What is a Strategic Product Roadmap?
A strategic product roadmap is more than just a backlog of major product features mapped on a Gantt Chart. It is a strategy that anchors your planned feature roadmap to the problems you are solving for your customers and your core value proposition.
A strategic product roadmap articulates:
• Customer challenges you are solving.
• Capabilities you are seeking to provide for your customers.
• Features and components that make up your product.
• A timeline of when to deliver those features to the market.
A product roadmap is common for products that can be delivered incrementally or in an evolutionary fashion, and high-level requirements or epics are their building blocks. Product roadmaps act as the bridge between the product strategy and the actual tactical product development projects that are undertaken in pursuit of attaining the product goals.
While the product strategy outlines a desired future state the product roadmap articulates the necessary tactical steps to take to achieve the vision. As business conditions and priorities change, so should the product roadmap—think of it as a “living document.” The roadmap can be visualized in two distinct time frames.
In the short term, it’s a record of planned releases and may extend two to four release cycles into the future. These activities are often represented by calendar year or on a rolling 12-month basis. Some projects on the product roadmap may be already in active development, or some amount of planning has already occurred, and there is a high degree of confidence that most of the specified deliverables will happen.
The longer-term portion of the roadmap outlines product capabilities that reside outside the organization’s current planning activities and are effectively queued while the current priorities are being developed. This section provides a directional view of where the product might head given current business conditions in the next 12 months or longer. Any major changes in the current projects, the external marketplace, or internally in the business can change these envisioned future releases. For products or platforms with relatively long lives or industries that are relatively slow-moving, the long-term view can project out multiple years or span a predetermined lifecycle. For faster-moving industries, such as software or consumer electronics, a multi-year look into the future may be much more difficult to assess with any degree of certainty, given the native rates of change, but it should remain directionally correct.
The primary internal objective of product roadmap activities is to gain organizational alignment so that resource and budget allocations can be planned in advance to enable effective execution. The main components of the product roadmap consist of 1) a defined time frame, 2) a solid understanding of market events or deadlines that will drive deliverables, such as the underlying sales cycle or product seasonality, 3) specific products, product capabilities, or themes phased over a period of time, and 4) associated development activities or resources impacted or required. The internal product roadmap may also be the result of, or heavily influenced by, the product definition and project plan activities for the current release. Very often, the desired scope of envisioned capabilities to be delivered, in the current targeted time frame, far exceeds the team’s human resources or budget, and so a prioritization exercise will be needed for what is delivered now—versus what can be deferred. Requirements prioritization may go so far as to further define a set of phases for future work, which becomes additional short-term and possibly longer-term aspects of the roadmap.
For some industries or products, especially those sold business-to-business, an external version of the roadmap may be required for customers. This is often the case where the product impacts a major operational or strategic capability of the purchasing company or is deployed on a large scale across the organization. As the buyers are making long-term and/or major decisions for the company, they expect to see long-term product plans from the suppliers. Customers typically want to be sure that the organization will continue to invest in the products, and product roadmaps are often used as a means to measure the pace of investment. External versions typically contain much less detail than the internal roadmap and can also be much less committal on specific dates. The most common representation depicts a high-level set of planned release milestones, in presentation slide format, and is often used to support internal or external communication—generally face-to-face.
Creating a Strategic Product Roadmap
There has never been a perfect prescription for developing a successful product. Having an idea is just a beginning that helps you figure out market fit and product properties. But implementation is the tricky process that’s easy to mess up: Development is stretched over a long time period with thousands of factors transforming the initial idea.
In the center of it all stands a product manager. While the idea of a product evolves, the task of a product manager is to keep everybody in sync, so that teams understand the product in the same way. This can be accomplished with the help of a strategic document called a product roadmap.
In this article, we define the role of a product manager in product development, the product roadmap, and its main features. You’ll also find common roadmap types, examples of them, and some tips on roadmap creation.
