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February 10, 2020

3 Key Tactics Your Product Roadmap Must Include to Keep Development On Track

As an established developer, you have proven that you understand the industry you serve, that you know the gaps, that you can envision vital new products to fill those gaps. But you also know that a good idea is just the beginning. Even the most innovative new product or feature can be undermined by poor communication, competing priorities, and a hazy view of the ultimate business objective. While the era of Big Data has created virtually infinite possibilities for market-savvy innovators like you, with ground-breaking and game-changing new products joining the fray seemingly every day, the companies with staying power will be the ones who remember principles of good business that have been around for a long time: clear, specific objectives, effective collaboration, and constant progress monitoring. An effective product roadmap is the essential tool for bringing these principles to bear on your next big idea.

A product roadmap should always be in alignment with the vision, mission, and strategic roadmap of the company that owns it. Visible and clear business objectives, robust prioritization rules, and well-chosen progress metrics allow a product development team to facilitate the collaboration between business leadership, engineering support, and end users, all with the shared goal of delivering a powerful, dynamic, and lucrative product to both existing customers and the larger marketplace.

Let’s say one of your major clients is a large non-profit organization looking to expand their donor base by integrating with the latest digital wallet services like Venmo and peer-to-peer payment features like Facebook Pay. They’ve seen these tools spread like wildfire lately and they think, “How hard can it be?”

A bit harder than it looks, as it turns out. Payment tools may look simple to the end user, but you know that integrating them into an existing platform is way more complicated than just plug-and-play. In fact, the more seamless the integration feels to the user, the more work the product development team put into it to achieve that effect. Before you jump into the job feet-first, you need an effective product roadmap that allows you to address potential complications in a systematic yet flexible way, while never losing sight of your ultimate goal of added value for your organization or your clients. We’ll talk below about how to do this, coming back to our test case periodically for useful illustrations.

These are the keys to aligning your product roadmap with your business objectives:

1. Business leadership provides the product development team with clear business objectives.

This is a two-way street. The product team needs to feel confident that the business has their back and is working on the most important things. And business leadership needs to feel confident that that product team is working towards their strategic goals and ultimately their vision for the company. Both parties need to feel that there is a reliable, consistent process in place to see strategic goals and progress towards those goals.

In our test case, for example, the product development team must be able to trust that executive leadership has a realistic appreciation of the complexities of integrating digital wallet services into an existing e-commerce platform and is willing to make the corresponding investments of time and resources. And leadership must be able to trust that the product team is balancing innovation and kitchen-sink programming with reasonable regard for available resources and a nuanced picture of the market need the product is intended to fill. If leadership insists on seamless functionality at plug-and-play costs, they may end up with a glitchy product that frustrates potential new donors who value ease of use above all else. By contrast, if the product team spends precious time and resources on features with no real market demand, there may not be sufficient resources left over to fully leverage the handful of features that are most likely to provide a solid return on investment.

An effective product roadmap frontloads these decisions, clarifies priorities, and, as always, points back to the ultimate business goal.

2. Facilitate collaboration among stakeholders with clear prioritization rules.

In addition to product development and business leadership, a new product or feature set may require special engineering support. And for existing products or clients, it will certainly require that you integrate feedback from end users via customer service or account management. In all likelihood, the sales and marketing teams will also need to be looped in time to communicate product improvements to new and existing clients.

While each of these parties is working toward a shared goal, the product team must always anticipate and mediate the inevitable differences in priorities that are inherent in a complex, multiparty project. This is most likely to become a problem when the various parties are not on the same page about which product features should be completed in what order or at what pace. Business leadership may be eager to roll out the features they see as most critical to their business objectives, whereas engineering support or customer service may be facing internal and external pressure to resolve defects and address customer complaints. If you don’t have the time or resources to meet an impending feature deadline and maintain your current pace in resolving defects, which do you choose? Do you have marketing dollars already spent? Is the feature viable at its current level of functionality? Prioritization rules help you make clear-eyed decisions when priorities conflict, balancing your technical capacities with customer expectations, all while keeping an eye on your concrete business objectives.

Returning to our test case, this is particularly important when you’re handling money and personal data. Missing a feature deadline could alienate donors or damage the organization’s credibility, especially if marketing and donor outreach have been plugging the new payment tool to the donor base. There’s also the opportunity cost for those untapped donations, which is less visible but still very costly. On the other hand, what do you risk by skimping on defect management? Even a single double-charge could lose a donor permanently. Breaches of personal data have potentially catastrophic consequences for the organization and your donors, consequences which could plausibly outweigh the benefits of the very tool you’re implementing. And for SaaS products, the margins for customer trust are surprisingly narrow. If even 5% of requests are failing, users will begin to perceive the system as unstable or unreliable. Prioritization rules would help you properly quantify and order these risks in view of your ultimate business goal.

3. Product team provides business leadership with clear progress metrics against business objectives.

Of course, having a map is mostly useless if you can’t figure out where you’re standing right now. Business leadership and product development must constantly monitor progress towards their stated business objectives. The product roadmap must include criteria for evaluating the progress of every stakeholder.

Budgets and schedules are indispensable progress metrics, of course, but they aren’t the only ones. Also consider tracking velocity—the speed of product development over time, which can help predict and improve your team’s efficiency over the course of the development phase, or even over the course of several different projects. Defect tracking measures the quality of both the product and the development process itself. Rework is costly, and the hits to your reputation can be brutal. But defects that result from a broken process will only repeat themselves on this or future projects until you track them to their source and find a solution.

To return a final time to our test case, if you tracked the development velocity of a PayPal integration, you should have a good idea of (1) how long it would take to integrate a similar tool like Google Pay; (2) which tasks might slow you down in the next implementation, as well as strategies for avoiding those delays; and (3) how much development time to project for a similar future project, whether to executive management or in a bid for a new client. Likewise, effective defect tracking, followed by root cause analysis and remediation, would help you avoid the same mistakes in future phases or projects, with the added benefit of resolving defects before they force an expensive reboot or an embarrassing delay.

So, before you start development on that brilliant new idea, remember this: the ability to imagine just the right product to meet a need in the market is what has made you successful so far, but continuing that success depends on more than your genius for innovative solutions. You must have a plan for getting those solutions to the problems they’re meant to solve. An effective product roadmap will keep you on the path to success with clear business objectives, robust prioritization rules, and effective progress metrics.

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