Business leaders need to shift away from product roadmaps – here’s how

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For years, business leaders have viewed product roadmaps as the backbone of business innovation and productivity. And it’s true that they can provide notable benefits to businesses, and that every stakeholder has a vested interest in them.

Product roadmaps can bring together stakeholders and product development teams, which improves communication and helps visualize goals and processes. They can assist with planning, offering business leaders greater visibility over required resources, thereby allowing them to anticipate and avoid risks. Product roadmaps can even be a great source of PR for companies. If promoted effectively, they can generate excitement and media coverage through news of upcoming launches and announcements.

Unfortunately, however, the reality is increasingly becoming quite the opposite. In industries where innovation and adaptability are crucial (take any vertical in which SaaS products are leveraged for example), traditional product roadmaps are, quite simply, outdated. At the very least they may not be fit for purpose in a modern, innovative business that needs to be agile and responsive.

Companies need to adopt a more adaptive, continuous approach to product development and communication in order to ensure and maximize business innovation and productivity.

John Purcell

Chief Product Officer (CPO) of DoiT.

The limits of product roadmaps

So, what are the pitfalls of product roadmaps? And what are their impacts?

Firstly, product roadmaps can slow progress and stifle innovation. They lead businesses to impose strict schedules to work towards which fail to consider flexibility according to changing business needs. In the day-to-day running of a business, it’s inevitable that sometimes changes will have to be made. Such a lack of adaptability can cause these alterations to become a much heavier burden than they need to be, which ultimately costs companies not only time and productivity, but also the emotional well-being of their employees. This can cause a fear of change that actually jeopardizes innovation, and therefore sales, with developers sticking to the plan rather than adapting as needed.

Granular and time-centric product roadmaps also have a bad habit of eroding customer trust. While customers ask about them for a variety of reasons - from wanting to know when a bug will be fixed, to where, and in what, your business is investing, or even just because they want to check that their vendor is innovative and ahead of market trends - sharing that level of detail can quickly be construed as “commitment” and therefore lock the organization to an inflexible plan. Whether hard or soft, delivery commitments frequently result in disappointment on the part of customers. When the business priority shifts (and it will), these promises feel broken.

Despite the objective to align stakeholders, developers and marketing and sales executives, product roadmaps often counterproductively introduce communication challenges amongst teams. If a roadmap is unclear, overly complex or isn’t made accessible to all the appropriate teams, it’s unsurprising that miscommunication occurs. Whether this is confusion around priorities, anticipated timelines or overall expectations for a project, poor communication ultimately has a demonstrable impact on team collaboration and overall decision-making.

Unfortunately, all of these factors also impact innovation and sales.

Adopting a more flexible, continuous approach

As an alternative to product roadmaps, businesses need to prioritize the delivery of continuous value, rather than sticking to rigid schedules. Becoming fixated on data-driven schedules is one of the biggest mistakes a company can make. Technology is constantly evolving, so why are businesses sticking to strict schedules?

Instead of promising specific dates for product completion, for example, tell stakeholders that you’ll provide updates as and when they’re available. This way, business leaders and product developers aren’t tied to deadlines, and releasing a product or feature iteratively over time can often mean that customers experience value earlier than expected. A continuous approach also allows for greater adaptability to changing conditions, and allows developer teams to pivot and respond efficiently to evolving market dynamics and customer needs.

Businesses also need to increase the value that they place on customer feedback. Rather than focusing exclusively on product roadmaps, try facilitating open communication and discussion around a problem area, product strategy or direction. Listen to the feedback and then take action – there’s a lot you could probably learn from it! Such an approach also fosters innovation and experimentation, with feedback often resulting in more customer-centric products and services.

For example, customers could be requesting to see a product roadmap because they want to know when a bug will be fixed or they might be struggling with an emerging use case. If something like this is shared as an area of key concern it can be bumped up the queue. Focus on solving high-priority problems immediately, and then make a long-term plan to address the others.

In summary, despite their benefits, product roadmaps are generally inadequate to suit the needs and processes of modern business. We are in an era of continuous rethinking, innovation and development – it’s only natural that an old-school tool like product roadmaps should move on too. Focusing on continuous development and product enhancement is the way to go for businesses to maximize innovation, productivity and, ultimately, sales.

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John Purcell is the Chief Product Officer (CPO) of DoiT and oversees the global research and development (R&D) team and the DoiT product portfolio.