A product roadmap is an important strategic framework that provides direction and guidance to internal and external stakeholders. It provides a plan for how the product’s vision will be realized and reflects strategic priorities including specific market segments and customer needs.

However, while there’s general agreement that preparing a roadmap is important, the reality is that often roadmaps are not as effective in practice. The problems generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Confusing short-term plans with a roadmap. Ask a product manager what the roadmap is for his or her product, and you might hear a rundown of what’s in the next release or what’s in the product backlog (for those using an Agile/SCRUM process). These short-term priorities are the most near-term execution step in a roadmap, but not a roadmap in and of themselves. In fact, without the broader context that a roadmap provides, it may not be evident when immediate project work is not aligned with longer-term strategic priorities. These feature lists provide no insight into the bigger picture. By focusing on impending tactical activities, companies don’t position their products for the future state of the market, become ignorant of pressing competitive threats, and may focus on short-term fixes at the expense of long-term success.
  2. Executives confuse a roadmap with the roadmapping process. A roadmap is the deliverable; a roadmapping process is the way that it’s created. Many executives see the end result and want a roadmap for their products, missing the point that you can’t just wave a magic wand to create one. By focusing on the output instead of the process, product managers/teams miss out on the collaborative input that comes with creating and updating a roadmap. The focus on data, analysis and context goes by the wayside as product managers throw together something that simply matches the defined corporate presentation format. What’s lost is the realization that the process of putting together a roadmap is often more beneficial than the final deliverable.
  3. Product managers have an ad hoc process for roadmap creation. You need a good process to bake a delicious apple pie. What ingredients are needed? When do you add them to the mix? What tradeoffs must be made (flavor vs. nutrition)? How long should it bake? Different recipes will yield different results. Similarly, if you want to have a good product roadmap, you need an effective process to create one. Just as you can’t bake a pie by just randomly throwing ingredients into a pan, you can’t create a good roadmap by randomly adding features to a PowerPoint slide. If your process is flawed and your ingredients are subpar, you will not be pleased with the final outcome.

So, how can you address these problems in your organization?

  • Product managers must have the know-how to create effective roadmaps. Product managers may have never received the support needed to create effective roadmaps. This goes well beyond simply providing a template or offering one-time training; it’s an expertise and experience gap that must be addressed as part of a broader upskilling of the product management team.
  • Make sure product managers prioritize roadmap creation. This starts with clear job descriptions and well-defined roles and responsibilities, and must be reinforced by product management leaders requiring their teams to create and update roadmaps. Simply put, leaders need to show roadmapping the respect it deserves and make it a priority.
  • Product managers must do a better job balancing the tactical with the strategic. Too many product managers get caught up in tactical details, like monitoring the daily progress of the product development team or debating minute details of product design; they also spend too much time on day-to-day “firefighting” (e.g. responding to requests from sales reps). They need to stop making excuses for not having enough hours in the day and prioritize their time better to ensure enough focus on strategic areas like roadmapping.
  • In the SiriusDecisions Product Marketing and Management Model, we stress the importance of a consistent roadmapping process, resulting in a product roadmap that covers not only near-term plans but the future roadmap. Best-in-class organizations implement standard roadmapping approaches and consistent formats for roadmaps. Not only do they have roadmaps for all individual products and services, but also for product portfolios and broader solutions.

    By making sure that product managers are trained on the roadmapping process and templates, and receive appropriate support through the roadmapping process, companies can ensure that their product and solution plans are aligned with longer-term strategic objectives.