By David Bliss
When you jump into a car going somewhere new, what is the first thing you do? If you are like me, you whip out your phone, open your favorite navigation app, and enter the destination. Some CPU resources in a cloud computing center start crunching the data to determine the most efficient route to get you to your destination, and within seconds you’ve got your directions. It’s a beautiful thing.
As a software product manager, I can only wish that building product roadmaps were so easy. So how do we as product management professionals build and maintain a roadmap? And how should a customer, partner, analyst, or investor think about (and let’s be frank, judge) a roadmap? Is it visionary? Is it mundane? Is it realistic? Is it worth pursuing or waiting for? Should I take comfort when I am told that the functionality I want is “on the roadmap?” To answer these questions, let’s look at three key components: the destination, the route, and the track record.
Step 1: What is the Destination?
Where are we going? We can’t have a roadmap (or a route in my driving analogy) without a destination in mind. In product management, the destination to drive towards is the long-term product vision. A strong product vision goal is one that:
As a critic of a product roadmap, you therefore need to ask, “where is this roadmap taking us, and is it a worthy destination?” Once the destination is set, it shouldn’t change significantly, otherwise it wasn’t a good one in the first place. If you see your partner or vendor changing their destination/product vision en route, it naturally leads to another question: “where are we going?”
Step 2: Finding the Best Route to Get There
Unlike the destination, the roadmap (or route) can and should change a bit along the way. Good navigation apps will tell you when faster or better routes to your destination open up due to traffic patterns, roadblocks, crashes ahead, etc. Similarly, good product managers are always re-evaluating their own roadmaps and updating them when a better path becomes apparent. This is done through challenging past assumptions, collecting customer feedback, and monitoring the industry and competition.
If you see a roadmap that is identical to the one from 6, 12, or 18 months ago, you must ask yourself if the product manager in question is keeping up with the times. Is he or she listening to customers and finding better technology solutions by working closely with the engineers? Product managers don’t have crystal balls, but the strongest ones will recognize when they can improve upon their own roadmap. If your navigation app doesn’t give you real time updates, I suggest you find a new one.
Step 3: Looking at the Track Record
Finally, when deciding how much faith to put into a roadmap, you should take historical performance into consideration. The financial industry likes to say “past performance is no guarantee of future returns,” but I certainly like to invest with someone that I know has delivered before. Yes, the roadmap should change, but if you tell a customer or any other stakeholder that you will deliver something, you need to stick to that commitment. Without this track record, promises of future functionality should be taken with a grain of salt.
By evaluating these three components of a product roadmap, you should be able to answer the myriad questions you have about it and make a determination on its soundness.
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