Summary: A product roadmap is a plan of action for how a product or solution will evolve over time. Product owners use roadmaps to outline future product functionality and when new features will be released. When used in agile development, a roadmap provides crucial context for the team's everyday work and should be responsive to shifts in the competitive landscape.
A product roadmap is essential to communicating how short-term efforts match long-term business goals. Understanding the role of a roadmap—and how to create a great one—is key for keeping everyone on your team headed in the same direction.
What is a product roadmap?
A product roadmap is a shared source of truth that outlines the vision, direction, priorities, and progress of a product over time. It’s a plan of action that aligns the organization around short and long-term goals for the product or project, and how they will be achieved.
While it's common for the roadmap to show what you’re building, it’s just as important to show why. Items on the roadmap should be clearly linked to your product strategy and goals, and your roadmap should be responsive to changes in customer feedback and the competitive landscape.
Product owners use roadmaps to collaborate with their teams and build consensus on how a product will grow and shift over time. Agile teams refer back to the product roadmap to keep everyone on the same page about which product ideas have been prioritized and when, and to gain context for their everyday work and future direction.
Which teams use product roadmaps?
Roadmaps come in several different forms and serve a variety of audiences:
Internal roadmap for the development team: These roadmaps can be created in several ways, depending on how your team likes to work. Some common versions include the detail about the prioritized customer value to be delivered, target release dates and milestones. As a general rule, development teams should use a product roadmap to understand the product strategy, how it connects to goals, and why initiatives have been prioritized. For the actual development work, dev teams should create a separate delivery plan that maps back to the product roadmap. Since many development teams use agile methodologies, these plans are often organized by sprints and show specific pieces of work and problem areas plotted on a timeline.
Internal roadmap for executives: These roadmaps emphasize how teams' work supports high-level company goals and metrics. They are often organized by month or by quarter to show progress over time towards these goals, and generally include less detail about detailed development stories and tasks.
Internal roadmap for sales: These roadmaps focus on new features and customer benefits, and may even include key customers who are interested in these features in order to support sales conversations. An important note: avoid including hard dates in sales roadmaps to avoid tying internal teams to potentially unrealistic dates.
External roadmap: These roadmaps should excite customers about what’s coming next. Make sure they are visually appealing and easy to read. They should provide a high-level, generalized view of new features and prioritized problem areas to get customers interested in the future direction of the product.
Why are product roadmaps important?
The biggest benefit of the product roadmap is the strategic vision it illustrates to all stakeholders. The roadmap ladders up to broader product and company goals with development efforts, which connects work across teams and aligns those teams around common goals to create great products.
- For organizational leadership, the roadmap provides updates on the status of planned features and improvements in a format that connects back to company goals and is easily understood.
- For product owners and managers, roadmaps unify teams working on high impact product enhancements and allow them to communicate priorities and why they were prioritized effectively with adjacent teams.
- For the developers themselves, roadmaps provide a better understanding of the “big picture,” which allows team members to focus on the most important tasks, avoid scope creep, and make fast, autonomous decisions.
How to create a product roadmap
To build a roadmap, product owners should evaluate ideas based on key criteria, such as market trajectories, customer insights and feedback, company goals, and effort constraints. Once these factors are understood, product teams can work together to start prioritizing initiatives on the roadmap.
The content of a roadmap will depend on its audience - a roadmap for the development team may cover only one product, while a roadmap for executives can cover multiple products. Depending on the size and structure of an organization, a single roadmap may span multiple teams working on the same product. An external roadmap will often cover multiple products aligned with one point of emphasis or customer need.
The most important takeaway: create a roadmap that your audience can easily understand. Providing too much or too little detail on the roadmap can make it easy to gloss over, or worse, to too intimidating to read. A roadmap with just the right amount of detail and some visual appeal can earn the buy-in you need from key stakeholders.
Presenting the product roadmap
The product roadmap needs buy-in from two key groups: leadership and the agile development team. Presenting the roadmap is a great opportunity to demonstrate to key stakeholders that you understand the company’s strategic objectives, the needs of your customer, and have a plan to meet them both.
As you move through the project, make sure to link your delivery team’s work back to the product roadmap for context and visibility into progress for your team and stakeholders. A tried-and-true method: map out the ideas you're committing to on your product roadmap, then break down those ideas into epics, requirements, and user stories on your delivery roadmap. Often times, each initiative will have a corresponding epic that needs to be broken down into smaller tasks to complete. Establishing this hierarchy makes it easier for product and development teams to make decisions together, and understand how their work fits into the bigger picture.
Using and updating the roadmap
Roadmapping doesn’t end once you’ve reached your final state. As the competitive landscape shifts, customers' preferences adjust, or planned features are modified, it’s important to take any learnings or insights, feed them back into your team’s discovery process and ensure the product roadmap continues to reflect the status of current work as well as long-term goals.
The roadmap should be updated as often as necessary - this could be every week or fortnightly - so that it can remain an accurate source of truth. As we’ve all experienced at one time or another, a roadmap is counter-productive if it isn’t up to date. You’ll know if your roadmap needs to be updated more frequently because your stakeholders will start calling you for updates instead of consulting your roadmap. These one-off requests reflect a distrust in your roadmap, and a huge potential time suck.
However, on the flip side, you don’t want to spend more time updating the roadmap than is necessary to achieve alignment between stakeholders and within your team. Remember, the roadmap is a planning tool to think through how to build great products that will make an impact on your customers and on your business. If you’re spending time updating your roadmap that you could (and should) be spending on execution, re-think the cadence and how you take in inputs, feedback, and data from across the business to prioritize your initiatives.
Best practices for the best roadmaps
Building and maintaining product roadmaps is as much an ongoing process as it is a cultural practice to embark upon with your product team. There are a few simple ways to set yourself up for success:
- Only include as much detail as necessary for your audience
- Keep the roadmap evenly focused on short-term tactics and how these relate to long-term goals
- Review roadmaps on a regular basis and make adjustments when plans change
- Make sure everyone has access to the roadmap (and checks it on a regular basis)
- Stay connected with stakeholders at all levels to ensure alignment
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