Death to the Roadmap

An obsession with the creation and maintenance of a product roadmap is one of the best ways to stop focusing on your customer. It is a meaningless exercise that adds little or no value to a product organisation.

It’s the purpose not the Destination

Years ago, when I was in my late teens, my friend and I embarked on a journey around Europe. We were hungry to learn about all the funky countries on our doorstep and had little of no knowledge of any of them. Our passion and mission was to have fun exploring.

We used a ticket called ‘Inter-rail’, which for £100, gave us unlimited travel by train all around Europe for 1 month. So off we went. Once we had arrived at a destination and had enjoyed it, we then decided where to go next.

Where we went next depended upon what kind of weather we wanted, how cultured we felt, how tired we were (you could sleep on an overnight journey and not need to pay for a hotel) and what time the next train was.

Depending upon those parameters we would write the destination into our ticket and board the train. The result, a deeply enjoyable journey that rewarded us with experiences for a lifetime.

We reacted on a day-by-day basis and kept true to our original mission to explore, learn and have fun.  If we had planned every step day by day beforehand we would not have enjoyed or learned a fraction of what we did.

We would have been anxious to keep on mission especially if unexpected delays happened (i.e. train was late). Even getting ourselves to railway stations at the right time would have obsessed us, it would have changed our dynamic. In short we would quickly have lost sight of why we were travelling at all.

I think this is analogous of what a lot of businesses do when they religiously build a product roadmap and try to stick to it (or at least pretend to).

What’s wrong with a Roadmap anyway

The problem with a product roadmap is usually due to the time it takes to develop features and the time it takes to sell them. I think most reasonable sized businesses would look to make maybe two major releases per year. However, the sales cycles will expect to close many more deals each year.

I do not think it is uncommon for development teams to be able to have a feature list, which could take over three years to develop. The result is that some features seem to be ‘always’ in the plan but never materialise into real product.

This creates a cynicism throughout the business and as a result we get silos by default. What then happens is that the product manager (or whoever has this mantle) will manipulate the roadmap with justifications about why things are going to move out. They will waste valuable time producing artefacts that no one really reads and have no actual value to the business.

In any case, it is impossible for a development or marketing team to look into the void of time and space and really accurately determine what features are the one the business will need most. The further out the release goes then the quality of the business value tends to diminish.  So why do we have them and is there a better way?

The traditional reasons for having roadmaps is to allow the sales and marketing teams to build sales artefacts and customer to plan upgrades. However, in reality the only assets that are really important to the sales and marketing teams are the ones that generate leads and sales.

There will be a pile of others which no one really, really cares about (honest!). If the customer does contract a specific feature (or bug fix) that they must have then it is a contracted delivery and you will have to deliver it in any case. That I think is the point.

The only features that need to be developed are the one that customers need in the short term, really, really need.

I know a lot of you are throwing your hand up in the air in horror. ‘A detailed roadmap is essential for any business to achieve its strategic goals’ you are saying. Now, I’m really a great believer of having a good strategy with detailed delivery objectives. However, I think what is more important than that is to keep an eye on your purpose.

Your strategic goals can and will change, but your purpose for being should not. You need to sit down and plan what you want to do, but remain flexible in execution.

In world war 2, General Dwight Eisenhower was famous for saying “Plans are nothing; planning is everything”. I think everyone will agree that his purpose in WW2 was very clear but he gave himself flexibility in execution.

Also, if you consider how many clever people have created great strategies but have failed to deliver them, you should get the point. The point is that most strategic goals are static and don’t pay enough attention to the customer or the competitor.

Now I hear you say, ‘but our idea is so great it will change things’. It’s been my observation that very few companies have done this, with the notable exceptions of an Apple, Starbucks etc.

These companies generally have huge resources, your company probably does not. But you can innovate like crazy and produce cool stuff that customers need. Dump the old product roadmap and re-engage with your customer.

What Next

So, why not change your organisation to one that is known to be responsive to customer requirements and your whole business is aligned to delivering these functions. There is not a roadblock from the development team saying it’s not on the roadmap therefore we can’t develop it.

There is not an overly long set of fictitious marketing messages that are never actually produced. There is not a roadblock to sales in prioritising functions that will make the difference in winning a valuable piece of business.

I know that a lot of organisations will flex in any case to try and win new business (they have too). What I am suggesting here is that we move away from the traditional roadmap approach and admit and embrace that there is a better way.

There can still be a dusty old list of features that parade as a roadmap. However, it should be though of more of a menu of possible features rather than the ten commandments of your product business.

The whole business moves into a more aligned mode whereby the focus returns squarely to the customer. This is done by regular communication and agreement across the functions of the business about what is coming next and why.

If the business works in this mode then it will spend less time producing overly complex gantt charts and blaming each other. It will also be a much more dynamic and fun place to work.

So, what is needed is for the executive to lead the way and remind the organisation of what its purpose. No matter what your organisation does, it will have a customer, remember to put the customer first.