Avoiding the Product Roadmap Trap

Having product roadmaps is essential for defining a clear vision. However, there are some traps which are commonly experienced

by Rod Dunne on February 14, 2011

in Biz Dev, Creative, Entrepreneurial, Innovation

Do you have a clearly defined product roadmap? Can you easily separate out the innovation strategy behind product line decisions as well as the target markets for specific product lines/features?

The danger is that your product roadmap can become complex and inflexible and gradually lose its sense of purpose over time.

In this article I’ll show you how to avoid this trap and refocus the goal of this key strategic document as a strategic vision statement for employees.

What is the trap?

The danger with any product roadmap template is that:

  • You lose the big picture. Team members and employees gradually lose sight of what the larger goal is behind roadmaps. This document is meant to be a vision statement for where the product line is meant to go but it can rapidly become overly complex.
  • The roadmap fails to reflect researched market opportunities. Any good business development process starts out with a goal – so research well the right opportunities with the highest probability of success.
  • Its inflexible! Worse still, if there is no flexibility in how your product roadmap software incorporates updates then the products that are ultimately delivered may well be providing little benefit to the customer or putting across an out-of-date value proposition.

To avoid this you need to understand why exactly you are producing your own product roadmap example in the first place. As an aside, you should also use documentation tracking software to maintain versions of the roadmap as it is discussed, changed and finalized.

What purpose do your roadmaps serve?

The goal of all product roadmaps is:

  • To show that you have carefully planned out what product lines and target markets you wish to pursue. This provides high level goals for any departments involved in delivering your product solutions. Software meant for business plan roadmaps can help, but you can just as easily use spreadsheets.
  • To provide a feature list with enough flexibility to allow changes to occur as and when new opportunities or threats are identified. Opportunities could include new technological advancements or customer segments which have been identified during the crucial sales process steps. Threats could include competitors new product lines and redundant technology.

So how can you avoid these traps?

The simple answer is that you (the Product Manager/CTO/CEO) can avoid these traps by creating your product roadmap template in a sequential and logical manner.

The following is a software product roadmap plan I use but can be just as easily applied to any industry. Customization is always required when writing and planning a product roadmap.

The steps listed here are repeatedly being done throughout the product development lifecycle and each step is finished with a decision gate on whether or not to proceed.

  1. Brainstorm ideas for new product lines with key stakeholders in the company. This should incorporate the CEO (for business growth strategies), marketing (for customer segments/markets to target) and the CTO (to include elements of their innovation strategy planning).
  2. Organize the list of ideas by market segment.
  3. Define what type of product would need to be delivered for each market segment, then research that segment. Identify the size of the market and defined an expected penetration rate and return on investment. Identify the existing competition in the market along with their product lines (so that your products may be differentiated from them). At this stage there may be one or two particular market segments which seem most desirable (e.g. based on ROI).
  4. Collaborate with the CTO regarding architectural decisions that can be made to incorporate a broader spectrum of product ideas. A software product roadmap should include details of any componentization, re-usability or flexible component architectures that can be reused across numerous product lines (i.e. scalability).
  5. Compile your product roadmap template. Focus on your initial one or two product lines that the company should target over the next 1 to 2 years. Define the monthly time-lines involved in releasing these products including minor releases. Appendices to the document can provide justifications for why these product lines have been selected.
  6. Distribute the product roadmap example/beta to stakeholders in your company for review. You can expect a large amount of feedback regarding additions, subtractions or alterations which should be collaboratively decided upon.

The goal of this process is twofold:

  • The document is always based on adequate market research to identify key markets are customer segments which your product lines will relate to.
  • The document is the starting point for a collaborative process – the steps above are done in a continual loop. It will change over time as ideas and innovation strategy plans are incorporated and external forces change (i.e. competition, technological trends, etc.). It should never be set in stone and always be collaboratively updated. Dynamism is fundamental to survival for any large or small business strategy.

Having a clear view of its objectives and how to get there is what you're striving for

Tips & warnings

  • Emphasise good Communication: While it is crucial that you need to incorporate a certain amount of flexibility about updating product roadmaps, you also have to make sure that any changes are rapidly communicated to dependent parties. This is a key responsibility of the product manager to inform teams who might be affected by any changes in product plans and should be formalized in their communication strategy.
  • Use Internal codes: When writing internal product roadmaps it is worth using feature/product codes or jargon. This is often used to simplify the document but also safeguards the document from being less understandable if it is leaked to the competition.
  • Product roadmap software is useful, but not mandatory: Software tools for product managers can help facilitate the compilation of ideas, business process documentation, prioritization of activities and creation of graphics and timelines. However, many startups and even larger companies resort to simply using spreadsheets for the flexibility that they can provide.
  • Compile an external product roadmap template too: The key to a good external product roadmap example is understanding who the key audience of the document is. If the document is going to a venture capital firm for evaluation then you should focus in on (a) the initial product lines you will be considering in the short term and (b) any follow-up product lines you can consider at later stages. Include market research you’ve done into the initial products along with competition, projected ROI, etc. This will be evaluated by the VC along with their industry experts to see how clearly you  show your product lines and target markets are aligned, along with any long term opportunities you foresee.

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Author Rod Dunne...

Blog owner and sole writer Rod DunneI am the owner and sole writer on Product-ivity.com. This is my personal blog detailing troubleshooting tips for small businesses. Posts are based upon 2 decades in consultancy & innovation management within startups/maturing companies.

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