Creating the Right Product Roadmap

By John Milburn
August 13, 2007

How to create product roadmaps that allow you to focus on building products not revised roadmaps.

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In most companies, Product Management is responsible for building, maintaining, and presenting the product roadmap inside and outside of the company. However, one of the biggest problems is they build, and build, and build, and finally re-build their roadmaps! They feel like they can't ever get them right, or that constant change in the plans keep making their roadmaps obsolete. And, most would agree that it is very unnerving to go back to customers time after time with the same basic roadmap, but on different timelines. How do we get out of this infinite loop?

At Pragmatic Marketing, we have met with thousands of product managers over the years. Over and over, we hear that building and managing roadmaps is one of the most challenging and personally frustrating parts of a product manager's job. A roadmap is an effective means of communicating the overall strategy to both internal and external groups. It may provide the 'vision' that is the key ingredient to help close that next big deal. It can give product managers the perfect tool to communicate the overall direction, priorities, and investment strategy to Development or Finance. There is no doubt that the product roadmap is one of the highest gain tools in the product manager's toolkit.

A roadmap is usually a graphical depiction of the product plan and strategy. It includes key enhancements and plans for current products as well as showing (in general terms) future unannounced products or architectures on which Development, partners, and key customers can base their own plans. A roadmap should take into account corporate and industry events such as conferences and product launches. Internal roadmaps are very different than external roadmaps, and external roadmaps can be either confidential or non-confidential.

The product manager is the owner and manager of the roadmap and should not distribute it outside of the company. Product management should avoid distributing detailed roadmaps to the Sales organization, as they may use the roadmap as collateral to help close a deal, and which could possibly end up in a contract. There are legal implications with this issue. If customers make product purchase decisions that are based on future items on a roadmap, then companies can not legally recognize revenue for the contract until the roadmap is delivered. The risks and returns are high.

There should not be a 'single' view of the product roadmap. Internal audiences typically need a greater level of technical detail, including the use of internal code names, and are most concerned about timing and resource dependencies. Current and potential customers expect to see higher level direction and market dynamics and dependencies, such as industry events, standards, or new technologies and how they will be integrated or positioned with the products. They will generally be more interested in projections by quarter or year, rather than by month. Partners, on the other hand, need to understand your direction so that they can make their own plans. Partners generally will be more interested in specific dates so that they can coordinate their events and launches with yours. Industry analysts want to understand your product direction and whether you are driving, following, or ignoring market dynamics. Analysts may provide insight and advice, but their primary objective in seeing your roadmap is usually to increase their own market or technical knowledge to enhance their ability to write reports or provide consulting for a fee.

With so many audiences and reasons for communicating what is on a roadmap, it is easy to get bogged down preparing roadmaps and to lose sight of the big picture of what is being communicated. Product managers often react to individual demands to produce a roadmap for a deal, a partner, an analyst, Development, or executives. While reacting, have they ensured that the strategy is right? Is the technical direction right? How does an individual roadmap fit into the overall portfolio strategy? Are resources aligned to deliver on the roadmap?

To help you with your roadmap planning, the new Pragmatic Roadmapping seminar provides a fresh look at techniques to develop effective and defendable product roadmaps. A one-day facilitated session for technology product managers, it offers techniques to plan, consolidate and communicate information into product roadmaps customized for different audiences using shortcuts, practical examples, and best-practice techniques.

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About the Authors

  • John Milburn

    John Milburn is a Pragmatic Marketing instructor who has “walked the walk” in technology product management. Throughout his 20-plus-year career, he has managed or delivered more than 40 hardware and software products and implemented the Pragmatic Marketing Framework at many companies. A CSPO, his perspective and experiences from companies such as Lane 15 Software, Dell, IBM, Texas Instruments, Exxon, and Vtel add insight and real-world examples to his teaching. This perspective allows John to connect with product managers and executives from companies of all sizes in a broad range of markets. Contact him at jmilburn@pragmaticmarketing.com.




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