Development projects fail at an alarming rate. Numerous studies over the years have shown that somewhere between 40–60% of projects fail in some way. They are either over budget, are not used by the intended audience, aren’t maintained after the initial build, or the organization’s strategy has changed since the build was completed. These challenges seem to be endemic regardless of the type of business you are in or the sort of project your team is undertaking.
With so many project challenges, it is vital that project leaders use all the tools available to mitigate these risks. One of the best tools to do this is a product roadmap. Creating and maintaining a product roadmap charts the course for a product’s continued growth through time. Much like an actual roadmap, it is a visual representation of how you plan to move from where the product is now to your desired future state. This type of planning and forethought helps with adoption and buy-in from leadership and communicates the state of the project to all of its stakeholders.
What Makes a Good Product Roadmap?
It provides the ‘why’ for the product priorities.
A good roadmap will not only include a list of new features, but it will also tie that list of features back to the product’s goals and ultimately to the company’s key objectives. We have all experienced prioritization exercises that become heated because one team or another has received more attention from the development team’s limited resources lately. A consistent reminder of why new features are being prioritized can diffuse politically charged discussions. A roadmap shows all stakeholders that decisions are being made for the good of the product, not based on favoritism or political power.
It plots a product’s future efforts against the time needed to make those plans a reality.
In short, it answers the refrain of children on long car rides: “How much longer?” Development teams often struggle with many competing priorities. A clear timeline allows each stakeholder to have an idea of when their needs for the product will be met. Large design system roadmaps, like Salesforce’s Lightning Experience, do this particularly well and even share their roadmap publicly.
It is visible to all stakeholders.
All parties should know where the development team is headed next and how that ties back to the product’s main goals. This creates a more equitable environment for stakeholders to propose revisions and provide feedback surrounding the upcoming efforts. In our work with Aperian Global, creating a roadmap that was visible to stakeholders within the organization helped the product team clearly communicate with their sales and customer relations teams and helped set expectations for when new features would be delivered. This has allowed the product team to proactively focus on features identified in the roadmap rather than react to requests.
It is regularly updated.
Various experts recommend updating your roadmap every major feature release or on a regular 3–6 month cadence. Regular updates force stakeholders to continually consider which enhancement will provide the most business value next. Much like a product backlog, product roadmaps are the most specific and defined in the near-term with longer-term priorities becoming less detailed the further out they are planned. This allows for changes as you learn more and as organizational goals shift over time. Regularly updating the roadmap has the added benefit of preventing the product from sliding into the status of a side project or getting lost in the flurry of new and exciting initiatives. This is exactly where we found a large retail company when we began working with them on their design system. They had an out-of-date product charter and beginning roadmap that had gotten lost in the shuffle as team members changed and competing priorities crept in. Our top priority was to update these documents, inventory the work that had been completed, and then update the roadmap to reflect new priorities. As a result, this same team now always has a pulse on the current state of the design system, has a vision for the future of their product, and regularly revisits their roadmap priorities to make changes as new needs arise.
If your project is struggling due to lack of vision, ownership, or consensus, it may be time to consider a product roadmap. A great way to start creating a roadmap is by doing Discovery to help the team define clear product objectives and success measurements. From there, you’ll have a vision that you’ll be able to easily socialize among your leaders and stakeholders, and you’ll have the map to keep you on track as you continue.