Roadmapping Your Way to Internal Transparency
A few years ago, a handful of coworkers and I represented our company at a tech job fair. The company made sure we were a diverse crew of developers, recruiters, designers and me—the product manager—so that we would look like a strong, growing company.
Our cover was blown within a few hours when one job-seeker turned to me and said bluntly: “I talked to a few of you about what your product does and each person gave a different answer. Are you all working on the same product?”
The truth is that our C-suite hadn’t set a clear product vision. And now, months of ambivalence had culminated in this awkward moment at the job fair. As a company, we were winging it. We lacked internal transparency.
What is Internal Transparency?
Internal transparency is when everyone knows what everyone else is working on and what the company goals are. Without it, products quickly fall apart. The classic case goes something like this: The development team is working on one thing, while the sales team sells another version of the product to potential customers. Meanwhile, the support team sets a different set of expectations with existing customers about what’s coming down the pipeline. And the product manager is stuck putting out fires. Promised features are not completed and the product roadmap lacks focus.
This not only makes you look incompetent at a job fair, it actually prevents your products from moving forward. The good news is that when you build internal transparency, every team can work faster and with the confidence that they’re contributing to the company’s high-level goals.
As Google has grown into a company of more than 57,000 employees, its official stance on internal transparency is the same as when it started: Default to open. Google internally shares product roadmaps, launch plans and weekly status reports alongside employee and team objectives and key results. Each quarter, executive chairman Eric Schmidt presents all employees with the same materials as the board of directors. And each week, the company continues to hold all-hands meetings where employees can ask the founders anything, just as they did when the company first started.
Why does Google so fiercely value internal transparency? Because communication among employees directly contributes to the success of its products. You too can achieve internal transparency when you keep these three steps in mind.
Step 1: Establish a product canvas with your exec team.
Start with the hard part: Take the many versions and beliefs about what your product is and why it exists and pick just one.
Who are you building for? What are you working towards in the short term? Long term? What’s your vision? How are you and your approach different from competitors? What sets you apart?
If the answers are clear to all, great. But what if your executive team is split on these details? What if they’re undecided? This is where the product canvas comes in. A product canvas is a one-page document that outlines key product elements and business goals:
• Vision–What does our company do? Where do we want to be in five years?
• Description–How do people describe the product? What’s the official verbiage/pitch to use?
• User Personas–Who are we building for? Who are our target customers and target users?
• Objectives/KPIs–What do our customers want? What do we as a business want?
The canvas forms the basis of your product strategy and acts as a guide for product decisions downstream. Typically, it’s created once and reviewed every few months to ensure it still describes the product effectively.
This is high-level stuff that needs to be a collaborative effort. So, bring your executive team to the table to work it out with you; this ensures you gain their support and buy-in.
To start, provide each person with a blank copy of the product canvas and have them independently fill it out. Next, ask each person to share their answers. Unless you have created a product canvas before, chances are that everyone will produce a different set of answers. And that’s fine. The goal of this meeting (or series of meetings) is to disagree and reconcile discrepancies.
If someone believes the target user persona is X but no one else agrees, you need to discuss that discrepancy. This is something that will determine the direction of your product, so figure it out and make a firm decision. You don’t want to butt heads later in the product development process when the stakes are much higher.
When you are done, freely share the completed canvas with the team. Print out copies and stick them up on the walls around the office as a reference point. You can use it to defend your product decisions, and your colleagues can use it to challenge them.
The product canvas should serve as a single source of truth. If you can’t trace your priorities directly back to it, you’re on the wrong track.
Step 2: Work with your teams to identify priorities.
You have a story to share now; it’s on your product canvas. It’s time to bring your team together to hatch a potential plan. For this, I’ve had a lot of luck using the Product Tree exercise.
This exercise was developed by Luke Hohmann at Innovation Games, who found that turning prioritization into a game made it much easier to engage a diverse group. You’ll need a handful of Sharpies, sticky notes and a print-out of your Product Tree.
The Product Tree’s trunk represents the core product. The branches represent product areas, and each sticky note added to a branch represents suggestions for new features and functionality.
The “leaves” closer to the trunk represent top priorities that everyone agrees on and are clearly market-driven. More nebulous ideas for the future are stuck farther out on the branches.
Here’s how it works:
• Gather four to eight people who represent key areas of the business (e.g., engineering, sales, marketing and so on).
• Introduce the product canvas you’ve worked out with your executive team so everyone understands your product’s direction.
• For the first 15 or 20 minutes, write out feature ideas on sticky notes. Don’t put them on the tree yet. The point is to have the group discuss each idea and agree on where it might sit on the tree.
• Have a lot of ideas? This can be a great exercise in “pruning” the tree. Mediate a discussion to get the team’s input and buy-in on what’s important and what’s not.
Remember, not all ideas have to make it to the tree. You’ll want ask the following questions:
• What makes this a priority?
• Which of two priorities should be done first?
• Which ideas don’t help us meet our product goals?
By working on this exercise together, you open up the roadmapping process to the rest of your company.
Step 3: Prioritize and share your product roadmap.
You now have received input from leadership and individual teams, but ultimately the roadmap isn’t a committee decision. As product manager, you get to make the final call.
Once you’ve established your priorities, you’re ready to communicate them along with these key details to your roadmap:
• Time horizons
• Product areas
• Strategic initiatives
A theme-based roadmap helps you communicate the direction and high-level strategy of your product. But beyond that, what does each team need to know? Make multiple versions of the roadmap available so you can pull out and highlight relevant information for each group of stakeholders. This helps you share your plans with several audiences while controlling the narrative each one sees.
For example, the development team needs a highly detailed roadmap since they’re building the product. Meanwhile, although you need buy-in from the C-suite, they don’t need to be inundated with nitty-gritty details, so a high-level roadmap makes sense for them. And you may want to give your support team an even higher-level version to share with customers.
Your journey to internal transparency will provide perks for you and the people you work with. Teams will feel like their views are represented, and individuals will feel like their ideas are valued and welcome. This can open up the floor to new innovations that otherwise might not be considered. And because you received buy-in for the product direction, it won’t be a huge shock when you update the roadmap. Finally, since you’re communicating the appropriate level of detail to stakeholders, everyone can keep up.
With these roadmaps in place, everyone will be able to move quickly and confidently to make decisions that support the product vision without having to pull you in for support. The result will look graceful and effortless; only you know what happened behind the scenes.
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