Long Roadmaps Kill Innovation

Whether you’re building innovative products at large companies or small startups, you shouldn’t have a long roadmap. Actually, chances are that if you’re a startup, you probably haven’t even thought of building a roadmap because you’re so focused on getting the initial product to customers. As a large company, this isn’t the case.

In a large company, customers want to know how the product is growing in the next couple years. As a startup, you have no idea if you’ll even be around in the next couple years. I strongly believe that this fundamental difference is the reason why startups build better products than large companies. Startups are constantly learning from customers, users, and other stakeholders. Since many startups don’t have a concrete roadmap, and their only goal is to get more customers (at least it should be), they can continually iterate and improve on the product from the constant stream of feedback and ideas. The goal for a startup is simple: make customers happy, then get more of them.

This is very different for larger companies. Large companies already have a product customers are “happy” with (at lease happy with). So, they are less focused on the product, and more concentrated on the operations. Instead of asking themselves, “how do we build a better product?”, large companies prioritize questions like, “how can we increase our operating margins?”, or “how do we generate enough leads for our sales team?”.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. In fact, it’s a really good thing if you want to build a strong business. The problem is that large companies forget to go back to the initial question, “how do we build a better product?”. Instead of building better products, we tend to see large companies try to innovate through acquisition. This strategy also has issues. If you’re a large company acquiring a large startup/company, that product is likely to have already past the “how do we build a better product” phase. So, the same issue will happen in the next couple years and you’ll need to find another way to innovate. If you’re a large company acquiring a small startup, then guess what, that startup won’t have the drive to innovate anymore. Why? Well, because the bureaucracy and culture of your large company doesn’t drive those values. Even if the team does focus on building a great product, they’ll be asked to provide…wait for it…a roadmap!

Oh, that roadmap. This roadmap isn’t any ordinary roadmap. No, no, no. This roadmap is for 12–24 months. To a startup, this is crazy!

Imagine this…

You spontaneously decide to go to South America. You’ve heard a lot about it and you know the main tourist spots. Now, what if I asked you to plan the next 12 months in South America? You could probably give me a high-level plan of the cities you want to go, and maybe the main attractions, but you don’t have enough information to tell me exactly what you’re going to do and who you’re going to meet. Why? Because you need to figure out those things once you’re in South America! Explore! You amount you can read is limited. If you planned every single detail, you’d miss out of the best parts!

Now, take that analogy and compare it to building an innovative product. Your product is like South America. You’ve done as much research as you can, but you haven’t been there before. Just like the best way to understand South America is to actually go there and explore, the best way to understand your product is by learning from customers . How are they using it? What are they asking for? This is where you learn > build > iterate. Explore this uncharted innovation. More talking to customers and iterating, less planning and roadmapping.

The problem with long roadmaps is instead of learn > build > iterate, you’re forced to learn > build > build > build. If you’re only building, and have no room for uncertainly, and therefore iteration, then you’ll end up building a product that isn’t actually innovative, and chances are, customers won’t love it.

Why does this happen? I believe large companies have stopped caring about building products customers love. Simple.

Here’s my message to large companies: if you’re building new innovative products, don’t ask for long, specific roadmaps. Put emphasis on customer feedback, build the product with your customers, and constantly iterate until those customers love it. You might end up releasing the product sooner because customers can help you identify your MLP (Minimum Lovable Product). To do this, you need to drive the culture from the top. To be clear, don’t force innovation across your entire company. Only promote this methodology for certain teams that are “traveling to South America” and building innovation. Less planning, more doing.

Remember, build products customers love.