As interest in the future capabilities of our products began to increase, I decided to invest more time in making the roadmap more accessible to all parties.
I could spend hours tinkering with a roadmap. There are so many variables to play with, dependencies to work through, customer feedback to fold in, unanticipated hiccups that challenge the schedule, new bugs that surface, and on and on. Without any prompting, I will frequently create several versions of the roadmap to emphasize different details or highlight specific risks. But the list of people that want or NEED to get that close to those details is quite short.
The roadmap can be an indispensable tool for communicating plans to those outside the product team. In my experience though, geeking out with the product roadmap is just not for everyone - most people just want the simple story.
What drove this decision
Over the past few months, I had been fielding a steady stream of inquiries from our Sales team who in turn, were being asked by our customers and prospects to share our product roadmap. These requests were prompted by a desire to see where the company were headed, product wise, especially when there was some set of requirements that would seem to stretch the current limits of our platform.
Most people just want the simple story.
I was also being pulled into discussions with other departments across the organization where, inevitably, the conversations were centered around how our products would (or wouldn't) address a variety of concerns. During these meetings, I often felt as if I should have been carrying a copy of the roadmap with me but the versions I had were too elaborate and were more likely to have generated more questions that it would have answered.
The decision: Socialize a lighter weight product roadmap for inside and outside audiences
Many of the questions I was answering were simple in nature and could be settled with a quick clarification or by referencing a feature in an upcoming release. Unfortunately, there was no accessible model or illustration to reference. I needed to create an alternative, more accessible artifact.
Plan of attack
You have different considerations when you produce a version of your primary artifact that is suitable for external audiences. Not only will you have the challenge of reducing the overall complexity of the content to make it more accessible to those with less context, but you may also need to put it within appropriate physical reach to accommodate the timeliness of their needs.
For me, this meant paring down the content to eliminate details that would only be needed or appreciated by the Product and Engineering teams. It also meant distributing the new artifacts to new channels that puts them within arm's reach and encouraged self-service (vs. disruptive, ad-hoc inquiries).
Create an attractive artifact that's easy to follow
The first step was perhaps the most difficult for me. I started with the assumption that this extended audience would have a very limited attention span. They would not be that interested in exploring all the potential paths, dependencies and implementation details of the 12-month product roadmap. They were looking for quick answers to broad questions.
In an attempt to remove the "clutter", I focused on highlighting outcomes, specifically the key dates when they could reasonably expect the big ticket items to become available. I retained the high level themes, the broad commitment dates and other key elements that go into creating a solid product roadmap. I also embellished this version a bit, altering the names of certain features to line up better with customer use cases. For example, instead of listing a simple "reminder" feature, I described how the reminders could be used to better support a particular business process lifecycle.
Finally, I included and emphasized disclaimers about the accuracy of the roadmap commitments to help set/adjust expectations. This was a bit more CYA than anything else as I want to be able to defend future product decisions that will inevitably conflict with any previous "promises".
Make it accessible for self-service
Not that I don't appreciate being pulled into product conversations but a great number of these do not require the Product Head Honcho. To help people answer their own questions, I took care to put the light weight Roadmap in easy-to-find places throughout the office and beyond:
- Outside my office - My own office is on a well-trafficked path making it convenient to post a copy of the Roadmap on the wall. Several times, when people have barged into my office, I have had to gently usher them outside to point out the "self-service" display.
- On monitors - Our IT team has placed large, flat-screen monitors throughout the office. I have inserted an image of the new Roadmap into the standard rotation for these monitors to help keep it top of mind.
- Shared repository - I also found it useful to put a copy of the Roadmap artifact in the shared "folder". We have been coaching people to begin any new search there before emailing or picking up the phone.
Present early and often
Now that the distilled Roadmap was ready, I started to share it with the teams at every opportunity. At "all hands" meetings, at our monthly Release Preview, during weekly Sales and Marketing meetings, and at customer events, I would present the artifact to show incremental progress, update everyone on recent product decisions and even show sneak peaks of ongoing development initiatives.
I am pleased to have stemmed the tide of inbound roadmap-related queries. And while it does take a few extra cycles for me to keep everyone up to date, I am confident that we have further empowered our Sales team and are helping them move past would-be obstacles with customers and prospects in the sales cycles.
The simpler, lighter weight rendition of the Product Roadmap is now a staple of our planning efforts. We will continue to produce and promote the roadmap through this artifact.