Perspectives

How to Maintain a Coherent Product Roadmap

Imagine you’re going about your day when an executive at your company approaches you: “Hey! I have a great idea for the product and we absolutely have to do something with it!”

Most product people know where this is going because these kind of requests from stakeholders are a fact of life for us. Often this story ends in one of two ways:

  • Ending 1: The well-planned and researched product roadmap gets swapped around to incorporate this request; or,
  • Ending 2: The request devolves into a heated, emotional conversation, which leaves both parties feeling frustrated and misunderstood.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

At ProductPlan, our executive team has plenty of great ideas, and I encourage them to share them. When they do, I’m able to say “Yep! That’s an awesome idea! Not a priority right now, but we’ll come back to it!” And that is that. No frantic reprioritization of the roadmap. No frustrating debates about shiny object features.

It’s not the result of magic, emotional intelligence, respect, empathy etc. We’re on the same page across the organization because we’ve spent time establishing a unified agreement on what matters most now. We’ve invested ourselves into ensuring everyone agrees on what the most important objectives or initiatives for the business are for a specific time frame, and that they understand how the roadmap has been designed to best move those initiatives forward.

In my experience, the best way to accomplish this is to establish an objective/metric driven framework for product strategy. To me this means establishing a repeatable, communicable process for very clearly tying product strategy to business strategy, and clearly defining the associated metrics that will indicate success BEFORE creating your product roadmap.

How to Apply a Metric-Driven Approach to Product Strategy

Step 1: Establish Measurable Big Picture Objectives

If you don’t know where you are going how do you intend to get there? Objectives should always come before strategy.

It doesn’t matter if you’re starting with goals in the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) format, or a list of a few key performance indicators (KPIs), or a completely unique format. What does matter is that you have measurable quantitative objectives as your starting point. And that these objectives are defined clearly and without ambiguity.

These objectives should come from the top; they’re the things the executive team cares about most. They’re your organization’s “north star,” a guiding light telling everyone where to go. To be truly effective in this approach, you need transparency across the organization into what these objectives are and why they matter.

Finally, it’s ok if your key objectives evolve over time, in fact it would be troubling if they didn’t. Business needs change over time, and objectives need to reflect the needs of the business today, not yesterday. Otherwise, they are not actionable right now.

Step 2: Define the Role of Product In Driving Objectives

Only after you have alignment on clear high-level objectives should you start thinking about specific product initiatives, and designing experiments around these ideas.

Let’s say a product manager is focused on a specific KPI of enterprise growth. They can then identify two or three key feature sets that they think will resonate with the enterprise market. Maybe these include enterprise security features and some administrative features tailored toward larger organizations.

With these feature sets in mind, the product manager can define the tactical metrics they will use to measure success and some experiments to validate whether these initiatives will move the needle in the way they predict.

For our example, here are a few experiments that the product manager may consider:

Experiment: Offering a beta of new enterprise features

Tactical measurement: What percentage of current enterprise customers are interested?

Experiment: Create a “coming soon” landing page

Tactical measurement(s): Traffic and conversions give us a way to gauge interest outside of existing customer base.

These experiments help reduce uncertainty around whether the strategy will have the intended results, and therefore reduce the risk associated with further pursuing it.

Step 3: Measure, Learn, Repeat

Experimentation never ends. Even after you’ve validated a feature set, pushed it through the development process, and seen usage among the current customer base and new customers, there are still things to be learned.

Even if your experiments don’t deliver the results you predicted, they still hold value. So-called “failed experiments” — those that produce unexpected results– are just as valuable as successful ones, but only if you take the time to explore the why and use your findings to inform your next set of experiments. Missed metrics are an indication that it’s time to adjust, not necessarily time to start over.

Don’t Overdo It

We hear the phrase “data-driven product management” thrown around quite a bit. It’s important to remember to apply common sense too; there is quite a big difference between being “data informed” and “data dictated.”

There is no questioning the value of data as a tool for product people. But too often we forget to step back and see the bigger picture. Every metric out there can be influenced by multiple factors, many of which are completely out of our control. Unlike the way a UX team may be able to test hypotheses with user testing, we aren’t running lab experiments in product management, and as such we must consciously acknowledge that our data doesn’t always tell the whole story.

This is why product people need to be able to adapt, adjust, and communicate with data as supporting material, but not as the only material.

A Plan To Avoid Shiny Objects

No matter what is in your job description, all successful product managers have to consistently validate that they are delivering meaningful, usable products while building consensus and excitement among internal teams. The fact of the matter is, you simply can’t be successful as a product person if you’re doing these things ad hoc.

We’re all aware that lack of focus around product strategy can lead to chaos that extends well beyond the product roadmap. Product people need alignment with the broader goals of their organization as to what their objectives are. This is why I believe it is mandatory to establish a unified agreement on high level objectives before you even think about creating a product roadmap.

Tangible metrics take the emotion out of these discussions while building trust and respect for the decision-making process. These same metrics are also instrumental in preventing your well-researched, thoughtful product roadmap from getting derailed by HiPPOs (highest paid person’s opinion), rogue sales executives, and “shiny objects.”

About the Author

Annie Dunham is the Director of Product Management at ProductPlan. She has worked with product and engineering teams for the last 15 years to bring technology products to market. Prior to ProductPlan, she worked with teams at Elite Meetings, LogicMonitor, BlueCasa Communications and Microsoft. When she’s not pursuing customer insights or researching the latest on PM methodologies she can be found enjoying herself on a kite or snowboard.