At their best, product roadmaps provide a visual representation of a company’s strategy and align engineering, marketing, sales, support, and the C-suite around a shared document. In addition, the optimal product roadmap inspires innovation by revealing your product’s strongest differentiators. It can also improve execution by helping your team formulate platform and derivative strategies and plan how they should unfold over time. Done right, product roadmaps serve as a reference point for decisions around technology requirements, resource allocation, product positioning, and more.

However, roadmaps can also be a source of contention. Teams might disagree on feature prioritization, release dates, and timelines. Luckily, these challenges can be mitigated. Below, I’ll share some suggestions for getting the most out of product roadmaps and keeping your organization on the same page when it comes to product strategy.

Remember that product roadmaps are not for you

Product managers who get the most out of roadmaps realize that these documents are not for them, but for the full-stack team. Roadmaps should serve internal teams (chiefly engineering and sales/CS), not just the product org.

Product reaps the greatest benefits from roadmaps when PMs understand the needs of these internal customers and build the roadmap that will help them thrive. The best product roadmaps are those that enable coordination across functions and teams, enabling these organizations to do their jobs better. When the entire team supports a vision and a strategy, that makes product managers succeed in turn.

You can create more than one product roadmap

Helping these internal customers succeed often means making more than one roadmap. In fact, you should tailor these roadmaps to the particular needs of each stakeholder group. For example, the product roadmap for engineering should include timing, features, and dependencies. Your skill at translating and understanding customer solutions informs how you develop roadmaps designed for each stakeholder.

Your customer-facing functions, like sales, need only know what the MVP is, the primary benefits of future products, and when the next release is coming. Other teams might need to know nothing more than critical dependencies.

The priority order of your tailored product roadmaps is as follows:

  • Engineering
  • Sales/customer success
  • Other relevant teams
  • Senior management

Be cautious when sharing product roadmaps outside of the company

We usually recommend that you do not communicate product roadmaps outside of the company. Instead, use them to align various internal stakeholders around your product strategy. If you do communicate product roadmaps to outside parties, make sure the discussion is covered under an NDA. Also, be very careful not to promise specific dates without confirmation from the development team.

In some cases, external customers might see a version of a product roadmap. However, make sure your customer-facing people are not making commitments they can’t keep or leaking competitive information.

There’s no need to make them pretty

Too much information, even if it’s beautifully formatted, is often more of a bother than a help. Remember that your job is to understand your internal customers and deliver a product that will respond to their pain without adding to it.

One version of your product roadmap might be a prettier picture for upper management. Such product roadmaps are best if they keep to high-level developments. In general, PMs spend far too much time making product roadmaps look good, especially if the roadmaps are intended for senior managers. But these roadmaps should be the lowest priority.

Optimize all product roadmaps by keeping them simple and delivering only the information that each stakeholder requires.

Don’t put too much focus on competitors

In general, you do need to anticipate what your competitors will have to offer when you are ready to launch your next product or feature. However, you don’t want to build a roadmap that is too focused on the competition. It’s much more useful to support your vision and unique selling proposition than to try to guess every competitive maneuver. Product roadmaps are chiefly about getting all stakeholders firing on all cylinders and heading in the same direction.

Avoid working at cross-purposes

Unfortunately, rather than coordinating efforts and communicating a shared strategy, product roadmaps often set different stakeholders at cross-purposes. For example, the sales team might use the roadmap to close a deal without confirming that a key feature will be available on time. Or a PM might use the roadmap to assure the CEO that they plan to support her vision, even though engineering has not verified that statement. This totally misses the point of a well-executed product roadmap, which is to align stakeholders around a single vision and provide crucial, actionable guidance to diverse stakeholders.

Product roadmaps done right

To summarize, product managers who get the most out of roadmaps avoid the following pitfalls:

  • Thinking the product roadmap is for the product organization
  • Creating one product roadmap, rather than tailored maps for each stakeholder
  • Sharing roadmaps with external parties without due risk management
  • Spending too much time creating pretty roadmaps for upper management consumption
  • Building roadmaps that focus too much on competitors
  • Creating product roadmaps that put different teams at cross-purposes rather than aligning all parties

In doing so, these product teams develop roadmaps that truly enable organizational success and innovation. As a result, they end up creating products that are powerfully differentiated in the marketplace.

The most effective product roadmaps provide a coherent strategic context for engineers, researchers, and other creative individuals to develop concepts that support, complement, and extend the strategic intent of the roadmap. Finally, the best product roadmaps communicate, where necessary, the international launch strategy so that the organization plans the timing for entry into different markets, anticipating regulatory needs, language, communication symbols, and standards as required.

When your product roadmaps support product strategy and execution in these ways, you know the product organization has ensured that all stakeholders are genuinely headed in the same direction — toward a stream of new products that truly delight and satisfy users.

About the Author

John Carter is a widely respected advisor to technology firms and the author of Innovate Products Faster: Graphical Tools for Accelerating Product Development. He is the founder and principal of TCGen, Inc., and has advised some of the most revered technology firms in the world, including Apple, Amazon, Cisco, HP, IBM, and Roche.