“We’re agile, so we don’t need a product roadmap.”
In an increasingly agile world, I’ve heard this statement and variations of it time and time again. Organizations implementing agile methods often struggle to see how and where a long-term strategy fits in while working under a philosophy built on uncertainty.
At first, roadmapping and agile product management seem more different than alike. After all, a roadmap suggests strategic planning and a long-term product vision. Agile development, by contrast, suggests short-term cycles and frequently shifting priorities. But opposites attract. And these two near-opposites work best when used together.
Many agile teams rely heavily on the product backlog to plan sprints, but a prioritized backlog alone does not serve the same function as a strategic product roadmap. Even agile product management processes need to balance strategic and tactical thinking. Which is why we can consider the product roadmap and product backlog the yin and yang of product management in an agile world. Here’s why.
Why Agile Teams Need Strategic Product Roadmaps
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless,
but planning is indispensable”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Strategy precedes planning
If you don’t know where you’re heading, how will your team determine how to get there? An agile product roadmap speaks in terms of epics and themes, while in the backlog are the detailed features and other tasks that deliver the product. In a sense, the backlog is a translation of how your team will deliver the vision outlined on an agile product roadmap.
You need that strategic vision and those broad themes as a starting point for the rest of your process. The goals and objectives described in your strategic product roadmap are prerequisites for tactical planning.
Roadmaps guide us through moments of uncertainty
In uncertain times, sailors can look to the sky for navigational guidance. High-level planning distilled in a product roadmap serves as a strategic north star to help product teams find their way through uncertain seas.
When the best path forward is not automatically clear, a strategic product roadmap sheds light on which general direction to steer the ship. Furthermore, theme-based product roadmaps help keep teams focused on the things that matter most while prioritizing tactical work in the backlog.
Roadmaps are a critical communication tool
Product roadmaps are indispensable tools for communicating strategy across organizations. Unlike product backlogs, which describe tactical objectives, roadmaps describe high-level objectives.
An agile product roadmap communicates the big picture. It provides an easy-to-digest overview of desired business outcomes. Usually arranged by strategic themes, an agile roadmap is not a prescriptive list of features to be built. Rather it addresses areas that warrant attention. What key metrics are most important to the business? How can the product stay competitive in the market? What customer segments are underserved or likely to churn?
Big-picture thinking like this can’t be distilled in the backlog. Especially when the backlog is 200 items long and arranged in iterations or sprints. Executives and other key stakeholders need that high-level strategy that speaks for the why behind the initiatives your team ships.
3 Considerations for Agile Roadmapping
If you want to get the most out of your agile product roadmap, there are a few things you’ll want to consider.
- Your product roadmap should not be a plan set in stone. Instead, it is a living document that must be treated as such. Much like the product backlog, it’s wise to discuss, re-prioritize, and share your product roadmap often to reflect new findings and changes in the world around you.
- Set expectations carefully with stakeholders about the roadmap. Specifically, that it will inevitably change. One of the benefits of taking the theme-based approach to agile roadmapping is its built-in flexibility. Rather than promising a specific feature set to stakeholders, you can commit to focusing on a broader theme built around business objectives.
- Communicate early and often. Discuss changes and adjustments as they are made and be clear about why initiatives get shuffled around. You need everyone on the same page with you. Especially executive stakeholders who often need to sign off on plans. You need to have a way to quickly share updates with everyone involved. Your agile product roadmap therefore should be a visual, easy-to-digest document that your stakeholders can understand at a glance.
About the Author
Founder and Chief Strategist at ProductPlan
Jim Semick is co-founder of ProductPlan, a leading provider of product roadmap software. For over 15 years he has helped launch new products now generating hundreds of millions in revenue. He was part of the founding team at AppFolio, a vertical SaaS company. Prior to AppFolio, Jim validated and helped launch GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting (acquired by Citrix). Jim is a frequent speaker on product management and the process of discovering successful business models. Follow Jim at @JimSemick.
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