Know Your Audience: Getting the Most Out of Roadmaps

Editor’s note; this post was written by a guest blogger. If you’re interested in contributing to our blog, please contact gaby@productschool.com

As a Product Manager, your challenge is leading by influence.  You don’t manage the people on your dev team nor do you control Customer Success.  Most of all, you don’t manage the engineers working on critical APIs that your product needs. 

You will be surprised that Product Roadmaps have little purpose outside the product organization unless you listen to your customers and deliver what they need.  We are not talking about the product’s end users but rather the internal end users. At this point, you surely must know what roadmaps are and how to create them – but you are doing them wrong if you don’t know how they will be used.  We will describe how to create and communicate your roadmaps to drive success – and drive success outside your organization.

Roadmaps graph
Fig. If your audiences are different, shouldn’t the roadmaps be different too?

At their best, Product Roadmaps provide a visual explanation of a company’s strategy. They help align Engineering, Marketing, Sales, Support, and the C-suite. In addition to communicating strategy, the optimal Product Roadmap inspires innovation because it reveals your product’s strongest differentiators.

It can also improve execution because it helps to formulate platform and derivative strategies, and how they unfold over time. Done right, product roadmaps serve as an organizing principle for decisions around technology requirements, resource allocation, and product positioning.

Product Roadmaps Are Not For Product!

Product Managers who get the most out of them realize that roadmaps are not for them. The product roadmap is not for the Product organization but for the full stack team. They are not internal documents for Product, but serve internal customers chiefly Engineering, Sales/Customer Success, other cross functional teams, and perhaps upper management.

Product reaps the greatest benefits from roadmaps when Product Managers understand the needs of these internal customers and create the roadmap that will make them successful. Product Managers optimize product roadmaps when these visual representations help to coordinate across functions and teams, enabling these organizations to do their jobs better. When the entire team supports a vision and a strategy, that makes Product Managers succeed in turn.

Group of People Watching on Laptop

More Than One Product Roadmap

Making these internal customers successful means making more than one roadmap. Tailor these roadmaps to the particular needs of each of these stakeholders. For example, the product roadmap for Engineering should include timing, features and dependencies. Your skill in translating and understanding customer solutions informs how you develop roadmaps tailored to the need of each stakeholder

Your Sales or other customer-facing functions need only to know what the MVP is, what the primary benefits are of future products, and when the next release is coming. Other teams might need to know nothing more than the critical dependencies between products over time.

The priority order of your tailored product roadmaps is as follows:

  • Engineering
  • Sales/Customer Success
  • Other teams
  • Senior Management

Beware When Sharing Product Roadmaps Outside of the Company

We usually recommend that you do not communicate product roadmaps outside of the company. Use them to focus the various internal stakeholders to support the product strategy over time. If you communicate product roadmaps to outside parties, make sure the discussion is covered under an NDA, and be very careful not to promise something at some date without confirmation from development.

In some cases External customers might see a version of a product roadmap, but make sure your customer-facing people are not appearing to make commitments they can’t keep, or leaking competitive information.

King Chess Piece

No Need To Make Them Pretty  

Too much information, formatted prettily, is often more a bother than a help. Understand your internal customer and deliver a product that will respond to your customer’s pain, without adding to it. 

One version of your product roadmap might be a prettier picture for upper management. Such product roadmaps are best if they keep to the high-level developments. In general, we find that Product Managers spend far too much time making product roadmaps look good, especially if the roadmaps are intended for the eyes of senior managers. But these roadmaps should be the lowest priority. 

Optimize all product roadmaps by keeping them simple, and delivering only the information that each stakeholder requires, and no more.

You might also be interested in: Being an Internet of Things Product Manager

Too Much Focus on Competitors

In most industries you must anticipate what your competitors will have to offer when you are ready to launch your future product. But we’ve seen the opposite pitfall: product roadmaps that focus too much on the competition. 

It is much more important to focus on supporting your vision and your unique selling proposition than to try to guess every competitive maneuver. Product roadmaps are chiefly about getting all stakeholders firing on all cylinders and heading in the same direction.

Photo Of People Doing Handshakes

Working At Cross-Purposes

Unfortunately, rather than coordinating efforts and communicating a shared strategy, product roadmaps often set different stakeholders at cross-purposes. On one hand, the sales team uses them to close a sale because they’ve inserted the customer’s key wish into the product roadmap.

On the other hand, Product Management might use a product roadmap to assure the CEO that they plan to support her vision, even though Engineering has not looked at them. This totally misses the point of a well-executed product roadmap, which is to integrate stakeholders into a shared vision and provide crucial, actionable guidance to diverse stakeholders.

Product Roadmaps Done Right

Product Managers get the most out of roadmaps when they avoid the pitfalls described above, namely:

  • Thinking the product roadmap is for the Product organization
  • Creating one product roadmap, rather than tailored maps for each stakeholder
  • Sharing roadmaps with external parties without due risk management
  • Spending too much time creating pretty roadmaps for upper management consumption
  • Roadmaps that focus too much on competitors
  • Product roadmaps that serve cross-purposes rather than aligning all parties around a shared vision and strategy  

When Product managers avoid these pitfalls, they develop product roadmaps that truly enable organizational success, that create products powerfully differentiated in the marketplace, and that enable innovation

The most effective product roadmaps provide a coherent strategic context for engineers, researchers, and other creative individuals to develop concepts that support, complement, and extend the strategic intent of the roadmap. Finally, the best product roadmaps communicate, where necessary, the international launch strategy so that the organization plans the timing for entry into different markets, anticipating regulatory needs, language, communication symbols, and standards as required.

You might also be interested in: Balancing Users and Stakeholders in Product Management

When your product roadmaps enable product strategy and execution in these ways, you know the Product organization has ensured that all stakeholders are genuinely headed in the same direction – toward a stream of new products that truly delight end users.

Meet The Author

John Carter profile pic

John Carter is a widely respected adviser to technology firms and the author of Innovate Products Faster: Graphical Tools for Accelerating Product Development. He is Founder and Principal of TCGen Inc. He has advised some of the most revered technology firms in the world including Apple, Amazon, Cisco, HP, IBM and Roche.

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