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Posted by Tom Grant on June 14, 2010
There's a great post about dysfunctional product roadmaps at Product Beautiful. I'll add a couple of other types to the list:
Whatever the species of dysfunctional roadmap, they're all counterproductive. As Product Beautiful says, the core problem is an unwillingness or ineptitude at telling people what they don't want to hear: "Depending on the political dynamics of your organization, it can be hard to push back on stakeholders who aren’t used to hearing 'no,' even for the right reasons."
Unfortunately, you do have to say no, quite frequently. Plus, you're not the only person who has to say no. Salespeople have to manage expectations. Support needs to give sensible answers about plans to fix, add, or simplify functionality. And so on.
Most importantly, you have to make it clear what business you're in, and by extension, not in. I have a lot of respect for companies who are willing to say, "No, that's not what we do," instead of, "Well, maybe, if the money's right." For example, salesforce.com doesn't create vertical versions of its products. The money might be extremely attractive, but salesforce.com understands the larger cost of diluting its value proposition and its ability to deliver. Better to stay on track with the roadmap that they have, instead of forking it several times.
Admittedly, it's hard to say no, especially given the twists and turns of fate. Who knows how things will turn out? The uncertainty of the future aside, lack of total foresight is not a justification for creating a useless or misleading roadmap. In fact, your customers and partners will be happy if you're honest about the elements of the roadmap you can't predict, as long as you're clear about the general direction in which you're headed.
From the customer's or partner's perspective, the roadmap is important for two reasons:
To address both priorities, you don't need to promise too many specifics. You need the aspirational roadmap that describes where, over the course of the next couple of years, the company is headed, and how its product and service portfolio fits into that vision. You also need a somewhat more specific roadmap that gives a greater level of detail about releases, but not too much detail. The goal of the release is the crucial element, since it makes sense of the projects that are included, as well as the ones that are excluded (or may be cut). And, of course, there's the very short-term roadmap, describing what you're working on now, and how you're implementing these projects.
Imagine that your company is part of your circle of friends. Pick one of those individuals, and you know what type of friend someone is, from close confidante to passing acquaintance. You also know generally what you can count on them to do, such as the friend who's always a good person to include in weekend plans. Finally, there are the specific events scheduled for the near future, such as the skiing trip next weekend. Obviously, whenever you make plans like these, you're going to invite the stalwart friend who only cancels at the last minute when there's a damn good reason, over the flaky friend who always says yes, but shows up only half the time.
Now, imagine what customers want from you, when the stakes are a lot higher than canceling one of the room reservations at a ski lodge. Keep that image in mind for the next time you revisit the roadmap. Segment it into the different levels of specificity, and be honest about what you don't know, or don't plan on doing.
[Ultimately, we're talking about the roadmap as an offshoot of the company's portfolio: What business are we in? How will we deliver value in that market, now and in the future? But that's a big, big topic for a later post.]
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