The Three Pillars of Roadmap Building

I’m in the middle of a roadmap exercise at the moment and it occurs to me that this is the most important project any product manager will ever do.  Sure, it’s important to write requirements and PRD’s, but those are side effects of your roadmap.  There will never be a more important task than deciding the high level projects your team will work on and the order in which you’ll bring them to life.

So what the heck does a roadmap need to do anyway?

Support Company Goals

Do you even know what those goals are?  Maybe it’s time for a little heart to heart with your CEO or general manager because you need to know in detail what the goals are or else your roadmap won’t support them.  Are you looking to get acquired?  Increase ASP?  Reduce churn?  Go after market share?  Increase profitability?  It’s probably some combination of these things but you and your CEO need to clearly articulate what your goals are for the quarter, year or multi year period for which you are building a roadmap.

Goals should be the first slide in your roadmap deck, with methods to achieve those goals being the second.  After all, a roadmap is meaningless without an explanation of why you’re planning the things you’re putting in these slides.

Address Revenue Killers

Revenue killers come in all shapes in sizes.  They could be that killer feature that the competition has and you don’t.  They could be a persistent source of customer complaint like slow performance that’s causing customers to churn.  They could even be things like a lack of an ecosystem or poor API’s that’s causing some of your deals to not close. 

Best source for these are going to be your sales people and your support people.  They’re the one who know why current deals aren’t closing and why current customers are thinking about leaving.  The problem is one of perspective.  Sales and support people are going to give you a lot of tactical detail “this customer left because they didn’t like feature A” or “this deal closed because competitor Z talked to them about feature 1”.  It’s going to be up to you to collect all this information so you can see the trends.

This is probably not a slide unless you have a very open minded management team and board of directors.  No one wants you to air dirty laundry in public and putting slides with titles like “why we lose deals” is a guaranteed way to start a really bad conversation.  However, even if you’re not going to put this on a slide, you should still have the information.  It’s going to come up when people ask you “why are we doing project A?” and the best way to answer that question is with solid data.  “Because we lost 20% of our deals last year to competitor 2 as a direct result of not having project A in place and I have the numbers and details here to show you if you’re interested” ends the conversation right there.

Provide The Next Big Thing

Addressing revenue killers is nice and all, but roadmaps are meant to be visionary.  They’re supposed to excite people and get them oriented behind a shared vision.  For that, you need more than just “we’re going to fix feature A and put in place feature B which our competitors already have”.  You need fresh new ideas and they need to be exciting.

What are those ideas?  That’s the part I can’t help you with.  These are different per industry.  Just remember that an exciting idea doesn’t have to be a huge project.  Sometimes little projects can still be exciting.  It all depends on how you position them and this is where you need to get your mind out of the engineering mindset and into the world of marketing.

Go talk to your marketing team.  Chat with them about market trends, announcements they’re seeing and press releases other companies are putting out.  Take a look at unrelated industries and what they’re talking about.  Read magazines and see what society in general is talking and what the hot topics of the moment are.  This is where your big ideas are going to come from, not from any bug or feature request tracking software you may have in house.

Sooner or later, you’re going to have that Eureka moment where you think to yourself “oh! what is we could…” and in fact, it may even be “wait!  We could do that and it would actually be really is if…” and that’s your big idea right there.

When you have those, put them in your roadmap in the same section as all those projects you have to address revenue killers.  However, the big new thing (or things) is what should have top billing.  It’s like a newspaper where the top story gets most of the page and the big picture.  The big new thing is the top story, everything else is a sideline.  Also, don’t get hung up in features.  Tell people enough so they understand what you’re building.  The rest can be found in the PRD.

The Big Picture

A roadmap really is a set of instructions for how to get from point A to point B.  The product manager’s job is to know where point A is, identify where point B should be and then draw a line between them.  Everything else is details.

Where Do Good Features Come From?

It’s interesting to think about where most people get ideas for new product features. The usual answer I get when I ask Product Manager candidates about this is “I would talk to my customers”. Which is fine, except for the fact that these people are already your customers. That is, they’ve already given you money for your product. Why are you still building features for them? Of course, there are some very valid reasons such as:

  • I want to keep them happy
  • I want to keep them from going to a competitor who just introduced a new feature
  • I want to charge them even more money

Sure, very valid reasons. However, they’re also a bit of a copout. They’re good reasons because they focus on the bottom line, money. New development should equal more money and these reasons all claim to follow that line of reasoning. They’re a copout because they only claim to focus on the bottom line. The truth is that a lot of customers will tell you that :you MUST build this feature for me” and “you SHOULD add this option for me or else they’ll…” well, they’ll do something! However, for the most part, that can be solved through good customer management as opposed to new features. So a product owner who focuses on existing customers is mostly doing it because it’s the easy place to find new feature ideas.

A better place to look is customers who don’t have your product yet, or even better, customers who looked at but then decided not to buy your product. These are the real moneymakers. These are the folks who would have given you money if you had developed feature X or given them function Y. Of course, these are also the people who are hardest to reach exactly because they’re not your customers. So how the heck do we know what they do? [Read more…]