The product lifecycle constantly evolves. Keeping everyone informed with a product roadmap, from defining the MVP to anticipating what it will be in three years, is critical to getting the 360-degree buy-in you need to position your product for long-term success in the market.
In this guide, we’ll describe the benefits of having a good product roadmap and list what should be included in the document depending on your audience. Then we’ll explain, in detail and with real-world examples, how to create a product roadmap that everyone understands, from executive leadership and peer organizations to customers and partners.
Table of contents
- What is a product roadmap?
- What are the main objectives and benefits of a product roadmap?
- What is included in a product roadmap?
- How to build a product roadmap everyone understands
- Collecting feedback (and muting the noise)
- How does a product roadmap relate to a product backlog?
- Product roadmap example/template
- Tooling and other considerations
What is a product roadmap?
A product roadmap is a shared, living document that outlines the vision and direction of your product throughout its lifecycle. The roadmap, at its most basic level, articulates what you are building and why. It also lays out the team’s strategy for delivering value and serves as a plan for executing the overall product strategy.
What are the main objectives and benefits of a product roadmap?
It’s the product manager’s responsibility to build and manage a live roadmap that is fluid and resilient. They must convince stakeholders why the investment makes sense, obtain buy-in and the support system from inside and outside the organization, set expectations, and deliver a sense of excitement about what’s to come.
Product managers can generate the support they need to successfully push for investment in a new product or feature by:
- Securing executive buy-in to build and sustain the product
- Specifying short- and long-term needs from all teams
- Demonstrating cohesion with ecosystem partners
- Showing customers why the product is aligned to their needs
- Applying principles that offer flexibility to adapt while minimizing noise
What is included in a product roadmap?
The first step in defining a product is to convince leadership that the offering aligns with the corporate strategy. While a product vision presents this alignment and a cash flow analysis demonstrates the value, it becomes real when leadership views the product roadmap.
The information included in the roadmap should give the executive team confidence that the offering is viable and worthy of organizational and financial support. It should include a clearly defined goal and a list of key steps or milestones toward achieving that objective.
A product roadmap should also articulate the overall product strategy and provide context to explain how it will help the team deliver on the goals spelled out in the product vision.
How to build a product roadmap everyone understands
The key to building a good product roadmap is to understand your audience. A roadmap designed to gain buy-in from company leadership looks very different from one meant to appeal to customers. This is where a theme-based product roadmap can really come in handy, as described in this helpful guide by Andrea Saez.
In the following sections, we’ll explain how to create a product roadmap that will gain buy-in from executive leadership, the organization as a whole, partners, and customers.
A roadmap for leadership needs to capture when the MVP will be available, the target customers, expected revenue, and demographics of product usage. Stakeholders will want to know when attaining total market potential is feasible (general release) and considerations for upsell opportunities. With each feature, they will want to understand the purpose and sequencing.
The main purpose of a product roadmap is to educate and convince leadership that the product or feature is worth their investment. Another key reason is to seek their direction. You have some of the best minds on the call, so you might as well leverage it!
Leadership also needs to know the KPIs you monitor and will expect updates on how you track periodically. A product roadmap sets the stage for critical thinking. It sets expectations on when volumes will ramp so that leadership has a direction on the short and long-term outlook.
Be creative about what you present as a roadmap. Typically, presentations demonstrate a timeline at the top, the critical features, and a two-line summary. That isn’t sufficient in many cases. The narrative that captures the essential customers at each phase is vital.
Creating product roadmaps for peer organizations requires a much broader perspective beyond the engineering team.
For example, consider the operations team when processing claims; manual processing might be necessary for some scenarios when starting a new initiative. Your ability to identify these scenarios, the number of transactions expected every month, and features that make such processing unnecessary can make or break a project. Consider every team the product touches internally, including legal, procurement, analytics, and implementation (we will gate to sales in a bit).
Turning our attention back to the product development team, understanding what “done” looks like is very important. While a customer or leadership-facing roadmap does not need a detailed view, this is crucial for a development team. The roadmap must break down further to articulate parts of a more extensive feature that needs prioritization versus later enhancements.
Implementation and customer success teams need clarity on when features are available in sandbox and production environments to prepare their teams with the requisite training. The analytics team needs communication when new datasets are obtainable to drive KPI measurements.
Development teams need a roadmap to devise the product architecture. Most successful products work because of a tacit alignment between product management and engineering.
I find it valuable to work with the team to get creative about breaking down a more significant feature. My rule of thumb is that if it takes more than two weeks to develop, a further breakdown might be necessary. This feature breakdown translates into a more detailed roadmap that drives cross-functional alignment.
Note that the feature split should be outcome-driven — it shouldn’t be a breakdown to measure progress alone. You may ask, why wouldn’t a leadership team care about this? To put it simply, they would, and communication is critical if the feature split is significant enough. Frequently, these splits are a matter of UX enhancements, not revenue-blocking ones.
System integrators (SIs) are frequently the medium between the product and the user. Their adoption could make or break your offering.
