Product roadmaps are safe

Over on the 37signals blog they just reposted an old article entitled Product roadmaps are dangerous. Jason Fried says the following:

Instead of the roadmap, just look out a few weeks at a time. Work on the next most important thing. What’s the point of a long list when you can’t work on everything at once anyway? Finish what’s important now and then figure out what’s important next. One step at a time.

It’s hard to disagree with a person (and a company) you have great admiration for, as I do for Jason and 37signals. But I do think it’s important to set the record straight on product roadmaps – particularly when it comes to large organizations. The post highlights two main concerns with product roadmaps:

  • Product roadmaps assume you know what’s going to happen 6 – 18 months from now
  • Product roadmaps set expectations, so you can’t change them (and if you do change them it becomes a worthless exercise)

So let’s look at each of these points in turn.

Product roadmaps assume you know the future

Jason writes:

When you let a product roadmap guide you you let the past drive the future. You’re saying “6 months ago I knew what 18 months from now would look like.” You’re saying “I’m not going to pay attention to now, I’m going to pay attention to then.” You’re saying “I should be working at the Psychic Friends Network.”

This is not what a product roadmap is, or what it’s supposed to do. The purpose of a product roadmap is to set forth a long-term vision for the business, and break that up into smaller, meaningful pieces of work, based on what you know now. It’s fallacy to believe that this is an unchangeable list of dates about where the business is headed. A product roadmap that doesn’t react to day-to-day changes in the market and within the company is a pretty dumb document.

At my organization we are very clear that the product roadmap is a flexible guideline that can (and must) change frequently as needed. But it gives the teams (and the management team) something to work towards. It’s a common vision, a sense of direction that’s more than just fluffy language – it’s concrete evidence that we’re headed somewhere good, and we know how to get there.

We can change direction as many times as we want. This doesn’t make it a useless exercise, it means that instead of starting fresh on a new “roadmap” every few weeks, you build on your past successes, don’t make the same mistakes twice, and keep making measurable progress since you can see where you came from.

Product roadmaps set the wrong expectations

Elsewhere in the post:

The other problem with roadmaps is the expectations game. People expect you to deliver what you say you will in 4, 5, 6 months. And what if you have a better idea? What if ther’s a shift in the market that you need to address? What if what you thought wasn’t what actually happened? Any change in the roadmap nullifies the roadmap. Then the map isn’t a map at all.

If you have this problem it doesn’t mean that product roadmaps are wrong, it means that you’re doing it wrong. As long as everyone in the organization buys into the fluid nature of the roadmap, you won’t have this problem. In our organization we do this mainly through the mechanism of what we call the Product Council (I was partial to Intergalactic Product Force, but for some reason that didn’t fly so well). Here’s how it works.

The Product Council is made up of the heads (VPs) of every department in the organization: Engineering, Marketing, Support, Category, etc. This body has a weekly meeting where we discuss the current product roadmap and priorities. We ask ourselves, Are we still working on the most important things? If something more important comes up, we prioritize it higher in the roadmap, and something else shifts down. If we’re happy with the direction, we do nothing. If a new opportunity arises we ask ourselves, Is this more important than what we’re working on right now? Or is this something we should work on next? If so, what moves down in the priority list?

From here, I communicate with my Product Team about any changes, and we discuss this to make sure no one missed anything. But then – and this is important – the Product Manager has complete autonomy and ownership over the implementation of the roadmap. The Product Council sets the priorities (with input from all parts of the organization), but the Product Managers work with their development teams (and others) to set the timeline, the implementation details, the design, everything.

There’s more to it, but in the interest of brevity I’ll stop there. This process has three main advantages:

  • It gives the management team complete transparency into what the Product team is working on, and it allows for anyone to make the case for a change in priorities. Why this kind of transparency is so essential is a subject for a different blog post, but in short, it takes away a vast majority of the politics you see in many organizations, and it frees up the teams to do what they do best – execute.
  • It prevents scope creep. Nothing can go on the roadmap without something else moving out or down. As anyone who ever worked at a large organization knows, this is an absolutely critical part of a successful development cycle.
  • It gives the Product Manager and their teams what they need to be successful: direction and autonomy. As Jocelyn Glei says: “Give your team members what they need to thrive, and then get out of the way.”

Why product roadmaps are safe (and essential)

At a practical level I went through the exercise of figuring out how we could execute in my organization without a roadmap. And I just can’t see it. Changes to current pages/flows affect changes we’ll make down the line – I have to think about that.

If you’re serious about frequent incremental change as opposed to large redesign projects (as we are), you can’t live without a roadmap because you’ll have no idea how far you’ve gone, what you still need to do, and what’s more important than something else. And perhaps most dangerous of all, everyone in the organization will come to you and want all their projects done right now, and you’ll have no systemic method for dealing with that in a way that’s best for the business.

Andy Wagner summed up my feelings on this issue quite succinctly in a comment on the 37signals post:

[Product roadmaps are] an opportunity to dream about what the future might look like so that as you make your day-to-day responses to the customer, you can do so consistent with building the future state. It emphatically should not be anything to be slave to, it should be dynamic and notional, not static and specific.

Jason says, “The further you get from now, the less you know. And the less you know, the worse your decisions will be.” We agree on that. My argument is that without a roadmap you only see now. And if you only see now without seeing yesterday and tomorrow, you don’t see a whole lot. And “the less you know, the worse your decisions will be”.