Let’s get practical: Creating a roadmap

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One of the skills a product owner should possess is the ability to create a roadmap. This can be confirmed by checking any product manager job description. So how do we create a roadmap?

First, why is a roadmap important?

In the present moment, your product is at point A. Point A could be in the founder’s imagination, the current version of your product, or anything in between. The ideal future of your product is point B. You want to get from point A to B. The roadmap is the path you want take to get from A to B. Sounds quite simple enough, but let’s break down some key components.

For a roadmap to be useful, there have to be three clearly defined components:

  1. The objective (Point B) aka the vision, the goal of the product.
  2. The timeline: How much time do you have to get to your objective?
  3. The steps to achieve the objective.

Clearly understanding the objective.

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The first thing I like to do is understand the end goal. In an organisation, this should be easily understood, no matter how it is being described. It can be as simple as “create product-market fit” or “become profitable” to something as huge as “reach 1 billion downloads”. Without this layer of clarity, it’s like leaving your home to an unknown destination. No matter where you end up, you won’t know if you’ve succeeded or failed. If this objective isn’t clearly defined, whatever roadmap you’re creating is built on quicksand.

The biggest advantage of having a clear objective is that you already know how to measure success. Is the goal to reach Mars? Well, once we land on Mars, we’ve succeeded. Is the goal to reach a billion downloads? Well, we know what to measure. $100 million in revenue? Awesome, we know what our starting point is. The time spent on getting some clarity here is always worth it.

Here’s a pro tip, if you don’t have clarity on the objective, don’t proceed to the next steps. Consider it a road trip where the journey is the destination. You’re building your product to find your objective, so enjoy the ride until your company finds its direction. Be flexible, don’t plan beyond a month otherwise, most times, it would be wasted effort. Instead, spend time creating the objective and only proceed to the next step when things are clear.

How do you know when you have a clear objective? The KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) will be clearly defined and well understood by everyone in the company. If you’re not clear on what to measure, and you spend a lot of time discussing features instead of measurable problems you want to solve, this is another sign that the objective isn’t clear enough.

As an example, let’s say we want to create a new music streaming service called YourMusic, a measurable objective could be 200 minutes played per day, 10 million active users (provided the active user definition is also clear), or the total number of songs on the service.

Time.

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Once the objective is clear, the next thing to consider is how much time you have. Here’s a quote I learned a long time ago (can’t remember the source): “Given enough time, anyone (or anything) would achieve its potential”. We don’t have all the time in the world to get to our desired objective. A few factors like our competition, the company’s cash runway, customer’s changing demands and consumption habits, technological changes and much more ensures we need to achieve our business goals sooner than later. Another hugely important factor can also be a strong desire to see a better world sooner than later.

In building a proper roadmap, we truly need to know how much time we have. Two months? Ten years?

One helpful technique is to understand the opportunity cost of not achieving our goal in a certain time frame. In our YourMusic example, if our objective is to get to 10 million active users, what would be the cost of not reaching that number in 1 year? Are we going to generate enough revenue to keep the company running if we only reach 200k?

The time factor in roadmaps allows us to create proper checkpoints to know if we’re on the right trajectory. Think of it as a pitstop or a petrol station on your journey. Let’s say our runway is 9 months, and we’re growing our active users by 100k every month, in the ninth month, we know we’ll already have 900k active users. Not quite reaching our objective yet but due to our growth, we can already tell how long it will take to get there based on the current trajectory. We can then either decide to get more funding to extend the timeline, build a product strategy to increase our growth rate to reach 10million in the same time frame, charge existing customers a bit more to increase our runway or any other approach we choose to take.

So we have YourMusic with the objective of reaching 10million active users. We also think we can achieve this in 9months. What next?

One step at a time.

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We know where we want to go, and we know how long we have to get there. The next crucial step is the daily, weekly, and monthly things we have to do to get to our destination. What do we do next? How do we make sure we’re not adding the roof before the bricks?

One important thing to note here is that there are usually several steps you can take to get to the same destination. Of course, some paths would get you to your destination faster than others but it mostly depends on your knowledge of the different roads you can take. This is why this phase of creating a roadmap should involve a lot of collaboration.

Leveraging the different knowledge and experience of the designers, engineers, business stakeholders, and of course you the product owner, there’s a lot of knowledge depth and history to determine how you can get to your product objective. You might need to prioritise fixing tech debt to get ready for the next million users, or you might need to work with your designers to create an entirely new user experience and improve your conversation rate in the process. The more information you get, the better the next steps would be.

Using our YourMusic example, the next steps could look like this:

  • Data analytics to understand what features our customers are using and which ones they’re not.
  • Migrate from database A to B for faster queries.
  • Add referral program to boost customer acquisition.
  • Allow offline mode to improve user experience.
  • etc…

One crucial thing to note about this phase of the roadmap is that it is typically the most flexible of the steps. The objective doesn’t change often, especially if it was done right. The time constraints are usually set by external factors so little negotiation there. However, we should be constantly learning and trying to figure out new ways to achieve our objective faster, and more efficiently. This is why as soon as new information is discovered, we can easily try and test new things, measure the impact, and move on to the next step. For example, we might suddenly discover that 90% of our paying YourMusic customers are asking for an offline mode. We certainly don’t want to lose existing customers while trying to get acquire new ones so we’ll prioritise the offline mode feature immediately.

So you’ve created your roadmap and you feel pretty good about it. Amazing! It is important, however, not to get too attached to your roadmap. This is simply because it was created based on all the knowledge you had at the time. In the future, you’ve most likely learned new things which can invalidate some (or all) steps. This shouldn’t happen often for a focused company, of course, especially one with a clear objective so your roadmap should be relatively solid if well planned and no stakeholder feels excluded in the process.

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