How the past can provide context for your future plans
For our recent book, Product Roadmaps Relaunched: How to Set Direction while Embracing Uncertainty (O’Reilly), my co-authors C. Todd Lombardo, Evan Ryan, and I interviewed over 80 practicing product people. We gathered so much insight, so many great examples, and so many pithy quotes that we simply didn’t have space to include everything we really wanted to.
One concept I really wish we’d had space for is the idea of providing a rearward view of the roadmap — essentially a summary of what’s been delivered in the recent past — as a way to set context for the forward-looking portion of the roadmap. This idea came from a conversation with Matt Poepsel who runs product at The Predictive Index, a workforce assessment company headquartered in Westwood, MA. Matt summarized it this way:
“It’s very hard to keep track of all of the changes we’ve been making so we’ve started including 90 days of ‘here’s what we just did.’ This makes sure people don’t forget what we’ve recently accomplished, and helps them see the connecting lineage between what we launched and what’s coming out — and how this is growing us toward our vision.”
Matt Poepsel’s product roadmap for The Predictive Index always includes a column for what was delivered in the prior quarter to help stakeholders see progress toward his product vision.
A presentation on things you plan to deliver in the future can leave stakeholders — people like your executive team, your sales and marketing peers, your customers and partners — feeling a little anxious. Sounds good, they are thinking, but can you deliver? Will it be as great as you say? Will it ship on time?
People sometimes forget even the very recent past, so a reminder before you launch into your future plans sets the stage properly. You should never over-promise on your roadmap, but a reminder of the great stuff you’ve just shipped gives people more confidence in your ability to deliver because the track record is clear.
At the same time, you probably didn’t deliver precisely what was on your roadmap the last time you spoke to these people, so a rearward view is an opportunity to provide clarity on how the roadmap has evolved and why.
Maybe something took longer than expected (I’m sure that never happens to you), so you moved it to a later timeframe or delivered only a portion. Maybe you learned something was less important than you thought, so you removed it altogether. Maybe you pounced on an opportunity to ace out a competitor or capture a large deal.
Explaining why the roadmap changed isn’t making excuses; it’s providing clarity and helping your stakeholders understand your thinking, your priorities, and your strategic direction. For the cynics in your audience, it’s also showing that you aren’t trying to hide anything.
Context, Context, Context
We talk a lot in the book about explaining the “why” of your roadmap. Where many roadmaps are just a list of features and dates, we recommend starting with your product vision, your business objectives, the market problems to be solved, and whatever other context your stakeholders need to understand the value you are focused on delivering.
Torrance Robinson, Founder & CEO of trovvit, makers of a portfolio and networking tool for students in New York City, says,
“Products are a journey not a destination. A product roadmap should, by definition, have built in reflection dates to review what you have done. This helps the company to learn from past experiences, course correct where needed, and plan the next part of the journey. The process keeps you honest, and connected to your vision, your clients and your investors.”
The rearview mirror you build into your roadmap presentation can provide a potent connection between what’s coming, what’s come before, and how together they form a clear path toward your product vision. It doesn’t have to take up much space in your slides or time in your presentation, but those few minutes can set up the rest of the conversation for success.
Bruce McCarthy is Founder of UpUp Labs and President of the Boston Product Management Association. He’s been called the product management Stig. Bruce’s team helps organizations improve the return on their investments in product development. He is an internationally-recognized thought-leader and sought-after speaker on product roadmapping, prioritization, team effectiveness, and leadership. Bruce and his team work with companies such as Vistaprint, Localytics, Zipcar, Johnson & Johnson, Citrix, and Huawei, providing coaching, mentoring, and tools such as Awesomeness, a solution for measurably enhancing team effectiveness.
Steve Blank said about Bruce’s new book, Product Roadmapping Relaunched: How to Set Direction While Embracing Uncertainty, “It’s about time someone brought product roadmapping out of the dark ages of waterfall development and made it into the strategic communications tool it should be. McCarthy and team have cracked the code.”