SaaS Product Roadmaps: Achieving Your Product Vision

by Paul Ressler –

Everything is progressing well with your SaaS product; you have your product vision and you have product market fit. What are the next steps to achieve success for your SaaS product? One important next step is a product roadmap. Product roadmaps, done well, can be a great tool to help advance the business to the next stage.

However, product roadmaps often aren’t well executed. One of the more dysfunctional product roadmaps and roadmap processes that I’ve observed was in a company where the product was being converted to a SaaS product from an on-premise product. The roadmap was just a list of requested features for the on-premise product, the software development engineers didn’t follow the roadmap and there was no way to provide internal input into the roadmap for SaaS on-boarding and operations. As a result, the roadmap was not used much except as a feature checklist by the product manager.

With another SaaS product I was involved with, the roadmap was based on the company’s strategy, it was not overly detailed, was organized by quarter, and was updated regularly by a team including the product manager, business development, software development, support and implementation services. It was a useful tool to guide priorities, lead discussions and everyone understood why various features were on the roadmap. Updating the roadmap was viewed as a useful activity to align the cross functional group and was used regularly.

How can your SaaS business achieve the success of the second example?

To have the success of the second example you can start by recognizing the importance of product roadmaps and prioritizing their development and the ongoing updating process. Product roadmaps are important for SaaS products for all the reasons they are important for all products, but cross functional alignment and regular updating are especially important. With a good roadmap process product roadmaps can:

  • Show how product plans fit into the overall company strategy — This was lacking in the first example.
  • Align the organization around the product plans. – Organizational alignment was not happening as part of the first example and major parts of the business were not provided an opportunity for input.
  • Provide a consistent plan for internal discussion and prioritization. — Although there was a consistent plan in the first example the lack of strategic and organizational alignment meant that it was often ignored and when it wasn’t ignored it was the catalyst for disagreements.
  • Help with communication and discussion of product plans with customers. — In the first example a whole class of customers, SaaS customers, were not included in the roadmap discussions.

In the second example all the above items were addressed as part of the process with substantially better results. There also was a good and relatively simple framework for the product roadmap and roadmap process and everyone knew how the roadmap was updated and changed.

How can your SaaS business effectively make changes to your product roadmap process?

One method that I have seen be successful in providing both the grass roots momentum and the leadership momentum for change is the shared reading and discussion of books, or other substantive resources, which outline the benefits, implementation steps and challenges of the change. Because of the cross functional nature of a SaaS business, customer success and software development staff are good groups to include in the discussion since they are primary users of the roadmap and often suffer the most from ineffective roadmaps. Sharing the experience of learning about change and new methods is an excellent way to get all affected groups aligned and to get energy behind making the changes.

Many of the resources on product roadmaps are generalized for a variety of products. However, one of the reasons that I like the recently published book, Product Roadmaps Relaunched: How to Set Direction while Embracing Uncertainty written by C. Todd Lombardo, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan and Michael Connors is because most of the focus is on SaaS and software so the framework proposed and the examples are very applicable. For example, it includes specifics about how to tie the roadmap process to the Agile development process, commonly used in SaaS businesses. There are other good roadmap resources, but this is one that I think Is particularly useful for SaaS businesses.

Conclusion

If your SaaS business has a product roadmap that is just a list of prioritized features, you’re not achieving your roadmap objectives, the roadmap is always out of date and/or the roadmap dates have no relationship to reality, then it’s time to re-evaluate your roadmap process. I would strongly recommend using a structured framework for your product roadmaps that includes tying the roadmap to the strategic business goals, provides a way to communicate with customers about the roadmap, is regularly updated and helps with internal alignment.

Paul Ressler is the Principal of The Cirrostratus Group. The Cirrostratus Group helps SaaS and Cloud providers plan, implement and optimize their services.

Twitter: twitter.com/PaulRessler

Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/paulressler/

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