Strategic Planning: 5 Steps to Creating a Resilient Product Roadmap
January 12, 2021
Where product roadmaps fall short
Most product teams are great at defining a release timeline — what they’re shipping and when. No doubt your product team can rattle off a list of upcoming features without thinking twice. But can they confidently speak to your strategic roadmap, too?
The most effective product roadmaps are grounded in macro-level strategy, focusing on how the product vision comes to life over time. Of course, a tactical roadmap and release timeline is part of that, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. While a tactical roadmap answers what and when, a strategic roadmap answers who, what, when, why, and what if?
What is a product roadmap? A product roadmap communicates the vision, strategy, expected outcomes, and progress of a product over time. An effective product roadmap provides stakeholders with important context for a product's future functionality, and responds to meet changes in the competitive landscape.
Answering what if? is critical, especially in 2021. By now, we’re all tired of hearing the terms new normal and unprecedented times, but that is the reality we’ve found ourselves in.
The fact is, strategic planning is tough even when market opportunities and customer needs seem crystal clear. But if 2020 was any indication of the role that ambiguity and uncertainty will play going forward, modern product teams will need to get aligned and become more resilient.
Template: The resilient product roadmap
To solve this challenge, we created the resilient product roadmap template in partnership with Mike Edmonds, chief experience officer at Moonshot by Pactera EDGE. This MURAL template is designed to help product leaders plan and rally their organizations around more collaborative and strategic product planning.
Here, we’ll walk through the five steps to creating a resilient product roadmap. Chances are, you’re not starting from scratch, so you should pick and choose which steps make sense for your organization.
Watch this video to get an overview of the template, or read on to learn more about the five steps to building a flexible, scalable roadmap of your own.
Now, let’s look at the strategic planning process. We’ll walk through each step’s inputs — the building blocks of the process — and outputs — the pieces of the product roadmap itself.
Step 1: Shape your product vision
A great product starts with a compelling vision that does two jobs. First, it aligns the internal team of product managers, designers, and engineers on why the product exists, who it serves, and how it's different. Second, it tells a story that resonates with your audience, including users, talent, partners, and investors. Here's how you can collaborate with your team to create a clear, concise story for your product.
Exercise: Define your product purpose
Creating your product story starts with understanding the purpose of your product. You simply need to answer three questions:
Why does your product exist?
How will you achieve your why?
What is your product?
Exercise: Gain empathy for your customers
Complete an empathy map to develop a deep, shared understanding of your users, including their needs, their pain points, and their motivations.
Output: Product vision
With these resources in hand, your team can define your product vision. You can use this simple, concise format to tell a compelling product story that resonates with your audience.
[Product] is for [target customer] who [statement of need or opportunity]. The [product name] is a [product category] that [key benefit, reason to buy]. Unlike [primary competitive differentiation], our product [statement of primary differentiation].
Step 2: Define success metrics
Clarifying success metrics will help your team rally around what matters most. After all, you can’t be successful when you don’t know what success looks like.
Using your BMC as a jumping-off point, ask yourself this question: If everything goes according to plan, what will you be doing six months from now? A year from now? Five years from now?
Once you’ve filled out your goals, it’s time to quantify your plan. Determine how you plan to measure success and how much runway you have to qualify those metrics. Use the BMC to quantify the desirability, viability, and feasibility of your product.
Output: Metrics for scale
After you complete these exercises, you should be able to create a timeline of key metrics your product team is aiming to achieve. Your roadmap should include metrics that are important to realize in the near, mid, and long term.
Step 3: Ask the right questions
An effective product roadmap is built on the foundation of a compelling story, identifies what success looks like, and answers critical questions about the product and where it’s headed. Before jumping into shipping features, be definitive on which questions will be answered, and when.
Exercise: Generate leap of faith assumptions
With your success metrics clearly defined, now it's time to unpack the riskiest leap of faith assumptions (LOFAs) that will determine the success of your product. Value LOFAs test whether the new product or service will create value for the customer, while growth LOFAs test how customers will adopt the product or processes.
