What is a product development roadmap?
Product development roadmaps provide a visual explanation of a company’s strategy. They link the product vision with development. They help align Engineering, Marketing, Sales, Support, and the C-suite.
In addition to communicating strategy, the optimal Product development roadmap can inspire innovation because it lays out your product’s strongest differentiators to ensure you hit your business goals. It can also improve execution because it helps to understand dependencies, communicate platform and derivative strategies, and how they unfold over time. Done right, product roadmaps serve as an organizing principle for decisions around technology requirements, resource allocation, and product positioning.
Product Roadmap Example and Template
Product Managers who get the most out of them realize that roadmaps are not for them. The product development roadmap is not for the Product organization but for the full stack team. They are not internal documents for Product, but serve internal customers chiefly Engineering, Sales/Customer Success, other cross functional teams, and perhaps upper management.
This template is useful for startups or mid-sized organizations with several product lines. You can use Powerpoint as a product roadmap tool, but it is less powerful than Excel because of the importance of the time axis that Excel easily supports.
Benefits of product development roadmaps
Product development roadmaps help with prioritization of your product plans and initiatives. They can help with sprint planning and with prioritizing individual product features.
They also help…
- Create buy-in and alignment
- Guide internal teams & manage dependencies
- Indicate key functionality and when it needs to be delivered
- Plan the key milestones, timing of new features, integrations, and product releases
- Visualize the timeline for product goals and how they connect to “big picture” strategic goals.
Product roadmaps include release dates so different organizations (development teams, data teams, customer success, finance, and others) know what to expect and when. They help to improve teamwork, prompting team members to plan for, and provide proper support. Properly done, product development roadmaps feed right into your product development process.
Agile Product Management and Roadmaps
An organization that has agile product teams might think that product roadmaps and Agile/Scrum methodology are fundamentally in conflict. This is not the case. In fact the best organizations have Agile Product Roadmaps. They regularly update their roadmaps (not once a year, but monthly or at least quarterly) to ensure they are aligned with the evolving competitive landscape and new product development.
You can also quickly update them based on customer feedback or feedback from other external stakeholders (distributors or partners, for example). This feedback might suggest the urgent need to incorporate specific features to meet current customer needs. The agile roadmap process should be able to accommodate these unplanned requirements. This will help Product Owners react quickly; it will also help Scrum Masters and Project Management to pivot to address new needs.
Roadmapping processes can include placing requirements on the product backlog, and even incorporate user stories and epics (for major releases). Agile teams find roadmaps helpful for release planning too, because they can help the team plan for large dependencies. You can link this to your backlog in Jira if that enhances efficiency (so you don’t have disconnected stories and backlogs).
Product reaps the greatest benefits from roadmaps when Product Managers understand the needs of these internal customers and create the roadmap that will make them successful. Product Managers optimize product roadmaps when these visual representations help to coordinate across functions and teams, enabling these organizations to do their jobs better. When the entire team supports a vision and a strategy, that makes Product Managers succeed in turn.
More Than One Product Development Roadmap
Making these internal customers successful means making more than one roadmap. Tailor these different types of product roadmaps to the particular needs of each of these stakeholders. For example, the product roadmap for Engineering should include timing, features and dependencies. Your skill in translating and understanding customer solutions informs how you develop roadmaps tailored to the needs of each stakeholder.
The key stakeholders can range from the C-Suite down to individual teams. Make sure that your roadmaps are communicated down to the team level so that individual teams should understand what is expected from the product roadmap. Don’t keep your roadmaps hidden in some password protected folder. They are meant to be communicated and understood.
Your Sales or other customer-facing or external stakeholders need only to know what the MVP is, what the primary benefits are of future products, and when the next release is coming. Other teams might need to know nothing more than the critical dependencies between products over time. They are useful for lifecycle management – for example they might indicate when to retire a product or depreciate a feature set.
