Many organizations today assume a product roadmap is essential – the only logical way to understand where a product is right now and where it will be at specific points down the road. They believe a clear delineation of milestones and deadlines will give them a view into the future and, hopefully, some control over it.
Internal stakeholders often seek clarity when the company’s growth hinges on product revenue, as it does for many SaaS providers. The sales team is eager to know what new features they’ll have to attract clients, and the marketing team is striving to build the brand and launch effective advertising and PR campaigns at exactly the right moment. Meanwhile, operations managers want to be ready with the resources needed in the days ahead. External clients are also conditioned to ask for a product roadmap, seeking assurance that the vendor is innovative, on top of the market and staying abreast of trends.
For all these reasons, you’re probably faced with regular requests for product roadmaps. Don’t automatically comply. A roadmap is rarely the best way to give any of your stakeholders what they really want – an understanding of your product strategy and direction.
There’s an inherent problem with roadmaps. Nobody can predict the future, so no roadmap will ever be 100% accurate. Things change. In fact, constant change is one of the hallmarks of a SaaS business. We need to be super nimble, agile and able to pivot quickly in an industry that’s in perpetual motion.
When we design a time-driven schedule that commits to delivering X by Y, we’ve created a no-win situation. If we don’t follow our original plan, we lose credibility and the confidence of our customers as well as colleagues.
On the other hand, if we firmly adhere to a rigid schedule of deliverables, we lose the flexibility we need to adjust to new market conditions or customer needs. Pivoting from a plan takes time and money, slowing production and angering customers and partners. Delays stifle innovation and derail the creative process, frustrating developers. Under the pressure of fixed, unrealistic timelines, many businesses end up making poor decisions that dissatisfy all concerned.
A smarter solution
Rather than spelling out specific milestones and deadlines, consider a more fluid approach. If someone asks me where we’re taking a product, I respond with a now/next/later continuum that pointedly does not include a calendar-based timeline spelling out when tasks will be done. Instead, I tell them what we’re currently invested in, what we’re doing next and what we expect to be doing later. Great discussions inevitably follow.
As an R&D organization, we focus on the speed and frequency of delivery, breaking big projects down into bite-sized elements we can release more frequently. Continuous delivery makes much more sense than a predetermined schedule. We don’t assure stakeholders we’ll deliver something by a certain date; we promise to provide enhancements as soon as they’re available. When you roll out a product or feature in frequent iterations over time, customers can enjoy the benefits of the various elements much sooner than if you delayed everything till the whole package was fully completed. In fact, I’ve found that customers often realize that what they truly need is different to what they say they want. Delivering continuously reveals that moment much sooner.
There will be occasions when clients request a roadmap because they’re hoping for a solution to a problem they’re experiencing. In that case, reframe the discussion to focus on the issue and not the timeline. Explore their specific problem and determine how to resolve it. Similarly, if customers anticipate an emerging need, figure out what features and capabilities they want. Build a robust, transparent Feature Request process and be sure to provide concrete feedback showing you hear their concerns and are investing appropriately, even if that means you won’t work on their request. Any time a customer offers product feedback, listen up! You will almost always get added context that will inform future development and might even hear something that deserves immediate resources.
The advantage of fast, frequent updates
Once you understand your customers’ current and future needs, you can explain your product strategy – where you’re investing to meet today’s needs and solve today’s problems, and where you expect to invest next. That’s much more informative than a four-quarter timeline built on assumptions made today and possibly irrelevant tomorrow.
This strategy makes sense considering the basic concept of SaaS, which eliminates the purchasing of packaged or downloadable software that’s more or less frozen in time. A subscription allows customers to benefit from technology that’s always evolving and improving. Emphasizing that point helps your clients realize the inefficiency of date-driven schedules that actually stifle innovation.
Product roadmaps have become something of an anachronism in today’s high-speed tech world. That doesn’t mean you won’t get requests for them. But rather than shackling yourself to an unrealistic schedule, train yourself to explain what you’re investing in now, next and later. Concentrate on developing continuous product enhancements that you release frequently, addressing real needs as they arise. Customers will see that you’re moving ahead and ushering them into the future with you.