Exercise: Prioritize by impact and urgency
Next, it’s time to prioritize which LOFAs to focus on, both now and in the long term. Use the matrix below (also in the template) to prioritize them by how impactful they are and the time to impact.
Exercise: Define scope of product releases
Once you’ve prioritized your LOFAs, flesh out how your product team will validate them through minimum viable products (MVPs). The goal here is to identify the simplest product or process that can be built to begin learning and validating your assumptions.
Output: Leap of faith assumptions by quarter
The exercises above will give you the direction you need to define the key LOFAs that your product will address. Decide when and in what order each assumption will be a priority.
Step 4: Set your product release timeline
The foundation of a roadmap is quite simple: to describe what you’ll ship and when. But getting to this view can be challenging. Start by auditing your existing feature backlog to determine their frequency and adoption. For the features that require improvement, create an action plan to increase the feature's value, frequency, and/or adoption. Lastly, prioritize features by effort and impact to clarify the sequence of delivery.
Exercise: Feature backlog
Using the MVPs from the previous step, define the core set of features that enable each MVP. Feel free to start with an existing backlog or create features from scratch.
Using data and analytics for the existing product, plot each feature on this 2x2 grid to clarify which features are used frequently and which are adopted across multiple user groups. Incorporate the success metrics from step 2 as a guidepost for evaluation and prioritization.
Output: Product release timeline
Now that you’ve prioritized the features that will help you validate your assumptions and solve your user’s needs, you can create a product release timeline that outlines the features your product will ship over time. These releases should map to the LOFAs and metrics you defined in steps 2 and 3.
Keep in mind that the resilient product roadmap describes how the product is likely to grow over several releases. This differs from the product backlog, which is the detailed document that facilitates execution. Your product team will need to conduct detailed user story grooming and release planning outside of this strategic roadmap to inform the detailed product release timeline.
Step 5: Plan for the unplanned
Once your product roadmap is in place, how can you make sure it continues to be relevant and resilient? By nature, the resilient product roadmap is flexible to meet the changing demands of the market, so you can expect the core aspects of your roadmap to evolve to meet the shifting demands of your customers and business. Even if your destination remains the same, chances are, you’ll need to pivot the path you’re on to get there.
Here are some of the questions you should ask your team on a regular basis, adapted from Strategyzer.
Who are the dominant players in your particular sector?
Who are the new entrants in your market? What are their competitive advantages or disadvantages?
Which products or services could replace yours?
To what extent does your product depend on other key players in the industry value chain?
What are the crucial issues affecting the customer landscape?
Where is the market heading?
What are your most important customer segments? Which are growing or declining?
Have changes in the market impacted customer needs?
What are customers really willing to pay for?
Which technologies represent important opportunities or disruptive threats?
Which regulatory trends influence your market?
Which socioeconomic trends influence your market (e.g., demographic, wealth distribution, spending patterns, urban vs rural settings)?
Which shifts in cultural or societal values affect our product?
Is the economy in a boom or bust phase?
Is seed capital, venture capital, public funding, market capital, or credit readily available?
How easy is it to obtain the resources needed to execute your business model (e.g. attract prime talent)?
How would you rate the quality of life?
Strategic product roadmaps: the bottom line
Remember: A strategic product roadmap doesn’t mean having all the answers. It means asking the right questions and knowing the direction you’re headed.
After all, roadmapping is not a one-and-done activity. The resilient product roadmap is a continuously evolving process that’s designed to adapt with the changing needs of the market, customers, and internal teams.
Now, it’s your turn. Rally stakeholders from product management, design, and engineering for a series of collaborative planning sessions that cover each of the exercises outlined in the template. You can use MURAL’s shared digital workspace to facilitate these workshops, as well as asynchronous collaboration, from anywhere.
About the author
About the authors
Shauna Ward is a content marketing manager at MURAL. As a former remote work skeptic, she enjoys creating resources that help distributed teams make collaboration fun, easy, and effective.