Quick summary ↬
Product roadmaps are often treated as a series of checkboxes. But they are more than that. In this article, Scott Himmer explains how internal partnerships, research, design systems, and regular touch bases can help make sure that your product roadmap is a successful one.
Companies can often carry their products into the future with a “feed the machine” mentality. To meet customer demands they continually pack more features into a product only to find that it’s making it more and more complicated over time. In the flurry to keep feeding the demand, they side-step prudent measures to help them assess the impact of the changes they’re making.
The Maintenance Cycle (The Problem)
This can eventually lead to a backlog of customer frustration. Inevitably a company can find itself in a situation where working on anything new has to be balanced by addressing technical debt, or worse yet, any improvement they want to make is done in a “bolt-on” fashion adding debt on top of debt. I attribute this to a wide variety of reactionary cultural phenomena.
I liken it to a flat tire on your automobile. For those of us that are experienced or knowledgeable in this area (says the guy who used to be a tow truck driver in a previous life), if you have a puncture on the flat wall of the tire there’s a good chance you can plug or patch it. If it’s on the sidewall of the tire you’re going to need to replace the tire.
So say, for example, a troublesome area of your product is a gash in the sidewall of your tire. If you don’t address it quickly your product (your car… the vehicle that makes the company go) will come to a screeching halt. You’ll need to pull over, stop the car, and get it fixed. Yes, this will mean downtime, and downtime equals lost revenue. Rarely is this the case, but it can happen. Especially if your technology stack has just been hacked and set up for ransom. In that case, you just lost all four wheels and will need to wait for the tow truck.
Or let’s say that you’ve been getting numerous complaints regarding your onboarding/setup process for your product. The car continues to be operational and drive well, but the barrier to adoption is potentially equivalent to a slow leak on your flat wall. Pesky nails! Or maybe, you’ve left this area of your product to carry on without regular maintenance or pruning. You could also compare it to wearing your tire treads down until they’re bald. Again, the car is still operational, but you’re running on borrowed time. It’s only a matter of time before you have a blowout, or worse, you have an accident.
No matter your analogy, these companies can find themselves in situations where they have to keep the product going but recognize that functional and fundamental changes need to be made.
Landscapes, Not Roadmaps
If your product is the car that makes your company go, then typically you would have a roadmap that tells your car where it’s going. It may not detail how it’s going to get there but at least it’s a flattened view of the roads, intersections, and turns that will be needed in the coming future. This might be fine for a sunny afternoon cruise but it assumes many things.
For example, what if there’s construction (technical debt)? How will we reroute without it costing more time? What if we reach our destination way too early because we forgot to pick up some items for the soiree and now there’s no time to backtrack?
From my perspective, roadmaps are generally treated as a series of checkboxes.
“We did that... check!
Then we did this... check!
Now... we’ll do that thing.”
We check the boxes and forget that generally speaking some things got left behind from the desired work. Sometimes an important detail didn’t make it into scope, but we checked the box and moved on. It’s sort of like getting all the lug nuts on your wheel, but we left one a little loose.
“Sorry about that... you should be fine. If you run into a problem, let us know.”
The problem with this approach is that the damage is done. The damage in the relationship between you and your customers is far more important than the lug nut you failed to get on properly for the 1–2pts of work it would have been to ship it a little later.