Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by ProductPlan.com
The roadmap is one of the most important strategic tools in a product manager’s arsenal. It communicates the high-level goals and plans for the product. It can persuade executives to give a product the green light, while motivating the team to roll up their sleeves and get to work; and it helps keep everyone focused on the right priorities throughout the development process.
But hang on. That’s a best-case scenario. A roadmap can do all of these things — only if the product manager creates and shares it correctly. Unfortunately, many PMs don’t. And as a company that makes product roadmap software, we’ve seen just about every way a roadmap can fail.
We don’t want any of these pitfalls to undermine your product’s success. So here are nine common roadmap mistakes — and how to avoid them.
1. Treating your roadmap like a (completed) document
Documents are fixed. They’re written, saved, and then they’re done. But today, with markets and competitive realities and user demands changing so frequently, you can’t afford to view your product roadmap as fixed or frozen.
Instead, think of your roadmap as a strategic forecast for your product. That way, you’ll be building a company culture that says it’s okay—in fact, it’s a good idea—to revisit the roadmap regularly to make sure what you’re working on is still in-line with current realities.
2. Jumping right into the details
The product roadmap is a high-level, strategic tool. It’s designed to show a vision for the product: what major themes the product team plans to work on, and why those themes should be prioritized. Many PMs skip this step, and instead present their “roadmap” simply as a series of details: planned feature development, estimated timelines, resources needed, etc.
You will need to think through and capture those details as well. But they shouldn’t be the focus of your product roadmap. Instead, create your roadmap to display the high-level product initiatives—and include a brief strategic explanation for each of them.
3. Prioritizing the roadmap on gut instinct alone
It doesn’t matter how well you’ve developed your product manager’s sixth sense. You can’t create a successful product roadmap on intuition alone. You also need hard data.
Research your market. Study your target user or buyer personas. Conduct surveys, and gather enough real-world, quantifiable data to your give your roadmap decisions some objective support. If you can’t find enough data—if all you have are a list of competing features and no idea how to prioritize them—judge them against each other across a consistent set of factors, such as cost to build, and potential for customer delight.
4. Not being ready with data
Even if you’ve thoroughly researched your product, your market, and your user persona, your roadmap will still be a combination of both art and science. Choosing to prioritize one theme or feature-set over another is ultimately a subjective decision. But don’t make the mistake of not having your data ready when a stakeholder challenges you during your roadmap presentation with a question like, “Why are you choosing to develop this functionality first?”
Make it your standard practice to walk into your roadmap meetings with all relevant market research, user data, and other quantifiable details that informed your decisions about what’s on that roadmap. When someone asks, you’ll be ready to defend your decisions with data-driven evidence.
5. Developing the roadmap in a silo
Product managers, especially ones fresh in their position, often make the mistake of assuming because they’re “CEO of the product,” that they should plan the product’s strategy all by themselves. When they do this, though, they miss out on all of the other invaluable business intelligence available to them across the organization. They don’t get the benefit of the unique perspectives that sales, customer support, and the development team can offer them.
Make your roadmap development a collaborative process. Talk with as many people across your organization as possible and use their insights to shape your strategic thinking.
6. Failing to align the roadmap with the company’s goals
Product roadmaps don’t exist in a vacuum, or at least they shouldn’t. They need to be aligned with the organization’s larger strategic goals. If your executives’ current objective is an incremental increase in market share without taking too much risk—and you craft a roadmap for a completely new, highly speculative product—you’ll be in for an unpleasant meeting with those executives when you present your roadmap.
Before you begin building a new roadmap or update your existing one, check in with stakeholders across the company to make sure the roadmap plans you’re considering line up with the broader goals of the company.
7. Sharing the wrong roadmap view with your audience
Whenever you develop a new product roadmap, you’re almost certainly going to show it to different groups in your company. Sales will want to see it. So will your development team. And of course, you’re going to have to show it to the executive staff if you want the budget and resources to start developing. One common mistake is to prepare only a single version, or view, of the roadmap and then share it with all of these different groups.
Instead, develop your roadmap in such a way that you can easily highlight the key details that will interest sales, your executives, and so on. This is one reason it makes more sense to use a purpose-built roadmap app than making three different files in Excel or PowerPoint and trying to keep them all up-to-date.
8. Creating a visually boring roadmap
When we walk into a room and see a spreadsheet projected on the wall, most of us instinctively turn on the analytical centers of our brains. We just don’t associate Excel with excitement or inspiration. But if product managers want their executive stakeholders to become enthusiastic about their product’s plan, shouldn’t they aim for excitement in those roadmap meetings?
Remember, your product roadmap is a tool for communication and persuasion. Develop it with those goals in mind—make it colorful, clean, and easy to grasp at a glance.
9. Setting unrealistic expectations in your roadmap
As I mentioned earlier, your roadmap should not simply be a list of tactical details such as estimated timeframes and resources needed. But you will need to think through those details, to make sure your team can deliver any strategic initiative you include on your roadmap. One mistake many PMs make is focusing only on what themes should be prioritized—or what their stakeholders are pressuring them to complete—and not making sure the team can actually get these things done with the resources they have.
When you develop your roadmap, start by gathering relevant information from across your company to make sure your plan will be realistic. You can set out aggressive plans in your roadmap, but make sure you educate yourself on the details (budget, developers, marketing and sales resources, etc.) so that you can speak intelligently about how you plan to pull it off. Presenting a roadmap that just looks like wild optimism is a quick way to lose trust and integrity with your stakeholders.
So, how should you develop a roadmap?
Okay, so now that you know plenty about what not to do, how should you go about developing a roadmap? When building your roadmap, there are a few key takeaways to keep in mind:
- Clearly communicate the strategic vision for your product
- Define your audience and tailor your roadmap for them
- Prioritize your roadmap by strategic themes
- Remain flexible and make room for changes to your roadmap
If you’d like more guidance on the right way to do it, there are some great resources available to help you do so.
First, you’ll find a great post right here at the Product School blog: How to Create Your Product Roadmap in 2020. And if you’re still looking for more help, you can read our post on building your first product roadmap from scratch.
About the Author
Jim Semick is co-founder of ProductPlan, a leading provider of product roadmap software. For more than 15 years, he has helped validate and launch new products now used by millions of customers. Jim is a frequent speaker on product management and the process of discovering successful business models.