Map of the Fredrick Half-Marathon

A product roadmap is a powerful tool.  Roadmaps help link products and services to the strategy, objectives and key results.  Roadmaps are directional, answer the question of where we are going and why.  Roadmaps are powerful – unless they are messed up!  There are four common mistakes that will reduce the value of a roadmap.

  1.      Not linking the roadmap to the organization’s or product’s strategy –  If you don’t know where you want to go creating a map is an exercise in futility.  As noted in earlier essays the lynchpin to any roadmap process is the organization or product strategy.  Not linking the roadmap to the organization’s or product’s strategy can lead to a high level of churn in the roadmap because there is no goal or too many goals.  Another common outcome of a lack of strategy is that IT or another organization (operational department) will step in and create a systems, application or operational roadmap that presupposes the direction the business will take.  This is often interpreted as hubris by the business and generates organizational friction.
  2.      Treating the roadmap as a guarantee.  The theme or features on the roadmap are not promises or commitments.  My daughter and her family recently met my wife and me for a family reunion. My daughter and her husband had plotted out the trip on a GPS to arrive at a specific time.  The weather intervened leading to a need to re-plan. Roadmaps are not one-time events, they must evolve in order for the stakeholder using the roadmap to recognize that the themes and/or functions identified in year three aren’t carved in stone.  Note: many organizations are very careful about whether they show a roadmap to external clients or whether they create a more directional roadmap for external consumption to ensure that the roadmap is not interpreted as a guarantee.
  3.      Letting the roadmap reflect magical thinking.  Roadmaps represent series of causal connections.  A strategy or goal requires a specific theme to become reality.  Jumps from strategy to theme based on speculation or that require capabilities that are not within the organization’s capability are aspirations, not roadmaps. Without a means to translate aspirations into reality, a fiction arises that becomes more of a drag than a tool to guide the organization.  In order to avoid magical thinking, involve a wide range of sources and stakeholders. Where jumps in capabilities are required, identify a path to the new capability.
  4.      Treating the roadmap as a backlog. A roadmap portrays the big picture.  The roadmap shows the path forward in a manner that does not lock an organization into how the business need will be addressed.  A product backlog of epics and stories will act as an anchor locking an organization into a path or technology stack that might not yield expected results.  Another reason to avoid the backlog syndrome is aesthetic.  Roadmaps that have been conflated with backlogs are noisy, ugly, and difficult to read.  Roadmaps with a poor user interface aren’t used.

Why do organizations make these types of mistakes with product roadmaps?  Roadmaps are useful and powerful tools. As with any powerful tool, there is a natural tendency to use the tool for other, often related purposes.  As we push the edge, the tweak is often made.  Roadmaps are used to set client expectations or for supporting staffing models.  This immediately shifts a strategic document from a path forward to a guarantee.  A forward-looking lead could easily take a list of themes and begin to document epics, user stories, and non-functional requirements in order to build a plan translating the roadmap into a backlog. The path from tool to problem is paved with good intentions. The best idea is to stay off the path!