How to build a visionary product roadmap

Much can learned from the great thinkers and innovators of our time.  One of my personal favorites, Elon Musk, has consistently surprised the world with innovative solutions to hard-hitting human problems.  I recently watched the Tesla 3 press release video, where Elon Musk showed the vision and roadmap of Tesla. Musk explained Tesla’s mission and the compelling reasons behind building his company.  His speech delved into the acute problems we face as humans on a billion year old planet.  He succinctly described rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the rising temperature and the number of deaths per year due to traffic pollution. In order to solve these problems, Musk mentioned a clear mission, which is reiterated verbatim on the company’s homepage “Accelerating sustainable transport”. To achieve his company’s mission, Musk built a simple 4 steps roadmap.

So how does one build a visionary, yet realistic roadmap like Elon Musk? While you and I are probably not prodigies like Musk is, some common and specific practices can be used to help you build out your journey.  In this post, we’ll start with the basics of what a product roadmap actually is, and then get into the nitty gritty of how to build one.


What is a product roadmap?

Janna Bastow, CEO of ProdPad, a product management software, gives an excellent presentation of what a product roadmap actually is.

Bastow defines a roadmap as a document that communicates the direction you’ll be going in order to fulfil the product vision. Roadmaps come in different forms. Some roadmaps look similar to gantt charts,  some look like line charts, some look like a real road with traffic signs.  But, focusing on the roadmap alone is a rookie mistake. The roadmap is actually the output of the road-mapping process which includes strategic topics such as strategy, research, validation and more.  So before jumping into crafting your sexy new roadmap, it’s important to come to terms with your product vision and write it down once all stakeholders agree on it.

Defining the product vision can be the hardest element to define when you’re working in a growing company and there are changes both in your value proposition, and your customer base.  Having a clear vision helps you focus on the lasting why of the reasoning behind everything you do in your company.  If you keep this vision at the top of mind, it’ll be easier to ward off distractions, arguments, and discussions on the road to success.

Finding your product vision

Bastow offers a simple formula to create a product vision by filling in the gaps in the table below.

What Our product is the only….
How that…
Who for…
Where in..
Why who..
When In the era of…

Let’s take Waze for example, and use the formula above to craft the Waze vision.

“Our product is the only navigation app that uses crowdsourcing for drivers around the world,  who want to save time and money in the era of increased traffic congestion.”

It is important to remember that the product vision is distinctly not the company vision. You can have a variety of product visions under the same company vision. When your company has only one product, the two might overlap. While the company vision should not change too often, the product vision should change more frequently as technology changes and markets evolve.

Facebook is a good example for a company whose vision changes over time, from focusing on becoming a network for college students, it became “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” (Click to see the interview of Mark Zuckerberg from 2005 )


Building your product roadmap

Now that you have a written vision in place, you can start work on your roadmap and share it with the world.

The roadmap essentials are:

  • Time horizons
  • Scope
  • Strategic Initiatives (For example: developing a new technology/enter a new market/ integrating into an existing business process)
  • Product areas/ components (mobile/web)
  • one or many products

Major warning: never include specific dates in the product roadmap! The problem with dates is that people look at them as gospel, and they won’t understand why you didn’t deliver the promised feature on a date they expected it to be released. If you do publicise specific dates for the future, the whole conversation changes from your visions to a calendar of release dates.  What you should do, is separate the product roadmap from the release plan.

A release plan usually looks at the next 2-3 releases (which can take around 6 weeks time).  There is a high level of certainty regarding what will happen during 6 weeks time, which makes it feasible to create a release plan in this way.  You can understand in advance, what your resources are, the number of bug fixes that will be released, and so on.  

In most cases, you’ll be mapping your roadmap in an online tool.  Most product tools offer various solutions for sharing roadmaps. You can choose to share projects internally with your customer success team, and your sales and management team, before exposing the roadmap to customers and the market at large.

Your roadmap can be divided into major areas of differentiation, depending on the strategic initiates of the business, for example:

  • Scalability
  • Monetisation
  • User Experience

It can also be divided into areas that you wish to tackle together (meaning R&D and product team.)  These joint roadmap features may include the following:

  • Technical Debt (25%) –  Making sure you close your technical overtime. This is especially common with growing companies, where it is hard to keep up with growth. You should always save some space to close your technical debt, otherwise your debt will accrue interest overtime.
  • Must Haves (25%) – The features that need to be built in order to compete in the market.
  • Linear Innovation (25%) – all of the small improvements that customers ask and wait for. This 25% also accounts for the sales enablers and churn preventers.  These are the “delighters”.
  • X10 Innovation (25%) – 10x improvements are the big things that disrupt the market. This line of thinking is where you take big risks in order to become a market leader. It could be your next bot, VR/AR app, or integration with new IoT devices.

Now that we have explored what a roadmap is, as well as the do’s and don’ts of preparation, it’s time to get into the methodology of actually building one.


Tools for building a roadmap

As with all productivity tools, our first stop is Excel. Excel is the perfect tool for working individually as it gives you complete freedom to play with your VLOOKUPS, conditional formatting, pivot tables, etc. The problem with excel is that it is too permissive and there is no business process behind the scenes, making sure you follow the common practices for building a roadmap.  As an alternative to Excel, you can explore the roundup of roadmap tools I’ve provided below.  

 

ProductPlan

ProductPlan provides a very simple solution for creating and maintaining your product roadmap. The one element missing for me, was mainly the business process. I would prefer following a recommended business processes depending on my industry. For example if you are the product manager of a SaaS company, you are probably interested in the following business KPIS: increase user adoption, reduce churn, user base, etc.

 

ProdPad

ProdPad is a product management software that includes all of the areas a product management deals with on day by day basis. Prodpad takes you step by step in managing your PM processes based on some best practices including user personas and idea classification. In terms of the roadmap feature, I found it to be more difficult than Productplan but much more connected to the other aspects of product management covered in the tool.

 

Aha!

Aha! covers the practice of product management from vision all the way to execution. Aha! really helps organising all of the work of product management into one place. Aha! includes robust capability with many additional fields and lots of screen real estate that provides advanced users the ability to work in a more condensed mode.  Aha! includes heat maps, pivot table, and a number of other helpful visualisation features.

 

ProductBoard

If you care about the design of the tool you use, ProductBoard is the tool for you. ProductBoard has beautiful interactive design to help you manage your customer research, features, releases and roadmap.


Time to Build!

That’s it, no excuses now. It is time to build your roadmap. Remember, your specific roadmap details will change over time as technologies change and markets evolve, but the most important point is to make sure that your roadmap is loyal to your product vision. If you feel you are going in circles, it is time to go back to the drawing board.
I’d be happy to hear from feedback about the way you build your own product roadmap, or any difficulties in building as a first-timer!  What tools or strategies do you use? And of course, any feedback or thoughts are welcome!  Good luck!

 

 

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