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Whether you’re an aspiring, new, or experienced PM, let’s face it. The ability to create, manage, and execute your product roadmap is a core responsibility and you want to do it very well. (For aspiring PMs, you’d either showcase your ability to do it before you’re officially hired with the title, or be asked about it in interviews). No wonder “how to roadmap” still is one of the hottest questions out there, and was asked countless times in various Product School events (and Introvert in Product too)
I’m writing about this topic today, NOT because of the lack of useful resources out there. There is a lot, including several great coverage by Product School and guest speakers from established backgrounds. It’s because I believe various viewpoints on this specific topic will be good for all of you who are either learning the rope or sharpening your skills, to develop your own unique approaches given your own context. Just like how there’s no one-size-fits-all formula to succeed in product management. Rightfully, there shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all magic bullet in roadmapping or any other product skills either.
So here we go, my take on roadmapping as follows!
What is a Product Roadmap
Let’s go from the start: what is a product roadmap?
If you find this question repetitive and boring, I’d invite you to ask 5 product managers you know and compare their answers. Do you get the same standard answer all across?
My own experience is all of us have different interpretations. It could be from slightest difference in just how we communicate it, or it could actually be even based on totally different understanding of what a product roadmap is. The thing is, chances are all of them are correct. So the difference is legit.
Now why is this question even important then, if that’s the case? Because it’s helpful if you understand what’s behind the differences, and ultimately come up with your own concise interpretation and rationalize it with anyone.
So here’s my definition:
“A product roadmap is the manifestation of your strategy and the guide to your execution”
This is an oversimplified visualization of the process where,
- You craft a product vision after carefully understanding the problem space
- You create a product strategy for how you play the game and take the product toward that vision
- You build a tangible roadmap guided by the vision and strategy
- You execute with the teams based on the roadmap
Vision is that ideal end state, and strategy is usually high level. It doesn’t get tangible enough until you define exactly what to accomplish, what to build, and by when on a roadmap. Execution will then follow without getting lost.
That’s the role roadmap plays. That is what a product roadmap is.
Now to answer some of the related questions often heard of: Is a product roadmap the strategy? Is it a document, a list, a visualization, or a process? Does it include prioritization, goals, and success metrics? The short answer is: It can be any or all of them. As long as it manifests your strategy and guides your execution.
How to Manage Product Roadmap (Well)
Now let’s turn to the second and equally if not more popular question: how to create and manage a good product roadmap? There are already lots of step-by-step guides out there, so I’m not going to create another. Instead, I’m going to share with you several key principles I found truthful and helpful over the years in product management. You will find some of them reinforce conventional wisdoms, while others might go against them. Again, I want you to simply take my points and rationales as one perspective, for you to think about yours.
So read on:
#1. Tools don’t matter; substance does
I’ve heard lots of questions and discussions about the best roadmapping tools out there for creating the best in class product roadmap. I’ve seen people getting caught up on tool selections rather than focusing on what’s on the roadmap. I’m just going to say it out loud: How good the tool is means nothing if what’s on your roadmap sucks. Meaning if what’s on your roadmap does not truthfully reflect your strategy, if it doesn’t communicate crisply what the focuses are, and if it doesn’t guide execution along the way and incrementally deliver what really matters to the business. The roadmap sucks. A fancy, well-crafted roadmapping tool won’t change a thing.
To be clear, I am a believer that there are good roadmapping tools out there, designed for modern product teams, and make things easier. I’m not only open minded about them, if someone I trust strongly recommend I’ll try it without hesitance. My key is, focus your energy (probably 99% of it) on the content of your roadmap. Then the tool selection can be a plus to your (and your team’s) efficiency.
#2. Step goals are important, too
Not just the vision. It’s important to start from the end goal in mind, but it’s also important to break it down into more granular step goals weighing where we are, what would be the reasonable next steps, practically, and how to deliver and measure progress along the way.
The reason is, your vision is usually fluffy, probably rightfully so because it’s meant to inspire. One of the key goals of a roadmap is to bring specificity and tangibility. And you can only accomplish it by demonstrating what we would accomplish every step of the way toward that long term goal.
It’s the same for any long term, ambitious goal in life. You want to break into product? Your step goals could be: learning about the role -> assess skills gaps -> fill those gaps -> expose to opportunities -> sharpen interview skills etc. Want to develop that dream beach body? You’d probably start from fitness/nutrition education -> develop good dietary/exercise habits -> progressively hit weight/body composition goals every month etc.
#3. Not only be open to change; proactively look for it
As we all know, changes do happen (a lot), and it’s important to be flexible when they come, and adjust your roadmap as needed. I’m advocating for a step further. If you know changes are happening all the time, why do you sit and wait for it? Be proactive in looking for changes. No I’m not suggesting change for the sake of it. I’m suggesting to always be looking around in the market and your customers, the competition, the context and the climate, the technologies, and look for signals that necessitate changes on your roadmap.
If you agree with getting a step ahead of your challenges (or competition) is important. This is it you have to do.
#4. To communicate and execute the roadmap is more important than to create it
Yes the creation of the roadmap is important (or else you don’t have one in the first place). The reason why I’m making this a key principle is that I see more questions about how to create the roadmap, than how to communicate and execute. But let’s remember, your (and your team’s) success is not measured by how good the roadmap you created is. It’s measured by the impact you ultimately deliver. To deliver impact, you need to communicate well (to internal and external stakeholders/customers) and execute well. Persistently and consistently. That’s why it’s more important, and obviously is harder as well. So I’d like you to focus even more on how to communicate your roadmap better, and how to execute better with your teams. These can deserve full, dedicated articles in lengths of their own.
So that’s what I have to share about product roadmapping for now! These are pretty high level and there can be a lot more to talk about. Feel free to contact me at Introvert in Product, and I’d love to discuss and provide deeper perspectives in each of the steps!
Roadmapping, as for all other key product management activities, is fun and challenging (at least personally). Just keep in mind what really matters while enjoying the process, you’ll do great!
(And yes if you have great roadmapping tool recommendations, send it my way! Like I said, I’m open minded 🙂 )
Meet the Author
Johnny Chang is currently a Principal Product Manager at Lyft, formerly Senior Product Manager at Netflix and LinkedIn. Originally transitioned from an engineering background with 10+ years of successful product experience in these major tech companies, he’s uniquely positioned to share his experience to help those who desire to transition into and succeed in product management, which he’s also passionate about.
You may also follow him at Introvert In Product where he blogs about his experiences and tips to help people at scale.
Check out Johnny’s talk on our YouTube channel: Introverts in Product