Much has been written about the process of creating product roadmaps, not least the six great articles written by my own team. But there has been surprisingly little written about a product leader’s role in the process.
I believe the actions of a product leader all too often are the root cause of a “bad” roadmap. Without thoughtful leadership around them, it may not be in product manager’s gift to achieve a “good” roadmap. This is because product leadership is genuinely hard and quite distinct from the job of product manager – something that is often misunderstood.
I would define a good roadmap as one that the team understands and feels ownership over. It includes the right problems that are driving the company strategy and is useful to those both in and outside of the team.
This article captures my reflections on your role as product leader in ensuring that your team is empowered to create good roadmaps.
Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make as a product leader is believing that you should ultimately own the roadmap(s). This can easily happen if your role is changing and you’re becoming less hands-on in a rapidly growing startup or simply if you’re new to a leadership role.
And it’s not just a mistake made by those in product leadership roles, it can apply equally to founders, CEOs and other members of the leadership team. Their ideas about ownership can add complexity to how you perform your role: not only do you need to avoid falling into the trap yourself but you need to make sure others are not doing so or pushing you into acting in this way.
Here’s why you should avoid getting hands-on in the process of creating the roadmaps, beyond the important job of inspiring, coaching and challenging your team.
In order to deliver the right solutions to problems, your team needs to understand them and feel motivated to solve them.
The team also has more time than you to understand the potential impact of different roadmap candidates. Typically they are closer to users and so can properly understand the nuances of potential problems and solutions.
A roadmap that is either handed to them, or one where they only feel like a contributor and not the owner, will inevitably lead to poorer solutions. The team will have a more limited understanding of the problem and they might be less motivated because they’re not convinced they are spending their time on the right problems.
Staying hands-off is really hard, particularly where you see that the roadmaps created are very different from what you would do yourself or you are under pressure to ensure something specific is included. But direct intervention should be avoided wherever possible for the reasons above.
So as a product leader, if you’re hands-off in the creation of a roadmap, how do you make sure that your teams are creating good ones? What is your role?
The “agile onion” and the layers that you as a product leader should be in
2. Purpose, Vision, Mission and Strategy
In order for your team to create effective roadmaps, they need to understand their context within the business. It’s your job as product leader to interpret the company’s strategy into something useful for product people and to make sure they understand it.
As a product leader, you may be involved in defining the purpose of your company, or be responsible for the vision for the product, or it may even be something that is already set. Regardless, it is your job is to make sure that some kind of “north star” exists, that it is supported by the rest of the leadership team, and that your team understands it. This is important to ensure that any plans they create ultimately drive towards the same shared goal. You need to keep telling the story of the product and showing that what people work on every day is driving towards this goal.
At FutureLearn we have a purpose (why we exist), a vision (what we’re aiming to create) and a mission (how we’re going to do it over the next few years).
Our company strategy sits under this mission, and typically we revisit it every 12 months. The strategy sets out what we need to do in the coming year to move us closer to achieving our mission. This year, we have six strategic objectives.
An example of one of our strategic objectives is to “Grow the number of Advancers (learners whose motivation is to advance their career) who will pay for an aspect of a course or qualification”.
You can take many approaches to vision and strategy, but the important thing is to make sure that they exist and are understood.
3. Team Organisation, Missions and Metrics
As product leader, the biggest impact you have on product roadmaps is how you organise your teams and define their missions.
From the early days at FutureLearn, we’ve organised our product teams around our strategic objectives. We have a cross-functional team working towards each objective, rather than on a specific set of features or part of the product. We have found this to be successful as it focuses the team on the impact that they create rather than the features they build and maintain.
Each team’s mission mirrors the strategic objective. In addition, each team has a metric that is their key measure of success. For the growth example above, we measure the number of course enrolments and drive towards a monthly target.
For a product leader, the mission definition and agreement with the team about how you measure success is one of the biggest levers you have to guide what the team will work on. Getting this right is worth time and effort and makes things more straightforward later on if you want to challenge what the team decides to work on.
This approach has been successful enough for us to adopt it beyond the product function in our organisation. Now the majority of the company, including our marketing, business development and content disciplines, comes together in cross-functional teams alongside product managers, software engineers and designers to work on a shared strategic goal.
