answers given by product managers.  Got a question of your own?  Ask away: ask@mindtheproduct.com

About JANNA BASTOW

Janna Bastow comes from a user-centric design background and has extensive experience building social web experiences. She founded ProductCamp London in 2010 in an effort to meet and learn from other product managers. As a product manager always looking for better tools, she co-founded ProdPad, product management software that helps you manage your roadmap and your product backlog. Update: We’re developing an e-course to help you set up and introduce a flexible theme-based roadmap, at your organization. We’ll drop it in your inbox when it’s ready – sign up here.

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