“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” More than 150 years later, this quote from Abraham Lincoln is still a great reminder of the value of preparation.

Whether building a product or architecting another solution to support your company’s digital evolution, the success and adoption of it hinge on the roadmap. But how do you build an effective roadmap? It starts with the idea of “big listening.” In this case, listening is akin to sharpening the saw. It allows you to see the full picture before architecting a foundation built upon preconceived (and potentially incorrect) notions.

However, you have to be able to go in with an empty cup, or what author Patrick Lencioni refers to ask “getting naked.” 

Now do I have your attention? Then read on to learn why product management success lies in coming to the table with an open mind, ready to listen. I’ll walk you through how to bring an empty cup to a project’s inception, and the crucial components of thoughtfully fashioning a roadmap built for the long haul.

Embracing big listening

Building a fireproof roadmap starts with coming into the project with an open mind. Before prioritizing features and implementing rollouts based on a set of initial pain points, seek first to understand. This prepares you to assess the full picture before framing a foundation based on assumptions. 

It’s not always easy. Big listening requires some vulnerability. Particularly in tech, it’s alluring to go in with a “greenfield” mentality, where we assume we’re building anew in uncharted territory. Not taking into account what’s already in place, what’s been done, or what’s on the horizon can put you in dangerous territory.

In fact, Pragmatic Institute has a favorite saying: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” So before planning a feature rollout based upon a siloed take on the situation, gain the perspective of all the stakeholders this particular project or product will touch, from C-suite executives to IT to customers. 

When a roadmap is built upon unvalidated assumptions or preconceived solutions, it creates several risks:

  • Solving the wrong problem altogether. This can produce a ripple effect through the organization, in some cases hindering business growth. 
  • Jeopardizing a successful rollout or implementation –– internally, externally, or both. When stakeholders are involved in the mapping and building process, it does two things: supports the build of something that will truly meet their needs and ensures buy-in early on. 
  • Overlooking key opportunities. When the discovery process is surface level, it’s easy to miss opportunities for expansion or ways to deliver a product or service in a new way.

Getting started

Assuming you’ve bought into the concept of big listening, how do you implement it? First, it requires shedding the fear of not knowing it all. And second, it means you have to talk to the right people, ask the right questions, and understand the constraints. 

Include all stakeholders early in the process

Whether you’re working on an internal rebuild or a customer-facing project, it’s critical to get the right people in the room from day one. Don’t limit this to leadership or individual departments like IT or product. Include all stakeholders, particularly those whom this technology, system, or product will impact.

If your project is external or customer-facing, of course, you want to listen to your customers. But don’t overlook the gold that lies internally. Today’s most successful companies have come to realize that good CX is a direct reflection of good EX (employee experience).

Grasp the overall pain points, vision, and current constraints

Understanding the overall business goals, long-term vision, and the challenges that have sparked the need in the first place, is foundational to a successful roadmap. At MST Solutions, we follow a simple “to be” and “as is” approach:

  • To be: Where does the team want to be? This is the ideal state of the product or platform.
  • As is: What is the current state of the company, team, or product?

We then look at the optimal way to get to the “to be” state. As part of the “as is” assessment, we look at the existing enterprise systems landscape to understand what needs to be kept, maintained, or sunset. 

We strongly believe system architecture should support business needs. You’ve likely heard that “people, process, and technology” are the keys to success for enterprise initiatives –– a concept that’s simple to understand, but hard to realize unless there is an architecture of best practices, alignment, vision, standards, and transparency.

Ask the right questions to get the best answers

We’ve all heard the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out,” and it couldn’t be more relevant to developing a sound roadmap. Your plan will only be as good as the data or inputs you use to inform it. So make sure your team is asking the right questions, such as:

  • What’s the overall business vision? What transformation does your client or team want to achieve?
  • What metrics will you or the client be using to determine success? Is there a baseline for those metrics? 
  • What constraints exist? Don’t forget to consider the “sacred cows,” or any elements that absolutely can’t be changed.
  • How will company culture impact this project? Are they open to change or are they more conservative?
  • What’s the budget and who are the key owners of specific line items?
  • What dependencies do you have for the successful execution of the roadmap?

Taking the time to do it right

If all of this sounds time-consuming, that’s because it is. But this process cannot be rushed. It can take anywhere from two weeks to two months depending on the size of the project. But the time spent now will save you in the long-term. 

As you begin to build out the roadmap and take the information from the various inputs into account, be sure to address not just the technical buildout, but also how this project will deliver impact to the business. This is where the rubber meets the road on all that time spent with your stakeholders. Use the roadmap to demonstrate what this buildout will mean to them and how it will drive business outcomes. 

With the long-term roadmap in place, break it into smaller actionable pieces set to clear timelines. Before putting it into action, however, share this vision with your stakeholders to validate and finalize it. Continue to keep those stakeholders engaged throughout the entire process. Transparency is critical. The goal is to maintain visibility, avoid silos, and ensure team buy-in by creating continuous feedback loops.

Dale Carnegie once said, “An hour of planning can save you ten hours of doing.” For us, an hour of deep listening has saved us not just hours of doing, but also the lost hours that can come from venturing down the wrong path. Spending the time to develop effective roadmaps has been key to our success and building customer loyalty. 

About the Author

Srikanth Balusani is the chief technology officer of MST Solutions. He has nearly 20 years of experience across the B2B, aviation, higher education, financial services, and public sectors, spanning roles from software developer to senior executive.