How Product Roadmaps are Built: Survey of Product Managers
Today's guest post comes from Jim Semick, co-founder of ProductPlan. At ProductPlan, we’ve talked with hundreds of product managers about how to prioritize and present product roadmaps. In September 2015, we conducted a survey to shed light on roadmap trends and better understand the challenges product managers face today. Here are five key takeaways from our survey along with insights on how to improve product roadmaps:
1. Top Roadmap Goals are Communication and Prioritization
Not surprisingly, when we asked product managers to share their primary objectives for roadmaps the most common answer was to “communicate product strategy.” After all, most product managers use their roadmaps as a communicative tool. Most of the time, the audience for their roadmaps is executives and other stakeholders. Because the purpose is to present product strategy, the roadmaps are often visual, high-level, and presented in a way that is easy to understand. The second most common roadmap objective from our survey was to “help plan and prioritize.” Building a roadmap — deciding which initiatives to pursue — is a longer process of planning and prioritizing with stakeholders. The roadmap then becomes a strategic prioritization tool for product managers.
2. Bad News: Roadmap Objectives Aren’t Being Met
Unfortunately, many product managers are struggling with their roadmaps. As a follow-up question, we asked product managers to select which roadmap objectives they are having the most trouble achieving. Interestingly, almost half of the product managers said they weren’t achieving their goals of “communicating product strategy” and “planning and prioritizing” — the very objectives they said were most critical.Other notable challenges include:
- Getting consensus on product direction (19%)
- Managing product backlog (16%)
- Communicating milestones and release dates (16%)
In our experience, we’ve found that tying the roadmap to strategic goals can help product managers achieve the communication, prioritization, and consensus they want. Purpose-built product roadmap software can help the product team align their roadmap with strategic goals.
3. Roadmaps Take Too Much Time to Create and Update
Next, we asked about major obstacles that product managers experience with their roadmaps. The top complaints were:
- Takes too much time to create and update (22%)
- Not visually compelling (19%)
- Stakeholders are using outdated information (14%)
These issues probably have a lot to do with the tools product managers use for roadmaps — in fact, 62 percent of those surveyed were using Powerpoint or Excel. The strength of Microsoft Office tools is that they have broad applications and can adapted for almost anything. However, this is also arguably their greatest weakness. Because Powerpoint and Excel are not specifically designed for roadmaps, it can cumbersome to make them work for that purpose. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds with spreadsheets and presentation slides. Too often, the resulting roadmaps are hard to read, hard to share, hard to update, and not very attractive. Despite new tools on the market, only 14 percent of those surveyed indicated they used software specific to product roadmaps.
4. Roadmaps are Mostly Executive-Facing
According to our survey respondents, executives are the most common audience for product roadmaps. The challenge with executive-facing roadmaps is to strike the right balance of conveying high-level information while making it visually compelling and easy to understand.Executive-facing roadmaps, (as well as those shared with the product team—the second most common audience), should communicate overarching strategy and product vision. After getting consensus on what to build, project management tools like JIRA and Microsoft Project can then help you manage the execution of your plans.
5. Most Product Managers Update Roadmaps Weekly or Monthly
Finally, most product managers indicated they update their roadmaps regularly — either monthly or weekly. They see their roadmap as a living document: as plans change or time moves forward, product managers must frequently make adjustments to reflect progress. For product managers, planning, prioritizing, and building roadmaps is one of the most important skills. Unfortunately, our survey showed that many product managers are struggling to deliver on these goals. Over time we’re hopeful that new solutions and techniques will make the roadmap process easier. View the full results of our 2015 product roadmap survey.