4 Roadmapping Secrets From Successful Product Managers
September 28, 2015

4 Roadmapping Secrets From Successful Product Managers

by Brian de Haaff

Product managers need a visual roadmap. Why? If you do not know where you are going, you cannot expect to get there — or build a great product while you are at it.

A roadmap is a key product document. It aligns with the vision for the product and lays out a plan to achieve that vision. It shows what is being built, when key milestones will be accomplished, and which initiatives the product team is pursuing.

At Aha! we are humbled to serve thousands of product managers and speak with hundreds of them each week. We love hearing about their achievements.

But they also tell us the truth: building a successful roadmap is hard. Product managers have a lot of moving parts to manage and relatively few tools to do so. The onus is on them to manage their product roadmaps and share these roadmaps with their cross-functional teams. This often involves making tough decisions that might disappoint colleagues or customers. Every product manager has been pressured to build “that one feature” so sales can close a deal. Or to add their CEO’s “great new idea” to their roadmap — even when that idea is anything but great.

So, we asked some of the most successful product managers we know to share their secrets for building brilliant product roadmaps. Their insight proves that no matter which team or company you work with, the best product managers follow a familiar path when it comes to planning. Roadmapping works best when you start with strategy, prioritize features, manage ideas, and share your roadmaps with conviction.

Here are their tips to build better product roadmaps:

1. Get Strategic

All great roadmaps start with a strategy — the “why” of product management. Strategy keeps product teams on track towards the same shared success for their product. The “true north” approach to building products with a clearly communicated strategy is how great products are built.

Product managers are in a tough position. They do not have any direct reports, yet they must motivate cross-functional teams (from Marketing to Engineering) to build, market, sell, and support one product. There is a big temptation to “direct” your team’s actions without explaining the “why” behind your decisions.

But leading product at six software companies has taught me the truth: not having a strategy is the fastest route to product management failure.

Steve Johnson of Under10 Consulting is a product management expert, speaker and author. He spent 15 years instructing others in the art of product management, and can speak to the value of having a solid roadmap. He added these thoughts:

“The best roadmap I created showed not only what we were doing, but also what we were not. I defined our personas and focused only on what they needed — not some fictional ’somebody’ who might want a feature. Some customers were not our ideal target, and their special requests didn’t make the roadmap.

Some people got upset because ‘stupid feature x’ was critical to one guy’s vision. The key to strategy is to say, ‘Yes’ to something, but also say, ‘No’ to something else. It is easy to say, ‘Yes’ to everything — but terribly difficult to deliver on it.”

So, what is the secret to success? Do not overcommit yourself or your product team. Your product strategy will dictate everything else about your product, from how you manage releases to why you promote certain ideas over others. This is your chance to captain the product’s ship –- not to try and please everyone.

2. Prioritize and Prioritize Some More

Each sprint and product release is comprised of several features — the “what” of product management. They are characteristics of your product that describe its appearance, components, and capabilities. Each feature in a release should have a corresponding benefit (or set of benefits) for that product’s end user.

Product features bring your strategy to life. But no matter how you manage releases, you need a plan to prioritize features on those releases and communicate this plan to your product team. As a product manager, you are going to get feature requests from everyone.

Shardul Mehta is a roadmapping veteran and accomplished product manager who blogs at Street Smart Product Manager. On the subject of prioritizing features, he emphasized the importance of strategy:

There are many prioritization techniques out there: Scorecards, the Kano model, etc. Basically, prioritization stems from the product strategy and the company’s strategic focus. For example, if the company is in major growth mode, things that help drive customer acquisition may be prioritized first. If the primary goal is driving revenue via penetration of the existing customer base, then initiatives to help accomplish that goal may be prioritized above others.”

These requests will come from several different sources, including your CEO, customers, engineering, and more. Different stakeholders will have their own thoughts on what should be built. But it is your job to figure out which features should go on the roadmap based on how well the features will enhance your product strategy.

3. Get in a Sharing Mood

Next, product managers must visually share how prioritized features align with product strategy. Once you have these pieces in place, it is time to share your roadmap with the team. The roadmap shows how everything your team has been building forms a cohesive whole that will enhance the business. It is an awesome opportunity to share your team’s hard work and the direction you are headed in.

But products have a lot of stakeholders, and they each have different, conflicting priorities. That means they want to see roadmap updates presented “their way.” To complicate things, stakeholders often have strong ideas about how to “improve” products – without the expertise to support those ideas.

This might sound intimidating -– but waiting until the last minute to present your roadmap is far worse. Your roadmap should never be a surprise, especially to executives who think they know better. Prabhakar Gopalan is the CEO of PG Consulting, an Austin, Texas-based firm, and he shared what can happen when a PM waits for the “big roadmap reveal”:

“Here’s a story of a startup CEO who was saying crazy things at roadmap meetings. Because the CEO wielded power (or at least that is what he thought!), he would jump into roadmap meetings to pick and choose what should go in the next release as if the roadmap was a grocery shopping list.

This completely undermined the work that product management had done up to that point. He was also supporting a sand-bagging culture of tacking incremental features to the next release of the product instead of thinking through a story.

These features added very little value for new customers to adopt a product that was already behind competition. His behavior was demotivating for members of the development team that were eager to innovate the product.

No beautiful product went out the door on his watch. Eventually, the best members of his team left, as the product lacked a clear vision. He also had to layoff many and reboot the company – all because he didn’t understand how roadmaps work!”

All PMs have a presentation horror story –- the kind where key stakeholders start dictating what your teams should build so that updates will suit their own needs (which are often separate from market needs). This is a crucial moment to lead with conviction and say, “No.” Explain why their demands will not go on your roadmap by referring back to your product strategy.

4. Stay Open, Stay Fresh

So, you have done excellent work to set your strategy, prioritize features, and share your roadmap. But the best product managers are also excellent at innovation management — the ongoing, creative process of capturing, prioritizing, and implementing new ideas. This is important even when your roadmap is set. Without managing the new ideas that come in, you risk missing what really matters.

There is no shortage of new ideas for products. And as a PM, you are the go-to person for new ideas. After all, your team knows you have the power to promote new ideas to features and get them prioritized on the next release.

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But you know the truth – most product ideas do not roll up to your product strategy or key company objectives. Without a scalable way to capture, review, and rank all incoming ideas, you will quickly become overwhelmed. And if you cannot explain why a new idea will (or will not) be promoted to a feature, your team will become frustrated.

Your solution? Consider all ideas, rank them against your product strategy, keep everyone informed, and – most importantly — communicate the “why,” says Ron Yang, director of product management for Aha!

“Your job isn’t to be a crowd pleaser, but instead to ensure success for your product. At the same time, it’s important to keep strong relationships with your team, as everyone should work together towards the common goal for your company and product. If you can agree on the goals, then you should be able to make your case for the prioritization of your roadmap.

As you make decisions, be open with your team and stakeholders. Listen to [ideas] and clearly communicate why they will or will not get built. It’s fine for people to disagree with one another, but the key is for everyone to understand the reason for that decision. Keeping these lines of communication open will help you to develop and further relationships over time.”

It takes an entire team to bring a product to market. To keep everyone on the same page, it is important to track all of the technical information in one place, and use it to prioritize features. The good news is that there is a better way to communicate this information.

A great product roadmap is a PM’s secret weapon. It brings sanity to what can often be an insane job.

Success involves communicating a “goal first” vision to the product team and a high-level strategy to get there. This helps product teams prioritize features, manage ideas, and share roadmaps with stakeholders.

Ultimately, roadmaps help product teams build better products and be happy doing it. That clarity makes a world of difference.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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