The Product Roadmap Explained

This is a continuation of a series about roadmaps. Make sure to check out the introductory post and follow the series to learn more about the different types of roadmaps.

As one of the most common forms of roadmaps, product roadmaps have become a vital tool for product management teams to keep on track, on budget and within scope. Adapted largely by software and information technology teams, product roadmaps offer a valuable insight into product management which is often long-term, open-ended and vague in nature. 

This blog aims to give you a quick introduction to product roadmaps, their benefits, and critical elements that should be included within an effective product roadmap.

What is a product roadmap?

A product roadmap is a high-level overview of a product’s vision and direction over a period of time. It helps clearly communicate the objectives and purpose of a product in an easy to understand visual format so teams can focus on what matters most.

It is a particularly valuable tool for both internal and external communications. It firstly facilitates internal stakeholder collaboration and alignment, from sales teams to executives, to make sure the ensuing features and upgrades to the product are in line with the organisation’s strategy and capacity. Externally, product roadmaps help easily communicate product vision to other vendors helps simplify any external collaboration activities and can also be used to excite customers for upcoming features and updates.

As many product teams apply various agile-based methodologies, product roadmap terminology, structure and data can vary depending on the team’s methodology of choice. However, their underlying objective is always to:

  • Outline the product vision and strategy
  • Act as the guiding document for product execution
  • Enable stakeholder collaboration, engagement and alignment
  • Facilitate greater discussions and higher-level planning

Product roadmap vs project roadmap

While the two roadmaps may serve a similar purpose of providing an overview, the way the data is represented and conveyed varies between the two due to the nature of products and projects themselves. A product, by nature, does not often have a defined start or end date which results in its roadmap having a much more strategic focus.  Projects, on the other hand, have more defined dates, deliverables and boundaries that make their roadmaps much more tactical. 

The key differences between these two can be seen in the core elements of project and product roadmaps. Product roadmap elements often include vision, strategy, goals, features, user stories, and more. These elements are geared towards the open-ended nature of product development. Alternatively, project roadmap elements often consist of milestones, timelines, resource allocations, risks, and more. These elements are typically working within the triple constraints of project management – cost, time and scope – and aim to manage tasks within those restraints.

Benefits of product roadmaps

More than just providing a bird-eye view over products, product roadmaps provide a myriad of benefits. Some other product roadmap benefits include:

Enables easy handover and continuity

Product teams require members that are knowledgeable about all facets of the product to maintain continuity and agility during the development process. However, this dependency on tight-knit teams can prove challenging if team members leave or additional members are added. A product roadmap can give any incoming members an overview of the product with a single document, easing the handover process and ensuring continuity is maintained.

Clearer accountability over core tasks

Product roadmaps help clearly define task owners and their responsibilities. While teams often collaborate to complete a specific task, clearly assigning and visualizing a distinct task owner ensures there is accountability over core tasks. Teams will not be left pointing fingers over who should have had ownership over the tasks and team members can focus on the specific tasks at hand rather than having their hands in too many areas of the product development cycle.

Facilitates strategic planning 

The open-ended nature of products often makes it a challenge for long-term planning. With a product roadmap, teams can actively plot out how they see their product developing over a longer time frame which helps organisation leaders make more strategic plans. Where products are often planned in their iterative cycles than typically span from anywhere between one to four weeks, a product roadmap enables teams to plan much further ahead to match up with the strategic planning cycles that typically run on annual or bi-annual cycles.

Prioritises the right tasks and prevent scope creep

The open-ended nature of products often leaves them vulnerable to scope creep. Scope creep occurs when product deliverables, objectives and features grow far beyond their initial scope leading to excessive budget overruns and delays. A product roadmap helps keep teams on track by clearly defining the overall objectives and strategy, allowing them to prioritise the right tasks and features without running the risk of expanding the scope of the product beyond the means of the organisation.

Encourages communication and collaboration

Product development can often be a highly technical activity that makes it hard to communicate with non-product related teams. With its easy to understand visualisation of information, product roadmaps help translate the product vision, strategy and progress into non-technical terms that simplify communication and encourage greater collaboration and input from other teams and stakeholders.

Key elements of a product roadmap

So what exactly makes up a proper product roadmap. As mentioned above, product roadmaps may vary depending on the chosen methodology of the team, they typically consist of the following elements:

Product strategy

A proper product roadmap starts with a product strategy. Building this strategy involves conducting market research, setting achievable goals, crafting a product vision and developing a product that responds to customer and stakeholder demands.

Product vision

Within a product strategy often lies the product vision. It describes what the organisation aims to achieve with the product, the central value proposition and the main benefits of the product.

Goals & objectives

Goals are the measurable benchmarks that form the product’s success metrics. In product management, goals are often defined through high-level statements that link to the core product vision and strategy. Objectives are more specific measurements that are often tied to tangible deliverables.

Initiatives

Initiatives are a group of user stories, also known as a theme of work, that is required to complete a specific goal. A product roadmap may consist of several initiatives and they can be executed simultaneously. These initiatives are often represented in containers within a digital roadmap, the highest level grouping of activities within the roadmap, that allows teams to easily further breakdown tasks within them.

Releases

A product release refers to the launch of a new feature or  functionality of the product that is represented on the product timeline, 

User stories

A user story is the smallest unit of work within the product roadmap. It is an end goal that is described from the perspective of the user to make sure that all aspects of the product development cycle are catered toward generating value for the user. 

Epics

An epic is a larger compilation of user stories that cannot be completed within a single release cycle. Epics are often broken down into smaller features or stories that are delivered incrementally over several releases.

Timelines

While products are often open-ended, they still have defined timelines between their releases. The timeline helps visualise when product release will occur over a period of time. Depending on the level of detail required and the organisation’s strategic planning needs, the time frame can vary from days to quarters or years.

Minimum viable product

A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the minimal form of a product that can be launched and tested in the market. It often describes the core functionalities and minimum features that need to be completed to properly test and validate a product. 

Product Roadmap Best Practices

Here are a few tips to help you make the most out of your product roadmaps.

Keep it simple, keep it clear

A product roadmap is not a product backlog. It is not meant to provide every piece of detail and information regarding the tasks at hand. As an overview document, it is meant to give different stakeholders an understanding of the product and its progress at a glance. To do so, make sure to keep your product roadmaps simple, clear, and concise. Overloading information and detail defeats the main objective of the product roadmap itself.

Continuously update your product roadmaps

A product roadmap is a living document. It changes and evolves as the product develops. While many product roadmaps tools are automated to a certain degree, it is important to actively update and review your roadmaps to make sure they reflect real-time conditions. While it can seem like an additional administrative task, checking and updating progress makes sure the document is accurate and usable for all necessary stakeholders at any given time.

Encourage collaboration and communication

Product roadmaps are a valuable communication tool, so make sure to use them to their full capacity. Ensuring that all stakeholders have access to the document and keeping the document updated allows for teams to easily collaborate with other stakeholders as they are all on the same page. A successful product is a product that considers the feedback and perspectives of different teams – from sales to customer experient to engineers and more to ensure a more holistic product experience.

Learn more about roadmaps with pmo365

Our team knows that roadmaps are valuable tools for any organisation. That is why we have spent a lot of time creating valuable content for project management professionals to make the most out of their roadmaps. Make sure to follow this series through our blog and read more about the next type of roadmap, portfolio roadmaps, here.

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