36: Roadmaps are like DVD box sets

36: Roadmaps are like DVD box sets

I’m writing about one hundred things I’ve learned as a product manager.

Curating the product roadmap is one of the most typical responsibilities of a product manager.  But have you ever thought about why you bother with them in the first place and how you could make them more effective?

What is a product roadmap? #

A product roadmap is a way of describing the evolutionary path your product will take.  Like any practical set of directions, a good route needs to have a clear destination, as well as the landmarks along the way that will help you to keep on track.  You’ll also usually have a general idea of when you expect to reach each point.  And if you encounter unforeseen obstacles or heavy traffic on the way, you should be able to re-route so that you can still reach your desired destination without too much delay.

A roadmap is a communication tool for coordinating different groups of people

Your product roadmap serves a number of purposes.  At its most basic, a roadmap is a communication tool for coordinating different groups of people.  By giving people an idea of what they can expect from your product in the future, they’re able to plan their own related activities around it.

For all but the most basic of products, your development (or engineering) team will need to know what’s coming up in the mid to long-term.  The design decisions they’re taking now may depend on the direction in which your product’s heading.  They might need to hire in people with specific skill sets if, for example, you were planning to introduce a new iPhone app later in the year.  In much the same way, other teams within your organisation will need to plan ahead to prepare for a major product release.

Telling a good story #

You can think of your roadmap as the emerging story of your product

People love a good story.  In times past, people would sit around a campfire and entertain each other with stories of a bountiful hunt, or of the exploits of heroes and gods.  Today, the art of storytelling is just as alive and well, whether spoken, written or recorded.  We enjoy stories because they engage and entertain us more than a simple list of details would.  Our brains are wired to remember stories more easily, allowing us to share them with others more easily.  So what better way could there be to describe how your product will evolve, than by telling a story?

Breaking Bad DVD box set

Like any good DVD box set like The Wire or Breaking Bad, a memorable story needs to have a strong narrative and character development.  The broader narrative is divided up into more easily digested episodes, with one or more overarching story arcs that unfold over time.  Each episode then has its own storyline with a typical three-act structure: a beginning, middle and end.

In much the same way, you can think of your roadmap as the emerging story of your product, with episodes as development sprints building towards the resolution of a major story arc with a series finale – or a major, themed product release.  Within each episode – or sprint – you can extend the analogy further by thinking of epics as being the broader plot elements and the user stories providing the detailed dialogue.  And as is usually the case in an individual episode, all the loose plot details are neatly tied up by the end, as should also be the case in a development sprint.

Your roadmap tells a story, so it needs to be coherent.  Think about how you could make your product’s story more engaging and memorable.

Update:

I wrote a follow-up to this article talking more about roadmaps and product themes if you’re interested. It involves time machines.

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Jock is a freelance head of product, author and conference speaker. He has spent nearly two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. His clients include the BBC, University of Cambridge, and the UK's Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS).In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, a product management consultancy and training company. He is also the author of the popular book The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management and the blog I Manage Products.

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