Roadmaps: Starting the Conversation

start convoContributed by Lisa Underkoffler

Product roadmaps are a critical tool for most companies, but the importance of a roadmap can remain a mystery to many people outside of product. There seems to be some magic associated with creating a successful roadmap. There is. It’s in all of the discussions you have to understand and set priorities in order to get agreement on what’s important for the company to deliver.

So what is a roadmap?

Roadmaps describe the high-level, customer-facing work that is key to achieving the company’s business strategy and revenue goals. They are NOT project plans of how you will get there, which is a frequent misconception. While project plans are important, you need a roadmap to identify the “what” and, generally, the “when” of delivering products or services.

Driving to the roadmap

The alignment and shared view is what the roadmap delivers. It’s critical to moving ahead quickly. These are the big ideas and big deliverables, mapped to your strategies and goals.

The conversations, though, are the main value, not the finished roadmap. It is important to work with a team to identify strategies and goals in order to fit them into what you need to deliver. These conversations become the foundations for being able to move your roadmap forward.

Continuing the conversation

Once you create your roadmap, the conversations continue. The roadmap becomes a communication tool enabling more discussions with other stakeholders, team members, and beyond, as it provides insight into what is coming. This is a view into the future (even if just 3 months from now) on what you expect will lead to success.

Roadmaps can trigger conversations around the impacts of certain work, gaps in staffing and long lead times. That’s all great stuff and adds to the conversation of what’s important and what can wait.

The living, breathing roadmap

Companies of all sizes believe that having a roadmap is like having a blueprint for the current year, year two or even year three. Once it’s created, it’s only a matter of “Just do it,” as the Nike tagline would suggest. This perspective on roadmaps may account, in part, for why there is so much time and effort put into creating them – it has to be perfect.

Realistically, the roadmap is a snapshot which will change as the market changes, competition emerges or the company’s focus shifts direction. Roadmaps are a living document and should remain that way. Static roadmaps mean that either you’re not paying attention to the business/market/customers or that you’ve got a very mature product that is heading towards the sunset.

Staying agile in an Agile world

With so many high tech companies embracing Agile Development, there’s some thought that roadmaps or project plans (another topic for another day) are a waste of time. I believe that Agile and roadmaps are complements.

Agile is great for keeping options open so products are current in the marketplace, taking advantage of new technologies as they emerge. But there needs to be a balance between all options available and the longer view of the business.

As Steve Johnson says in his eBook On Roadmaps and Roadmapping, “Without a roadmap, Agile teams are in danger of building the wrong thing faster than ever before.”

It’s hard work, no question, to make a roadmap that works for your company. Take the pressure off yourself – start the conversation.

Image from Flickr Commons

Lisa-photoLisa Underkoffler is an experienced product leader with a rare combination of vision, leadership, cross-functional management skills, execution and technical background. She delivers customer-focused products that propel startups and large companies alike to the next level of growth. With a successful track record as product innovator in several pioneering high tech companies, Lisa has proven success in full life-cycle product planning and management, design and marketing; strategy, competitive analysis, requirements and roadmaps.

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