How do product managers build an agile roadmap?
Build a lovable product and give customers what they really want. This is what great product managers aim to achieve. Many product managers find an agile approach to product management appealing because of the promise of delivering value faster.
By taking an incremental approach to product development, you can be more nimble — adapting product plans and iterating often based on customer feedback and other data. But it can be challenging to move fast while making sure that you are pursuing the right work — the activities that support a truly agile product strategy. This is why an agile roadmap is so useful.
What is an agile roadmap?
An agile roadmap is a flexible plan of action for achieving your product vision. It communicates your upcoming product releases and shows how each epic and feature contributes to your product strategy. You can create an agile roadmap to visualize all the cross-functional work required to build a product or enhancement and bring it to market. Depending on the level of detail you want to capture, an agile roadmap can show the high-level product goals and initiatives or a more near-term plan of the upcoming work (and when the team will do it).
It is important to note that some agile teams believe that their incremental approach to work is incompatible with the process of roadmapping. These teams may resist building a product roadmap because they do not want to commit to a firm plan or timeline. But the reality is that dates matter. Even highly adaptive product teams must adhere to schedules and delivery dates (or at least date ranges). After all, company leaders and customers alike expect new offerings and functionality within a set time frame.
No matter what type of Agile methodology you use or how strictly your team follows it, you can benefit from creating an agile roadmap. Use your roadmap as a tool to make sure you are investing in the most impactful work — the efforts that are aligned with the product vision and strategy. With an agile roadmap as your guide, you can make better tradeoff decisions, measure progress, and ultimately provide more value for customers.
What is the difference between a waterfall roadmap and an agile roadmap?
Before agile development methodologies, waterfall was the predominant methodology. Product managers working in a waterfall environment use roadmaps to communicate linear product plans — where features are defined upfront and each phase of work is completed before another begins.
If you are used to working with waterfall roadmaps, switching to an agile roadmap can be a big change. You want to communicate how you will achieve product goals while providing flexibility to adjust your product plans according to what customers value. This requires that you be responsive to change and account for the inevitable adjustments you will need to make to your agile roadmap.
Understanding how waterfall roadmaps and agile roadmaps differ is helpful if you are transitioning to agile product management. Here are the main differences between these two types of roadmaps:
Business-centric (e.g., financial KPIs)
Customer-centric (e.g., user growth or customer satisfaction)
Months or quarters
Resource / capacity planning
Dedicated upfront by major project
Allocated by sprint velocity or team size
Incremental based on feedback and data
Sequential and segmented by department
Concurrent and cross-functional
How to build an agile roadmap
An agile roadmap looks like most other product roadmaps — it includes initiatives, releases, features or user stories, and timelines. What makes your roadmap agile is your approach to defining each element and your willingness to adapt when plans change. Here are seven steps for building an agile roadmap:
1. Start with product strategy and goals.
Without a clear strategy, it is impossible for fast-moving agile teams to determine if you are making meaningful progress. Strategy articulates the problem you are solving for customers, while goals define what you plan to achieve over a period of time — with clear metrics for measuring success. In an agile environment, you will likely set monthly or quarterly goals.
2. Turn your goals into initiatives.
Initiatives (also called epics) define the themes of work that will support the product vision and help you achieve your goals. Initiatives are broken down into features and user stories, often spanning multiple releases. When your agile team wants to pivot based on new data or customer feedback, make sure the new plan aligns with your initiatives before you define new features to pursue.
3. Gather cross-functional feedback.
Gaining input from other teams is critical for building an agile roadmap that is accurate, comprehensive, and realistic. Ideally, you should incorporate feedback from every cross-functional team that contributes to planning and delivering a Complete Product Experience — engineering, marketing, design, sales, and customer support, to name a few. If you need to work with groups that are traditionally non-agile (such as budget offices or the legal team) and require longer timelines, consider using purpose-built software to build your agile roadmap. This can make is easier to coordinate and track multiple work streams and timelines.
4. Define product features and tie to strategic initiatives.
Now it is time to break down your large themes of work into features or user stories. Your features represent the new functionality that you will continuously deliver to customers. Development teams then break down those features into technical requirements and organize them into sprints. Use your product vision, goals, and initiatives as a guide for which features to prioritize. When all your features link to the overall product strategy, you can deliver work and iterate quickly without veering off course.
5. Plan your product releases.
Organize the features on your agile roadmap into releases to deliver incremental value to customers in a defined time frame. Your release cadence can be daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly — it is up to you. Just remember that a release differs from a sprint or iteration in that it delivers a new customer experience (rather than just shipping code) and encompasses all the cross-functional work necessary to do so. In an agile environment, releases are still important because they communicate to teammates and customers what to expect and when.
6. Capture and integrate customer feedback.
Gathering customer feedback should be an ongoing part of maintaining your agile roadmap. Some teams collect ideas via user interviews, usability testing, and usage data, for example. You can also turn to purpose-built idea management software like Aha! Ideas to collect, rank, and prioritize feedback, then promote the best ideas to features on your roadmap — all in a single tool. Mapping each feature to the product strategy helps you determine when to make adjustments (versus when to stick to the plan).
7. Measure results regularly.
Moving quickly means it is even more essential to monitor progress towards your goals. Depending on your release cadence, you might review results and adjust your agile product roadmap on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. Evaluate how each release or feature impacts the metrics you care about — such as customer acquisition, retention, conversion rate, and churn. Analyzing performance data can help you make more informed decisions about how to alter upcoming features.
If you are adopting an agile product management approach, an agile roadmap is an invaluable tool for moving fast while achieving your product strategy. Use an agile roadmap to reach your product goals, adapt to changing customer feedback, and deliver value to customers faster.
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