Internal product roadmaps should communicate timeframes – especially product launches with some precision (monthly minimum), external roadmaps should have very coarse timeframes (quarterly, halves, or years). They can also include product metrics (typically KPIs, but also performance targets too). This signals to the organization the challenges it might have in achieving the goals, if they are a stretch.
The priority order of your tailored product roadmaps is as follows:
- Sales/Customer Success
- Other teams
- Senior Management
Pitfalls of Product Development Roadmaps
Product Managers get the most out of roadmaps when they avoid the pitfalls described above, namely:
- Thinking the product roadmap is for the Product organization
- Creating one product roadmap, rather than tailored maps for each stakeholder
- Sharing roadmaps with external parties without due risk management
- Spending too much time creating pretty roadmaps for upper management consumption
- Roadmaps that focus too much on competitors
- Product roadmaps that serve cross-purposes rather than aligning all parties around a shared vision and strategy
When Product managers avoid these pitfalls, they develop product roadmaps that truly enable organizational success, that create products powerfully differentiated in the marketplace, and that enable innovation.
The most effective product roadmaps provide a coherent strategic context for engineers, researchers, and other creative individuals to develop concepts that support, complement, and extend the strategic intent of the roadmap. Finally, the best product roadmaps communicate, where necessary, the international launch strategy so that the organization plans the timing for entry into different markets, anticipating regulatory needs, language, communication symbols, and standards as required.
When your product roadmaps enable product strategy and execution in these ways, you know the Product organization has ensured that all stakeholders are genuinely headed in the same direction – toward a stream of new products that truly delight end users.
Beware When Sharing Product Roadmaps Outside of the Company
We usually recommend that you do not communicate product roadmaps outside of the company. Use them to focus the various internal stakeholders to support the product strategy over time. If you communicate product roadmaps to outside parties, make sure the discussion is covered under an NDA, and be very careful not to promise something at some date without confirmation from development.
In some cases external customers might see a version of a product roadmap, but make sure your customer-facing people are not appearing to make commitments they can’t keep, or leaking competitive information.
Product Management Has No Need To Make Them Pretty
Too much information, formatted prettily, is often more a bother than a help. Understand your internal customer and deliver a product that will respond to your customer’s pain, without adding to it.
One version of your product roadmap might be a prettier picture for upper management. Such product roadmaps are best if they keep to the high-level developments. In general, we find that Product Managers spend far too much time making product roadmaps look good, especially if the roadmaps are intended for the eyes of senior managers. But these roadmaps should be the lowest priority.
Optimize all product roadmaps by keeping them simple, and delivering only the information that each stakeholder requires, and no more.
Avoid Product Roadmapping with Too Much Focus on Competitors
In most industries you must anticipate what your competitors will have to offer when you are ready to launch your future product. But we’ve seen the opposite pitfall: product roadmaps that focus too much on the competition.
It is much more important to focus on supporting your vision and your unique selling proposition than to try to guess every competitive maneuver. Product roadmaps are chiefly about getting all stakeholders firing on all cylinders and heading in the same direction.
Avoid Working At Cross-Purposes
Unfortunately, rather than coordinating efforts and communicating a shared strategy, product roadmaps often set different stakeholders at cross-purposes. On one hand, the sales team uses them to close a sale because they’ve inserted the customer’s key wish into the product roadmap. On the other hand, Product Management might use a product roadmap to assure the CEO that they plan to support her vision, even though Engineering has not looked at them. This totally misses the point of a well-executed product roadmap, which is to integrate stakeholders into a shared vision and provide crucial, actionable guidance to diverse stakeholders.
Use different types of product roadmaps for different purposes
Your roadmaps are not “one size fits all.” Different functions and groups may need different roadmaps for different purposes. Your Sales group may need an external version of the roadmap that they can show to key customers.
Roadmaps are intended to be public, useful documents that stakeholders can use to see, at a glance, the future of products and product lines. They’re not intended to be kept in a drawer as private possession. Tailor your roadmaps so that they speak to the intended audience.