Written by C. Todd Lombardo, VP Product & Experience at Vempathy, for our ebook, The Path to Product Excellence: Stories and Advice From the Field.

Let’s hop in the wayback machine and travel back to summer 2014:

The Amazon Fire Phone was released to much hype, yet 14 months later the company stopped production and discontinued sales shortly thereafter. While there are many missteps that might explain this product failure, I am sure the team behind the Fire Phone had a fantastic product roadmap. The problem is the Fire Phone’s product roadmap didn’t line up with Amazon’s company strategy.

Amazon had success with the Kindle tablet where the product strategy was to profit through sales of digital content, rather than make money on the device. Amazon’s business strategy is that of lower prices and winning through operational efficiency. The Fire Phone launched with a retail price tag of $199 on a two-year contract. This was the same price as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phones at the time. Where was the lower price strategy? The product strategy appeared to be selling a premium product at a premium price, just like Apple. Product strategy and thus the product roadmap didn’t align with company strategy, and the Fire Phone died a fiery death (pun intended).

roadmap strategy amazon

Product strategy ≠ company strategy

There is a hierarchy that starts with company mission or vision: the ‘why’ you exist. This is followed by a company strategy: how you’ll get there.

Company mission or vision is the ‘why’ you exist. Company strategy is how you’ll get there.

Under company strategy are operational and tactical initiatives to realize that company vision. One of those is product vision: the ‘why’ of your product. Your roadmap connects your product strategy to your company strategy through the product vision.

Stating your vision

You may use mission or vision interchangeably, but for this discussion we’ll use vision. In our workshops on product roadmapping, we use a well-known example many are familiar with: Google.

Google’s company vision statement is: To organize all of the data in the world and make it accessible for everyone in a useful way. Now consider some of Google’s products, like Chrome or YouTube. Chrome’s vision is to simplify web browsing, or to go beyond just web browsing. YouTube’s vision is to give everyone a voice and show them the world. Each of these product visions has a strategic relationship to the company vision.

Drive outcomes: Objectives & Key Results

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a well-documented approach for teams to drive their efforts towards outcomes. Relating this to your product roadmap, using the concept of themes to not specify features, but rather to identify problems and match them to the OKRs will further that alignment of your roadmap to your company’s strategy.

The strategic hierarchy of your product

At a startup I work with, every theme we have on our roadmap rolls up to an OKR, which is aligned with our annual strategic goals. Any new feature the team works on is categorized under a theme, and every quarter, we adjust our themes to align with our quarterly objectives. The illustration below shows how these are connected.

Each theme may have a set of features or experiments so you can plan your product releases. Note that the roadmap doesn’t list out the experiments nor the features. These are a problem-to-solve, typically from the customer’s point of view, and when these are aligned to your OKRs, you set the product team (and product) up for success.

Let’s hypothetically apply this to the example we started with, Amazon’s Fire Phone. Amazon’s vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online. Writing the Fire Phone’s vision to paint the “why” of the product could be: to make online purchases in the palm of your hand. This product vision statement might be suspect as most phones already offered this capability and there was no real differentiation, nor would it be considered visionary.

An investigative article in Fast Company later revealed: “Whenever anyone asked why we were doing this, the answer was, ‘Because Jeff wants it.’” Conversely, the company could have gone in a different direction and doubled down on products like Dash, which could have resulted in a number of single-function buttons across a consumers’ home that lacked cohesiveness, even though it may have added some level of convenience.

Everything on your roadmap has to have a sound strategic hierarchy that aligns to your product’s vision and company mission.

At the core, a product vision aligns your product’s why to your company’s strategy, and ultimately this aligns your product roadmap. Everything on your roadmap has to have a sound strategic hierarchy that aligns to your product’s vision and company mission. Without a clear strategic alignment, you may find your product has become a fragmented mix of features that struggles to deliver on its promise.

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This post is an excerpt from our ebook, The Path to Product Excellence: Stories and Advice From the Field. Get your copy now for more valuable insights from product management thought leaders.

Dottie Schrock Jul 8, 2019