How are product teams approaching remote work and collaboration in 2021?
“What are we doing next?”
“What’s the actual plan?”
“Why are we doing this now?”
It can be easy to get lost in the backwoods of roadmaps, and these are all questions that, as a product manager, you might hear from anyone in your organization, from sales and engineering to customer success and marketing. And yes, it can be frustrating. As Braden Kowitz points out, these questions can cause a great deal of anxiety.
One tried, and true way to get ahead is to create a product roadmap that communicates the product plan and aligns your whole organization around it. Useful product roadmaps can take time to create, but they also give stakeholders on different teams the insights they need and ultimately boosts confidence in your product leadership.
But the challenge is often building a roadmap that will align your company around your product vision, providing both the level of detail each function needs while also staying connected to higher-level objectives.
Often, companies will go about building a product roadmap the wrong way. They’ll focus on hitting deadlines above all else, which can cause a lot of anxiety for the team. Other times you’ll see companies build a roadmap once and then never look at it again or rarely update it.
A vast majority of roadmaps miss the why behind what they are building and just focus on features — they are disconnected from the product strategy and have no clear goals or themes.
Instead, excellent roadmaps should be a product of collaboration and include the input of many stakeholders and cross-functional teams. They should always be-up-to-date, not one-time documents that are outdated once you hit the save button. And, they should reflect the outcomes your organization wants to achieve, not simply outputs.
Your product roadmap should articulate your product strategy so everyone, including different audiences with unique needs, understands it. Before diving into specifics, remember that what works for you may be unique to you and your organization. That’s why it’s critical to talk to everyone across your teams and ensure alignment on the best way to present this information.
We know rethinking how you approach the product roadmaps can be daunting. That’s why we’ve consolidated the best roadmap types that can help you communicate the why of your plan and the what and provide the right level of detail for your stakeholders.
““I think of roadmaps as communication vehicles rather than decision vehicles. A lot of folks say their goal is to have a roadmap. And I say no, our goal is to have a good product strategy where we make hard choices and prioritize the right things. The roadmap is simply a reflection of this.” ”
You don’t need to list specific dates on your roadmap. But you do need a way to clearly outline and prioritize short-term features, medium-term features, and features you’re planning for in the long term.
What features are you releasing along the timeline above? You can categorize these based on what you’re looking to communicate and what tools you use for project management. These can be simply stated as the feature you’re building, or you can create a hierarchy of broad feature themes down to more specific subfeatures.
Examples (from high-level to detailed):
What are you looking to accomplish with your products and features? You’re not doing work for the sake of doing work. You’re moving the needle on your business. Goals (or objectives) lets your organization know where the product is headed. These may be product-specific goals or business goals.
Different types of roadmaps work best with different stakeholders. You can choose which views best support how you want to communicate and rally your organization around your product vision.
Let’s look at some common types of product roadmaps to help you figure out which one will work best for you. At a high-level, you can differentiate between two overall types: column and timeline roadmaps with relevant examples described.
Release plans are the execution-level plan of how you’ll deliver the work that you’ve decided to do and the timeframe when you’ll complete that work. A release plan communicates a high-level overview of upcoming product releases to senior executives, stakeholders, cross-functional teams, and even customers. It’s ideal for planning milestones not time-bound, but with a fixed scope or new versions of your product on a regular release schedule (e.g., mobile app). It lets other teams know features are coming soon without committing your team to a specific launch date.
Sprint plan roadmaps are delivery-focused and, of course, useful for sprint planning. Products teams use sprint plans to align their development teams with upcoming work so they’re always up-to-date and in sync. You can plan your delivery over multiple sprints and show each feature’s effort and owners to monitor your team’s workload. You can even use swimlanes for additional context or grouping. You can make your sprint plan as granular as you need. This roadmap is only for your product and development team’s eyes.
Now-next-later roadmaps communicate your priorities over broad time frames with an emphasis on the near-term. Features in the ‘Now’ slot have more detail as you work on them, while features in the “later” bucket will be more high-level and reflect your long-term strategy. They are perfect for teams operating in fast-changing environments where release dates may change and allow you to communicate comprehensive plans to customers without committing to specific deadlines. Now-next later roadmaps are great for sharing your product strategy and priorities with large audiences (e.g., at an All-Hands or Town Hall meeting)
While this view is great for organizations that move quickly, you’ll want to keep things on track with a rigorous prioritization process. Otherwise, you risk having things in “later” stay there indefinitely, and ideas not aligned with your long-term strategy may make their way into the “now” or “next” buckets.
A Kanban roadmap is another delivery-focused roadmap for development teams. It helps product teams clearly group initiatives into buckets such as what is in the backlog, what you’re planning, what is in progress, and what you’ve completed.
One of the most significant advantages of a Kanban roadmap is that it allows product teams to communicate their near-term plans without committing to exact dates. You can showcase when you’re working on specific features and keep your delivery team motivated by reminding them what they’re building towards.
Product managers most commonly use timeline roadmaps to ensure alignment with stakeholders and cross-functional teams. Stakeholders can visually see key initiatives’ goals and duration, while cross-functional teams easily organize launch activities with clear timelines. Be wary about using tight timeframes as this can set burdensome expectations. Consider using a timeframe that works best to communicate your plans broadly. This may be monthly, quarterly, or any bucket of time you think works best for your needs or stakeholders’ needs.
A Features timeline roadmap is an output-driven roadmap that allows you to set the time frame for an individual feature. Planning features and tracking progress with a timeline roadmap is ideal if you want to get a 1000-foot view of how work is progressing toward a deadline or time-bound milestone. You can track feature progress against specific deadlines and milestones and align internally with development teams on concrete dates. You can also allocate resources when and where they’re needed.
For larger organizations and those working in more complex environments, there comes a time when senior executives and stakeholders want a more zoomed-out approach. An objectives timeline roadmap is an example of an outcome, not output-driven roadmap. This roadmap provides broad organization alignment on product direction. It’s easy for anyone to understand when you’ll work towards each of our business goals and where that sits relative to your most significant milestones.
Objectives timeline roadmaps are great to communicate your product strategy and goals across teams for the next 2-3 quarters. When using business-level objectives, this offers a clear connection between your product and business strategies and end deliverables, such as features.
When we decide which objectives to tackle next, we backward-plan from milestones in time (Gartner analyst briefings, industry conferences, marketing launches, commitments to strategic partners or major customers, etc.) and consider what would be most important to accomplish by then.
When you’re planning objectives in time, you can remain high-level. But as you prepare for sprints and launch activities, you’ll want to decide which features to release together and when. Using a release timeline roadmap allows you to plan and communicate when you’ll work on releases in the near future with clear timeframes to cross-functional teams, like sales and customer success. Stakeholders can see what’s slated for the next app version, quarterly release, monthly bug fix, etc. With product management software, like Productboard, larger product organizations with multiple teams releasing features on different cadences can create multiple release groups to organize these and keep cross-functional teams in the know.
Plus, release timeline roadmaps are useful for creating a low-maintenance tactical roadmap to track progress against essential deadlines. If you’re working in an Agile environment, you may resist planning releases much more than 4-6 weeks in advance for the reasons cited earlier. A release timeline roadmap allows you to keep using your specific release objects, while also conveying a time horizon with any essential milestones or company deadlines.
Product roadmaps are critical for your success. Creating a great product without a roadmap is like going on a road trip without a map: if you’re lucky, you might eventually get to your destination, but you’ll likely end up in some run-down motel. You’ll also probably have to stop a bunch of times to ask for directions from people who had no idea what kind of trip you initially planned. Unlike road trips, product roadmaps are all about the destination, not the journey.