The Roadmap Dilemma: When to Grow, When to Learn

BY ALEXANDRE GABADOU AND JULIEN DREHER ON OCTOBER 4, 2017

All products start with one thing in common: teams face a certain degree of uncertainty about the market they’re targeting.

In Lean methodologies, you build an MVP to collect user feedback and confirm your hypotheses, or you learn from your mistakes and pivot. Reducing uncertainty, therefore, comes as a result of learning cycles, and will ultimately allow a product to grow. You learn to reduce uncertainty; you reduce uncertainty to grow your product.

When in Learning mode, you may realize that your product isn’t fit for market, because it has little or no traction. You therefore have to focus on reducing uncertainty, on better understanding your users’ problems, through test and learn. When your product gains traction in a market and grows organically – thanks to positive referrals from your users – you’ll need to get into Growth mode, meaning that you sustain and amplify demand for your product.

Two Antagonistic Methods for Prioritization

In Growth mode, you aim to leverage network effects, to conquer as many users in a given market as possible, thinking about acquisition, retention and referral. You remove frictions in UX, you scale your product, and you scale your teams. In Learning mode, you do things that don’t scale, you approach your users on a one-to-one basis, you get your personas in order. Frictions are your primary source of knowledge, and, the more you have, the faster you’ll understand your users. Learning and growing are antagonistic by nature, which is why many companies face the roadmap dilemma.

Product LEARN GROWTH
Frictionless No Yes
Durable No Yes
Scalable No Yes
Metrics Qualitative Quantitative

 

Ways that the Roadmap Dilemma Presents Itself

Design

  • In growth mode, you’re obsessed with reducing UX frictions, no matter how much time or effort it takes.
  • In learning mode, frictions are opportunities to gather feedback and reduce uncertainty, so why suppress them?

Team

  • In growth mode, you need to sustain demand and traction for your product by scaling your teams.
  • In learning mode, adding individuals to your team complicates interactions and can slow down learning cycles, it might not be the best time to recruit.
  • In learning mode, you want to recruit visionnaries, in growth mode you want to recruit perfectionists

Features

  • In growth mode, you aim to widen the scope of your services/features to improve user happiness.
  • In learning mode, adding features increases uncertainty and makes it harder to interpret metrics.

Metrics

  • In growth mode, you favor actionable metrics that can improve your acquisition channels.
  • In learning mode, you prefer qualitative metrics that increase your understanding of your users’ needs.

Quality

  • In growth mode, you’re obsessed with acquisition and retention of your user base.
  • In learning mode, you understand that you can’t please all users, and that there will always be time to make it up to them.

Scale

  • In growth mode, you’re concerned with scaling, leveraging, and referral-powered exponential growth.
  • In learning mode, you do things that don’t scale, as you need to be on the field collecting data, meeting users one to-one and so on.

Unfortunately, both of these modes often occur simultaneously in product cycles. And, if part of the team prioritizes learning while the other prioritizes growth, you are bound to generate strong frictions.

Deconstructing the Roadmap Dilemma

  • Whether you focus on Learning or on Growth will affect how you organise your teams, how they function, prioritize their efforts and contribute as a whole.
  • Both modes often cohabit on a roadmap.
  • Held simultaneously, they generate strong frictions within teams.

Solving (Avoiding) the Roadmap Dilemma

To avoid the roadmap dilemma, many rely on a rather radical approach: focus exclusively on Learning, until the MVP deadline has been met, and then shift entirely on Growth. As can be seen on the diagram below, however, both modes naturally coexist throughout the product cycles, due to market constraints.

Challenges worth considering when trying to solve the Roadmap Dilemma:

  • Challenge #1: Learning and Growth needs are hardly quantifiable, they’re merely estimates.
  • Challenge #2: Product//Market Fit is often misinterpreted by teams and, generally, hard to anticipate.
  • Challenge #3: Upon achieving Product/Market Fit, you will need to redirect your attention from Learning to Growing. Such a task is easier said than done, as the realization of product/market fit often arrives in a delayed manner. You may still be focusing on learning, when really, you should be in full-throttle. And, because teams undergo a polar change in what they do, pivoting from learning to growth is crucial. It can make – or break – a company.
  • Challenge #4: The need to Learn never disappears, because a product needs to keep evolving and improving. Achieving product/market fit does not guarantee the “lifelong” perfection of your product. Your users change, and so should your product.

Two Principles to Live by

Solving (or avoiding) the roadmap dilemma requires that you understand just how incompatible the two modes of prioritization are:

  1. At first, (and until the product gains traction) 100% of the team’s effort must be focused on Learning, so as to achieve product/market fit as soon as possible. This does not mean that you shouldn’t take advantage of the occasional opportunity to increase your user base, nor does it mean that you have no growth. It suggests that everyone should focus on finding product/market fit, all the better if it brings growth.
  1. Once you’ve redirected your roadmap into Growth mode, learning about new opportunities should occur in distinct roadmaps with distinct – and autonomous – teams. You now have a roadmap aimed at Growth, and a nascent team, similar to a new startup, whose priority is to learn and find a market fit, so that they then can switch to Growth mode, and split their roadmap … and so on. Don’t take it to mean that Learn and Growth teams shouldn’t interact – on the contrary – they serve the same product vision, after all.

There only remains one question, how do you know when you’ve achieved product/market fit, and how do you pivot from Learning to Growing?

  • The former isn’t too hard to answer: as long as you’re asking yourself the question, you haven’t found product/market fit. Your product interacts within an open world, and, network effects are so extremely powerful that you WILL know when you’ve found product/market fit. The delay between finding product/market fit and realizing it, however, will depend exclusively on how connected to the market you are. To improve this connection, make sure you can measure both qualitative AND quantitative data.
  • The latter can be answered as follows: If you’ve become aware of the Roadmap dilemma and have been able to organize your teams accordingly, the transition should come smoothly. Frictions arise when you start digging for new services, opportunities or features, which means that at this point you should build separate roadmaps, dedicated to Learning.

One day, hopefully, you will have a system of product roadmaps, multiple product managers and as many opportunities to learn and grow. When this day comes, your challenge will be to ensure the synchronization of your company vision with all of the cascading sub-visions. Perfecting the art of roadmap management will bring you closer to achieving the responsive company – that is, a company that can respond and adapt to the market in the minimum amount of time required.

Alexandre Gabadou and Julien Dreher

About ALEXANDRE GABADOU AND JULIEN DREHER

After four years of undergraduate studies at McGill University (B.A Economics / International Development), Alexandre joined Frontier Lab as a junior product manager. He is passionate about entrepreneurship AND writing. _________________________________________________________________________________________ Julien is a serial entrepreneur and senior lean consultant. In 2016, he founded Frontier Lab, an agile methodology lab with the ambition to lead the transformation of management practices, working with both infant startups and more established companies.

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