Consider an ERP system. Product companies such as SAP rely on system integrators such as Accenture to deploy and manage the solution for the client.
Imagine that your product’s enhancement (however well-intended) breaks existing customization. Suppose the SI didn’t see this coming, or this occurs frequently. In that case, the SI might stop upgrading the product because the client now considers the downtime due to an upgrade to be unacceptable. Don’t be that product!
Webinars are a great way to relay the product roadmap for the next quarter. While that constitutes a good start, it is critical to document, especially UI or API changes, and present a forewarning of possible compatibility issues. The bottleneck isn’t the work to prepare for an upgrade but showing poorly in front of the client.
Customers and users
Customers expect your product to provide immediate relief to a current pain point while also demanding that it goes above and beyond.
For an example, take this tale of two vendors. In one of my previous roles, our operations depended heavily on solutions from third-party vendors. Without getting into specific details, both vendors offered overlapping products.
The pain point was that data resided in their systems. Vendor 1 did not provide a standard interface to retrieve data for deeper analytics. Vendor 2 did, but there was considerable pressure to set up our AI and automation environments.
During our next quarterly, we requested both vendors to present their roadmaps. When vendor 2 showed us its roadmap, it was apparent that their reps had listened to our needs. More crucially, the roadmap included well-defined timelines. Vendor 1 had plans to deliver significant updates, including ones that would have made our issues disappear. Unfortunately, it never presented anything aside from a motivational speech. This eliminated vendor 1 and we consolidated our solutions through Vendor 2.
The account manager for Vendor-1 admitted offline that he never got the product team’s backing to present anything to the customer. Put yourself in their shoes: Why would a sales manager sell your product to the customer? If you cannot provide a roadmap, pricing, and timing for a product, you might as well not build it.
Another consideration is building a suite of product capabilities that enables incremental opportunities. Think of your product as a set of Lego blocks where the outcomes are more remarkable than the sum of the parts. You are overdelivering to most of your customers when you build something as an all-inclusive product.
A customer-facing roadmap is typically a quarterly or monthly timeline highlighting significant enhancements to the product. It needs to relay in about 15–20 words why the feature drives value for them.
The sales team prefers a similar snapshot. However, I recommend customizing it depending on the sales team’s audience.
Collecting feedback (and muting the noise)
Knowing what feedback is crucial versus what is noise is essential to building sustainable products.
When introducing a new product, you can always expect feedback, which is god. However, most of it is tactical, and suggestions tend to resolve a symptom rather than a root cause.
As an example, once I had a customer demand a feature for a unique scenario. The sales team was adamant that the product was a no-go until we added the feature. We got on a call with the customer, talked through it, and determined it was an arcane rule that wasn’t even valid.
In other cases, I’ve seen product teams turn an enhancement request into an opportunity for a new revenue stream. The point is to separate the signal from the noise. Don’t be afraid to reprioritize your product roadmap when there is a good rationale.
Get on a call with the customer and have an open-ended discussion; you might discover unpolished diamonds that could lead to new avenues for success. Once you deliver an MVP, get close with the users and measure the product’s results against expectations. Understand the critical pain points. Then, brutally prioritize them against ROI, ease of development, the product’s readiness, and the market.
How does a product roadmap relate to a product backlog?
As a product manager, you own the backlog. Make sure to capture backlog items, drive transparency within the organization, and provide a rationale.
The product roadmap is a fluid document; it may evolve based on a wide range of parameters, such as a change in organization’s strategy, a shift in the market or user behavior, or the arrival of a new competitor.
The backlog needs to be regularly updated and realigned to keep up with changes in the product roadmap. It’s common for user stories and tasks to become outdated during this process, so you should remove these irrelevant items from the backlog as soon as you receive clear-cut direction from the stakeholders.
Remember that product management is 70 percent science and 30 percent craft, so get creative!
Product roadmap example/template
Below is an example product roadmap for a real-world product. Notice how it transitions from one phase to the following entry criteria considerations, including fine-tuning the product, people, and processes. These considerations also provided requisite filters to determine the beachhead customers.
Feel free to use this example product roadmap as a template when building your own roadmaps.
There is no shame in starting small and then scaling. It is vital, though, to set those expectations in your product roadmap.
I want to call out two key observations about this example product roadmap, which is based on a real product I worked on (sanitized, for obvious reasons): One, we had plans for additional integrations to introduce a new revenue stream. However, we didn’t pursue that model until we got the basics right.
The second takeaway goes back to being flexible: We identified a new opportunity we hadn’t even conceived when exploring further. Don’t underestimate the power of open-ended discussions with your customer.
Tooling and other considerations
It is critical to make sure that there is alignment across the board. As a product manager, your job is to ensure that the leadership, internally facing, and customer-facing roadmaps are synchronized.
Tools such as Aha integrate well with Jira, and it is possible to set up such tools to automate the flow to provide real-time status. I have seen success with Azure DevOps as well. Whichever tool you decide to invest in, leverage it as well as you can by integrating with other systems for full transparency.
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