It’s safe to say that product roadmaps are a divisive topic. We’ve seen them in every shape and size and heard them dissected at length. But over the past few years, a growing number of product teams have started embracing the “now, next, later” roadmap format.
And in fact, the “now, next, later” roadmap style has been a giant step forward in unmasking release plans masquerading as roadmaps. The key principles of this roadmap structure are that product teams should:
- Avoid sharing delivery dates of any kind
- Only offer exact details around the “now” items
- Avoid discussion on details of “later” items by providing only very high-level information
But with all that said, we have to ask ourselves: Have we actually solved the main problem? As a product-led organization, is this type of roadmap truly serving us?
The role of the roadmap
The main Job to be Done (JTBD) of a product roadmap is to communicate priorities and align all who see it on the product’s direction over time. But as with all things, time brings change.
One of the biggest problems product teams face when it comes to roadmaps is the natural negative human response to change. In my own experience, no matter how many caveats you add to a roadmap around its ever-changing state, your audience will interpret its content as a clear commitment. In our current uncertain and volatile economic times, executives are seeking stability more than ever. And our commercial teams are looking to reassure prospects and existing customers that the features they want are coming.
After having spent time in multiple organizations that use the “now, next, later” style, I’ve come to the conclusion that this very format still leaves product teams open to some of the roadmap pitfalls of the past. Previous roadmap types all shared a common trait: outright commitment or the perception of commitment. That could take the form of granular delivery dates or the lack of obvious signposting of “THIS IS NOT A COMMITMENT.”
In the case of the “now, next, later” format. I believe that the very choice of words creates an implied level of certainty. Just take a moment and speak each out loud. They feel pretty certain in isolation, don’t they?
We must remember that product people will not always be in the room when someone looks at a roadmap. And not everyone has had the “roadmaps can change” message drummed into them by hoards of irate product managers! Besides, if your product team had to be in the room every time the roadmap was reviewed, it would be quite hard to keep your organization constantly aligned, wouldn’t it?
So, is there another option? Absolutely. There are literally thousands. But here is one I’ve found especially useful.
The “Yes, Potentially, Let’s Talk About It” roadmap format
I argued above that it is the choice of words in “now, next, later” that leaves the door open for problems. So, let’s change those words. This is a framework I have used and previously discussed in a few talks that I feel lives up to the JTBD of a product roadmap in a non-committal and open-for-input way. Below, I’ll break it down.
Much like “now,” “yes” is the commitment. It means we are actively working on this item, whether it’s a feature, a theme, or a problem. This is where your team’s immediate focus is, and it is safe to communicate the details with a higher degree of certainty.
Here is where the uncertain nature of anything other than what is being looked at right now comes into play. Unlike “next,” which still has an air of certainty around it, “potentially” leaves the door very much open to change (“we may look at this“). These roadmap items fit with our general direction, but there is more to learn and/or do before we commit.
Let’s talk about it
This is the curveball. Most items traditionally placed in the “later” bucket are high-level concepts. These are those items that would potentially “be cool” or are “things we are putting way off.” Why can’t we be selfish with our most distant and out-there ideas? Open your doors, product teams. Let your audience help you. Getting feedback is a crucial part of the job. Encouraging this in a way that allows widespread input on the future of your product could ensure your audience is constantly engaged. And if people genuinely do want to talk to you about this, well … potentially?
This use of language and phrase is specifically pointed at addressing the problems of interpretation and attempts to effectively communicate that nothing is carved in stone. With a few tweaks, this could also be applied to the “now, next, later” format. How about:
- Now, could be Next, let’s look into this Later
- Now, Next to review, save for Later
- Right Here Right Now, On To The Next One, Sooner or Later (you have no idea how hard it was to find song titles that fit this)
Every organization is different. Your product team may or may not need to manage perceived roadmap commitments. And for those with a high level of commitment, a project plan may do just fine. But if you are looking for a flexible, open-to-feedback, and change-friendly way to share your thoughts on how your product(s) may change over time, this may be a path to choose.
About the Author
Dan is the senior product manager for Voice of the Customer products at Pendo.io. Previously a head of product and UX, Dan is no stranger to navigating the need for commitment from the executive or customer level.