Balancing Strategic and Tactical Needs in Your Roadmap

One of the reasons feature prioritisation is so hard in high-growth companies is that there is no one-size-fits-all process that encompasses all of the early stages of a product’s evolution. What worked at the very beginning of a company’s growth is unlikely to work once the product is in-market, and starts to attract users. This is because at the very start of the product’s life, there are no users — and progress comes on in leaps and bounds. As soon as customers start using the product, their demands start to consume increasingly large amounts of development capacity, squeezing out those all-important strategic features.

How development resources are consumed over the early product cycle

I like to split features into 4 main buckets:

  • Strategic
  • Acquisition
  • Growth
  • Retention

Let’s look at these in some more detail:

Strategic

Strategic features are the reason why the product exists — the sum of all strategic features should equal the product vision. These are the features that the founders of the company bet the farm on — and investors put their hands in their pockets to see made real. The MVP (minimum viable product) is made almost entirely of strategic features.

However, over time, strategic features can be the most controversial. They are, by their nature, often expensive in terms of resources, but may have no customers or prospects asking for them (and willing to pay). Despite that, they are deemed critical for the full expression of the product strategy by product visionaries, perhaps even at the expense of short term revenue.

Strategic features are of course important to drive future revenue streams, but perhaps most importantly for company valuation. Markets and acquirers will always want to see future revenue growth potential and the ability to elongate the ‘S curve’ of innovation (see Clayton Christenson’s ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’).

Acquisition

Acquisition features are primarily designed to bring new customers on board. They don’t necessarily translate into the features that really deliver the most on-going value — but they do deliver the ‘wow’ factor that makes customers want to engage, or remove the customer’s fear of having to learn something new. Examples would be visual ‘eye candy’ features that make the product demo well, but don’t necessarily help with day-to-day useability (usually fancy dashboards) or training focused — e.g. product walkthroughs. For a product that has a different buyer persona to user persona, these features can sometimes be more targeted at the buyer persona, or the buyer persona’s (often imperfect) interpretation of the user persona needs.

Growth

These are the features that really make the product work as it should do — and are usually targeted at existing users. They can be tweaks to processes and workflows, or usability enhancements. Essentially, these tend to be things that really embed product usage into the target persona’s day-to-day life. They ensure that users extend their use of your product, and makes it more likely that they will reference your product bringing more users onboard organically.

Retention

These features are often quite unsexy. They ensure that as user and data volumes grow, the product is able to keep up. These are usually non-functional requirements, such as scalability, security and speed.

Three Early Stages of Product Evolution

Three phases in the early product lifecycle

Each phase in the product’s maturity requires a different balance of features from each of these buckets in order to be successful. I like to think of the early product lifecycle as having three distinct phases, each with a specific mix:

  1. Vision Focused — pretty much all resources are focused on getting the MVP out of the door — features are almost entirely strategic, with some retention features, in the form of the first iteration of the underlying platform. In this phase it is vitally important not to over-engineer the underlying platform, because you’re inevitably going to have to rewrite it soon anyway.
  2. Customer Acquisition Focused — now the product is in-market, there is a phase of rapid iteration to optimise for customer acquisition —and that will dramatically reduce the development resources available for strategic feature development. Note that acquisition features at this point will often be commercially focused, for example changes to pricing models (including freemium), as well as ironing out kinks in sign-up and onboarding. Although it can feel like a diversion from building the important stuff, getting users onto the product is essential to validate that you are building the right thing — the last thing you want to end up with is a beautiful product no one wants to use.
  3. Customer Success Focused — now customers are actively using the product, this phase focuses on retention and growth features. Ensuring that users can successfully reach the outcomes they’ve been sold on is essential to minimising churn, and maximising referencability. This phase relies on careful listening to users through all available channels. This is also where sales, marketing and product teams start to clash as room for ‘sexy’ features (generally strategic and acquisition features) give way to features that just have to be done. This is nowhere more apparent than when considering retention features, and careful assessment of how long these can be delayed before the product blows up requires a good deal of honesty between technical and commercial teams.

Finding the balance

Of course every product is different, but hopefully this generic model is useful. By categorising features into the four buckets discussed, it will help to guide the prioritisation process, and ensure your product maintains a healthy balance between innovation and customer needs.