How To Unplan Your 2016 Product Roadmap

andrea saez
Dec 7, 2015 · 4 min read

As the end of the year approaches, you might be scrambling to get your 2016 roadmap together. If you’re planning release dates for features you want to work on in the upcoming year, my best advice to you is stop right now. Your priorities are going to change, and you won’t be able to adjust to changes if you’re tied down to dates.

Product management is based on hypothesis, testing, and iterations. Think of your product as an ongoing experiment. As you’re solving a particular problem, new discoveries and unplanned issues force you to change the way you approach it.

This is what we call “Lean Product Management” in the product world.

Planning for new features on a quarterly basis without considering this will essentially cause your product to crumble. That’s when you end up feeling a little like this:

https://twitter.com/deeebeau/status/672143456979066880?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Jeff Gothelf, Principal at Neo, said this recently at a panel for product managers: “Changing directions means admitting you were wrong. And most companies don’t reward being wrong.”

And as a product manager, you’re going to be wrong a lot. You’re building a product that’s never been built. You’re releasing it into a competitive landscape that’s always undergoing change, and competing with other products that are themselves always morphing and improving. The reality is that you will definitely be wrong.

Yet product managers don’t change directions as often as they need to, because this is what they’ve done:

  • They’ve commited features on their roadmaps with deadlines
  • They don’t have a way to go back and cancel a feature or switch priorities because it would make everyone else freak out

Even if they know a feature should no longer be built, they can’t change course. In the agile world, that’s disastrous…and also a bit perplexing. You’re not building a car or an oven. You don’t need to stick to the plan. You should be able to change that plan, move your soldiers around and charge forward!

So what can you do instead?

Focus on solving problems

Instead of promising unrealistic deliverables, take a look at the status of your product today. Look to your customer feedback, usage analytics, and your product’s conversion metrics.

Here, you should be able to identify themes that you can improve, like your onboarding process, or areas of your product that are going unused. These themes are your roadmap cards.

Once you have your cards set up, sort through your idea backlog and user stories, and prioritize them. Repeat the same process with each card.

A theme-based roadmap, communicates three key things to your clients and internal stakeholders:

  • The problems you are trying to solve
  • The steps you will take to solve said problems
  • Your current, near term, and future priorities

Most importantly, you’re communicating that you can and will adjust to upcoming changes. Your ability to change gears is far more important to clients than your ability to deliver on a priority that is no longer a priority.

Remember the famous words: “Don’t give them what they want, give them what they need.”

Make sure your entire team is on the same page

As you focus on which problems to solve, make sure that the rest of your team — including sales, marketing, and support — are all on the same page. Put your emphasis on the outcomes you want to work towards together.

Quit worrying about next year’s release dates. It’s not like you’re not starting a brand new product from scratch on Jan 1st.

Rather, you’re continuing to iterate and improve on what you left off a few weeks back.

Don’t get caught up in the frenzy of starting afresh, and certainly don’t try to map out your entire year — we’ve already told you dates are counter-productive. Set yourself up for success by setting achievable goals that are tied to solving problems and learning from the mistakes of the previous year.

Take advantage of the holiday season by buying warming spiced lattes for anyone who’ll sit and go over your wireframes, value props and goals for the coming year. If you really want to spend some time working on your roadmap this month,outline the problems that are most important to solve.

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