The Art & Science of a Product Roadmap

Busy, Busy, Busy. I have an aversion to the word. It alludes to a state of activity with no clear correlation to effectivity. Busy while noble, is a naive concept if it’s without purpose. The primary task of a Product Manager is preventing exactly this. Product Managers define the ‘Why?’ and provide purpose that aligns sprint teams towards shipping incremental units of clear customer value. The badge of busy holds no weight in the eyes of our customers, instead they value whether we have made progress in resolving the job they need to be done (JTBD Theory).

We’re lost, but we’re making good time.” — Yogi Berra

Conversely vision or purpose, without action is nothing more than an unfulfilled aspiration. This is where the Art and Science of a good roadmap comes into play. A good roadmap drips with empathy, bleeds purpose, with rich storytelling that brings to life the narrative of our task. At the same time it’s a methodical decomposition of the task into its smallest shippable units of work.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It’s all too easy for our Roadmaps and subsequent product backlogs to devolve into a ‘to-do’ list that puts us and our teams on an endless hamster wheel of busy. A roadmap should never become a laundry list. In order to safe-guard oneself from this outcome, we must relentlessly ask “why” and ensure that all work ladders back to our purpose | destination.

This laddering concept is what I refer to as the “Decomposition and Recomposition of Purpose”. In that, purpose can systematically broken down into Themes, Epics, and Tasks. This process takes the emotion of purpose and translates it into logical units of work that enables us to iterate towards our cause.

‘Recomposition of purpose’ is nothing more then the aggregate of our tasks. Said otherwise, the sum-total of your actual backlog represents the current view of your purpose.

It’s critical to clarify that these Themes, Epics, and Tasks are not prescriptive directives laid out perfectly in advance. Belief in this, is a trap of artificial precision, and regression to waterfall practices that suggest all is known up front. We must acknowledge existence of a planning horizon, in that near-term tasks are of a high-fidelity, while long-term epics are of lower fidelity. As our teams deliver value, they progress along the roadmap, shifting the planning horizon, and triggering the iterative decomposition of larger low-fidelity Epics into smaller high fidelity tasks.

Just as in life, it’s easy to lose track of our goals, and why we do what we do. We must not fall to the siren song of busy, and it’s external factors pulling us in multiple directions. A good roadmap aligns execution against purpose, and ensures busy is in servitude of our customers.

Creating, communicating, and maintaining a solid roadmap is not an easy task. Merging purpose and execution is frankly the intersection of Product Management art and science. If all else fails though, and you get lost, there is a fail safe. Get out of the office constantly, revise that map, and ask for directions. Customers tend to know how you’re doing on your journey better than you, and whether your team is heading in the right direction.

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