How to Create an Effective Product Roadmap
A step-by-step guide to crafting a strategic roadmap that drives product success
A product roadmap is an essential tool for product managers and leaders. It is a high-level plan that maps out the product's evolution over a specific time period. It provides a sense of purpose, sets expectations, aligns stakeholders, helps prioritize tasks, makes budgeting smoother, and gives visibility to customers.
The product roadmap is a layer below the product strategy. While the product strategy explains on a high level how to achieve the product vision, the roadmap goes one level more in detail, outlining the What - what activities need to be done to make the strategy a reality.
However, in practice, creating an effective roadmap is often challenging. And a poorly executed roadmap leads to confusion, distrust, and misalignment, causing more harm than good.
So, how do you build an effective roadmap?
The problem with the traditional product roadmaps
Traditional product roadmaps are intricate, outlining a predetermined set of features tied to specific timelines, milestone dates, or release schedules.
While this structure may provide reassurance and optimism for everyone, it comes with significant drawbacks.
Time, more often than not, proves to be inaccurate. A roadmap with specific dates would face challenges in execution, especially in agile development environments where predicting details months in advance is unattainable. Even with a well-prepared team ready for timely execution, external dependencies—such as delays in other teams or the provision of necessary data by customers—can disrupt the planned course of action.
The delivery of a feature does not guarantee the desired outcome. Even if the predetermined set of features is delivered punctually, there is no assurance of achieving any desired impact. Why? Because realising outcomes often demands experimentation. Committing upfront to new product features (especially with fixed deadlines) transforms the team into a "feature factory" focused on timely delivery rather than ensuring that what they deliver makes a meaningful impact.
With these two drawbacks, the outcome is clear: over time the roadmap diverges significantly from the reality, and effort is being invested without visible business benefits. This creates confusion among teams, erodes trust, and leads to a loss of perspective on direction.
Traditional roadmaps excel in guiding projects with clear goals, scope and milestones. However, in organisations where the product is central and uncertainties are prevalent, their rigid structure is counterproductive, hindering innovation and adaptability.
Outcome-based product roadmaps
The concept of an outcome-based roadmap is gaining more traction. Unlike traditional roadmaps, this method shifts the focus from detailing upcoming features to emphasizing desired outcomes.
The idea behind this approach is to keep teams focused on achieving meaningful results, aligning them around shared outcomes, and importantly, encouraging experimentation and learning. It instills a mindset where validation becomes crucial.
Features are crafted to drive outcomes. However, often, it’s only an assumption that a feature will drive the intended outcome. Before adding such a feature to the roadmap, it requires validation. Throughout its enhancement and development, continuous monitoring is recommended to ensure the right outcome is being achieved.
This is particularly true when a feature involves changing user behaviour. For instance, before adding a feature like an Interactive User Onboarding Tutorial to Increase User Engagement, teams must prioritise the outcome - in this case, increasing user engagement. They need to validate if implementing an Interactive User Onboarding Tutorial is the right approach. Once a basic version is available to users, observation and measurement of results become critical.
An important characteristic of Outcome-driven roadmaps is their advocacy for highly flexible timelines. One example is simplifying the timeline to a format without specific dates, categorising items into "NOW," "THEN," and "LATER,". This format highlights current key priorities (NOW), followed by subsequent items (THEN), and finally, ideas slated for the future (LATER).
In the real world, we might need elements from both.
Outcome-driven roadmaps are highly effective, and I strongly advocate for their adoption. However, it's crucial to pragmatically address real-world scenarios and understand what we need for our specific situation.
In practice, there are instances in the business world where specific dates are non-negotiable, such as achieving GDPR compliance or obtaining a security certification before an investment round. Decommissioning legacy software and migrating customers to a new platform may also be non-negotiable due to the end-of-life of a used legacy platform. Such cases warrant timelines with clear deadlines and concrete scope that need to be implemented.
While championing an outcome-driven mindset, incorporating elements from traditional roadmaps where necessary is not a problem, as long as we are clear about the rationale behind the choice and as long as we follow the principles defined below.
Key principles of an effective product roadmap
Developing an effective product roadmap requires a thoughtful consideration of a few essential principles.
Builds on top of the strategy: A solid company and product strategy is a prerequisite for a well-developed roadmap. A product roadmap should build on top of the product strategy and should clearly connect the product roadmap activities to the product strategic goals.
Provides context: A roadmap, as a communication tool, needs to be clear. It goes beyond listing tasks, answering the "why" to help everyone understand how the work fits into the bigger organisational picture.
Simplicity is key: A roadmap should use simple language, free of jargon that only your team understands. To be an effective communication tool, the level of abstraction should be in accordance with the audience.
Facilitates experimentation: A roadmap should incorporate experimentation and validation, avoiding the inclusion of features committed to build without proper validation.
Allows for adaptability: A roadmap should embrace the unpredictable nature of business. While short-term activities can be more specific as they are more predictable, it should maintain a high-level approach for the future, allowing for change and adaptation.
Follows an Iterative Process: A roadmap is not a one-time task. It should follow an iterative process, regularly refined and updated to ensure alignment with evolving strategies and organisational goals.
Steps to create a roadmap (with a template)
Now that we know what is a product roadmap, and what are the principles we need to follow when creating a roadmap, let’s outline the key steps of the roadmap creation process.
Decompose the company and product strategic goals
Start with the product strategy, which outlines key product goals and explains how they contribute to higher company strategic objectives.
Next step is decomposition. For each product strategy goal, generate a concrete list of initiatives relevant to the domain you are building the roadmap for. You can then map out the concrete activities associated to each initiative.
For example, if the company goal is to improve customer retention, the product goal is to increase user engagement, an initiative may involve enhancing the customer onboarding process, with activities such as simplifying the onboarding page or conducting customer interviews for more insights.
It is crucial to maintain an experimental approach. Add validated activities to the roadmap. If it's unclear which activities will be implemented, you can explicitly state that it's in the discovery phase. You can also include planned discovery and experimentation activities for transparency and planning.
Consider additional initiatives
You might be (or are planning to) working on activities not directly aligned with the strategic goals. For instance, the strategic goals may focus solely on growth, but your team might need to undertake complex software refactoring due to using a platform version that is approaching end-of-life.
Including these initiatives is crucial for transparency as it provides clarity to stakeholders on how your team will allocate their time.