Road Maps: Involving Business in the Journey


The first time I wanted to socialize a product road map within the business (a software start up with under 50 employees) I scratched for information on best practice or recommended approaches. I wanted to communicate the right stuff to the right people. As such, this post is a practical piece on exactly that: how I’ve shared a road map internally, and why. Of course, my approach won’t make sense without my view on the purpose of a road map, so here goes.

You’ll find product managers at both extremes. On the one end, some don’t have or communicate a road map at all, and their attention is upon the next few sprints only. The product team, unhindered by accountability, is a lucky packet and most releases are a surprise for almost everyone, but without the balloons. The lack of mid and long term vision usually results in the team being flung about in different directions, typically when unmanageable customers make product demands, or as executives change the direction of the business based upon the latest book/conference/knock to the head.

On the other end there are the product teams which have a (very) long term road map set in stone. There’s no flexibility, no opportunity for discussion, no forum to contemplate market demands or customer feedback. In this scenario you need a project manager and not a product manager. Hopefully somebody had a functional time machine at the planning phase because they would have needed unequivocal insight into the future.

My position is happily nestled in the middle somewhere. Firstly, a road map is absolutely necessary, but it represents a plan and not a commitment. It indicates vision, direction and priority. There’s a high degree of certainty and detail around the work which is currently in progress, including dates and features, and these should be communicated with confidence. The team needs laser focus and absolute inflexibility with regard to the short term work. There’s room to discuss longer term plans as they haven’t been fully designed yet. In terms of the mid and long term plan, avoid dates as far as possible. They’re usually a well-informed guess. If there’s a gun to your head, talk in quarters and insert disclaimers because nimble firms should be re-prioritizing periodically. I’ve found that too much detail is unhelpful for the business: people get distracted and fixate on the wrong things, or things that could change. Communicate vision, benefits and thought leadership. If that unmanageable client is demanding long term detail then they need to be managed better.

Involve people in the journey and they’ll appreciate the destination more

I strongly advocate a shared and constantly visible road map. It’s your opportunity to display vision and thought leadership to business rather than being covert and safe. It allows your account managers and sales executives to sell futures as they interact with customers and prospects. It’ll also help you navigate conversations with business around direction and requests. Additionally, it’s a conspicuous compass for the product team.

Some ideas on sharing your road map internally:

  • Email a deck to the business and provide a link to a shared folder on your network. Keep the contents updated and relevant. There are also various software applications that can be used to achieve this.
  • Present it to all staff, communicating benefits, vision and thought leadership.
  • Importantly, make it Visible. I’ve sketched our road map on a whiteboard in our team area which benefits from a lot of traffic. I now have many conversations while pointing at a colored stripe. Get some stationary and make it colorful. Different colors to show groupings and associations. A sticky next to each to provide brief details on benefits to the casual reader. Round stickies to indicate phases for each item: green if it’s in design, yellow for dev, and so on. The more stickies on an item, the more advanced and closer to roll out the feature is. It’s a good indicator of progress and activity, and usually answers peoples’ questions before they ask. “I see you guys are testing Nanotech Lite now. Great. Exciting.”

Provided the work went into the creation of the road map (which I haven’t gone into here) and it’s achievable, there’s nothing stopping you from making this view available. It’s a staff information board.

Back to the time machine: for kicks, I added a flux capacitor to the visual product road map (phase 1 in August, and phase 2 finishing last year), as an Easter egg. It didn’t take very long at all for someone outside the product team to spot it 😉

I’m keen to hear if there’s anything else which has worked for you?

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