A cross-functional team at FutureLearn
This highly collaborative and matrix approach has its own challenges – as a product leader you need to work closely with others in the leadership team to arrive at ways of organising and defining missions that work not only for product people but the rest of the business too. This may require some compromises and certainly requires you to be empathetic, diplomatic and tenacious.
4. Creating Alignment and Encouraging Communication
At FutureLearn, we organise to optimise for speed by giving cross-functional teams autonomy. Once the team has a mission and a metric, they are broadly free and empowered to achieve this in whatever way they see fit.
This means that I play another key leadership role in ensuring alignment between teams: encouraging communication and looking out for the coherence of the overall product portfolio.
When we first moved to ensure that product managers owned the roadmaps (rather than me), this autonomy extended to when the roadmaps were reviewed and how they were presented.
This led to a situation where the roadmaps were extremely useful to the teams themselves, but with every team taking a similar but different approach, it became quite confusing and less useful to others across the business. It was hard for others to plan and coordinate the impact of changes across teams. It meant that ultimately the roadmaps failed to achieve two of their key purposes: clear communication of what we’re working on and stakeholder buy-in.
How did we fix this? We aligned the roadmap review process for all teams with our quarterly business planning process and enforced a standard approach to to what we meant by “now”, “next” and “later”. We also agreed on a consistent way to manage and present them.
This enables the product management team to share their developing plans with each other and allows me to provide some high-level direction as context for planning.
We achieve alignment by encouraging teams to attend each others’ Sprint reviews, and by running a fortnightly product management team meeting. We also make sure that key things are presented to the company at our monthly all-hands meeting.
5. Coaching Your Team
Another big impact you can make on roadmaps comes through how you coach your team. Wherever possible, it’s best to resist the urge to tell members of your team what should be on their roadmap. It’s unlikely to be productive for the reasons outlined above.
However, it is your role to keep asking your team good questions. You should push them in the direction of key pieces of insight or research, highlight relevant things other teams are working on, and help them think about the bigger picture. Give them the benefit of your fresh pair of eyes and challenge any woolly thinking where their plans are unlikely to deliver on the agreed mission or are in conflict with the company purpose/vision.
There’s lots of ways to do this, through one-to-ones, sharing documents, encouraging them to connect with others and so on. And this should be a constant process – not just when they review their roadmap.
6. Creating a Product-Friendly Culture
Finally, the company needs a “product-friendly” culture to achieve much of the above. Your other key role should be to cultivate this. What you do here depends on the organisation, the people in senior positions, and how they are used to working.
Typically this involves establishing buy-in of the principles of a roadmap-driven approach, and encouraging everyone to focus on the results we want to see rather than the things we think should be built. It also means working with others in the leadership team to agree a clear set of strategic priorities and providing the teams with protection from left-field requests. You may need to get more involved in business development to do this.
Knowing what questions to ask in order to understand the thinking of your CEO and other key stakeholders is also a valuable set of skills you can focus on developing. In general, being honest with them that this is what you’re trying to do is probably the best approach, and this also gives them the opportunity to talk about their expectations.
Encouraging your team to relate their successes and achievements to what was planned on the roadmap will also help to establish, reinforce and maintain trust in the process. Essentially, the key is constant communication and celebration of success.
A Product Leader’s Role in Roadmapping
In practice, every company is different and presents someone in a leadership role with a very different set of challenges on how to help their team develop roadmaps.
However, wherever you are, remember that your role in product roadmapping is to ensure that:
- Your team owns their roadmaps
- There is a clear strategic context to inform their work and that the missions and success measures of the teams are clear
- The processes, frameworks and cadence for roadmapping are all consistent, understood by your team and bought into effect across the organisation
- There are processes in place to encourage communication and collaboration across teams
- Your team is inspired, supported and challenged appropriately
- You cultivate and maintain a “product-friendly” culture
If you’re able to do all that, you should find that your teams naturally create good roadmaps and, equally as important, are passionate about delivering them. Ultimately, it’s what ends up in the hands of the end user that matters.