# Start-up phase: Disrupt with an innovative Product 1.0
In the start-up phase, as the product evolves from the ideation stage to development and an alpha/beta release, very often the focus is on differentiating and bringing attention. Largely driven by the vision and thought leadership of the founder/entrepreneur at this stage, the product starts to take shape with focus on delivering the needed impact. Remember that the biggest strengths one has at this stage is their domain expertise, unique insights into the customer problem, and the contours of the solution.
The following elements are a part of the initial product strategy during the start-up phase:
• Focus on who, what, why, and how – who are your target customers, what is their pain point that you will solve, why do they need your solution, and how are you going to solve it.
• Identify the core set of features and functionality that are a must to make your initial solution workable, and make them a part of your Product 1.0.
• Don’t fall into the trap of trying to solve too many customer pain points in one go, allow for opportunistic evolution. The goal should be to try and leverage the first mover’s advantage, by launching an MVP/ETP (Minimally Viable/Earliest testable product).
• Seek and set a path to validate your basic business case and Product 1.0 by early adaptors and investors, prior to committing people and resources for a full build-out.
# Growth phase: Expand solution and customer footprint
At this phase you are well past the Product 1.0 stage, you would have validated your primary business case and have a green light for a full build-out. This is also the stage when the founder/entrepreneur should start ceding control and have a full-fledged Product Manager in place who can bring in product management best practices. At this stage, the product strategy and roadmap should:
Have a short/medium-term product roadmap focused on stabilizing the initial product, expanding the solution footprint and making it as complete as possible, and establishing thought leadership in your domain.
• Prioritize what has to be built based on the discovery of what works.
• Aim to gain market credibility, expand customer footprint, and start revenue generation.
• Have a horizontal and vertical focus for the solution.
• Develop a unified product approach and ensure to not fall into the trap of having multiple customized solutions.
• Continue to focus on differentiation.
# Enterprise phase: Build a portfolio of products
At this phase, you have established your market presence with a loyal base of satisfied customers, with steady streams of revenue. During this stage, product strategy and roadmap must be driven by a cross-functional Product Management Body (PMB), which should focus on:
• Integration with 3rd party products to offer a holistic solution to the customer.
• Ensuring solution completeness, considering the solution continuum that increases overall value.
• Building a portfolio of complementing products that complete the solution and enable growth in market share.
• Ensuring the non-functional aspects of the product such as Usability, Performance, Security, and Scalability continue to get their full share of attention.
• Having a well-developed roadmap in sync with the customer and market needs – perhaps aligned with customer or user bodies.
• Building a service portfolio to complement the core solution.
• Exploring new delivery models.
# Harvest phase: Benefit from a portfolio of solutions
At this phase, you are recognized as a market leader reaping the benefits of years of hard work with significant and steady streams of revenue. You must focus on:
• Localization and customization for expanding the geographic footprint.
• Strategy and roadmap for building and supporting a portfolio of solutions for diverse domains and markets.
• Leveraging your financial strength to identify and invest in cutting-edge technologies and new & innovative product lines.
• Demonstrate the desire to be the champion for the industry to adopt new technology and business standards, while also being part of developing and standardizing best practices in the specific domain.
# Re-invent phase: Transform and re-innovate
The biggest risk at this stage is becoming too comfortable. Younger, and more nimble rivals will be seeking to dislodge you with disruptive technologies and products. To avoid becoming a dinosaur and stay relevant, you must have a:
• Strategic focus on innovation and reinvention.
• Re-focus to offset the natural decline.
• Strategy to support legacy solutions as you transform and launch new, innovative products.
• Evaluate and experiment with disruptive modes of solving customers’ business challenges.
The key to sustained market dominance is building and managing intellectual property. Organizations that have a laser-sharp focus on ensuring that the IP generated in various interactions with diverse stakeholders is constantly analyzed, and improved, always lead and succeed.
Continuous Innovation is the key to ensuring that an organization is positioned to leverage the abundance of opportunities in the current global marketplace. The price of complacency is obsolescence.
A strategic approach to product roadmap management is not only essential for continued success but also is critical for survival and relevance.